It’s a sunny August morning and spoken word artist Sistah Lois is singing about love between our mothers and our fathers, our brothers and our sisters and everything that functions on the planet.

“Freedom,” yells Lois, under the watchful eye of nine police officers guarding Varsity Stadium across the street from the University of Toronto Association of Part Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) building.

“We have the right to education. This is a system in which those who have rarely support fully those who have not. It’s genocide. But they casually refer to it as a little povertyism.”

Lois knows better.

She belongs to a community at APUS that knows that single mothers had to stay home to take care of their children and couldn’t finish high school. But there’s a transitional year program that will support them as they go through it. Right now, however, the University of Toronto is unsure whether or not it will be able to continue that program.

“It is a necessary, necessary program for all of us who’ve had someone trying to slow our road, to slow us from going forward” says Lois, who knows life is a fight. “But it would be less of a fight if we were all fighting for the same things: the right to healthcare, clean water, safe streets and education.”

The struggle continues this morning outside the APUS building, not just for a place to study, but, says Lois “against those with money that run things for the rest of us, those who plan to replace the part time union building with a $50 million dollar Centre for High Performance Sport in preparation for the 2015 Pan American Games.”

On Tuesday, the No Games Toronto group (formed several months ago) gathers to voice their opposition to the Pan Am Games bid, which they say is estimated to cost $2.4 billion dollars: $1.4 billion in capital and operating costs plus $1 billion for the proposed 32 hectares athletes village in Toronto’s West Donlands.  

“We cannot know how much that amount will balloon up to by 2015,” says No Games Toronto member Murphy Browne. “Invariably, they end up being much more by the time the games roll around.” The Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, for example, were supposed to cost $1.6 billion dollars but in the end will probably run more than $5 billion.

“Just because the Pan Am Games are about half the size of the Olympics does not mean they’re half price,” says Professor Helen Lenskyj, who’s written extensively on the effects of mega sporting events on communities. “They’re going to incur taxpayers’ dollars the same way the Olympics always do.” Unfortunately, many of the specialized state of the art facilities, like the veladrome, turn into “white elephants” soon after the Games are over, so they’re not a top priority for most taxpayers.

Definitely not a priority for the 70,000-plus residents of Toronto who are on a 10 year waiting list for social housing. Or the communities that will be displaced by gentrification. Or the homeless who will be swept away during the Games.

Anti- poverty activist John Clarke knows what the legacy of the Games will be. “We must oppose them strongly,” he says, “because they’re a part of the whole agenda of upscale redevelopment and social exclusion in this city.”

As part of the redevelopment process, there are at least three new venues planned at the University of Toronto: a $170 million dollar Aquatics facility in Scarborough, a $50 million dollar Centre for High Performance Sport in downtown Toronto and a field hockey facility behind University College.

“Students will find themselves paying an additional $50-60 dollars a year for a sports facility that we don’t need, don’t want and not likely to use,” says Joeita Gupta, VP External APUS. “This is a potent example of what happens when the games come to town.”

The poor, the marginalized and the relevant priorities get pushed aside, says Gupta, “all to make room for a one time two week sporting event that doesn’t bring anything more to the city other than a lasting legacy of debt.”

No Games Toronto and its supporters would rather see $2.4 billion invested in childcare, public transit, affordable housing, and education. At the moment, Ontario undergraduate students pay the second highest tuition fees in the country. Their collective debt is more than $13 billion dollars. The University of Toronto recently introduced flat fees for arts and science undergraduate students that forces part time students taking three courses to pay for five.

Most part time students are people of colour, racialized, disabled, or low income who, for whatever reason, are unable to pursue a full time course load. Their union, says Gupta, “is being evicted without any suitable alternative space being offered by the University of Toronto. It is symptomatic of the gentrification that takes place when the Games come to town.”

It’s also clear that  the University of Toronto has decided to spend its money on sports facilities rather than increase financial aid at a time when student unemployment sits at 21 per cent.

“Until we start fighting back, we’re going to see an erosion of public services,” says Shelley Melanson of the Canadian Federation of Students. “And that’s going to contribute to the already skyrocketing poverty we see in this province.”

In Vancouver, many activists who are organizing against the Olympics, says APUS Executive Director Oriel Varga, “have already had visits from the police and the RCMP. There are massive civil rights violations taking place.” City bylaws have been amended to prohibit noisy protests or displaying anti-Olympic signs. During the Olympics, Vancouver will shut down, forcing many to take a mandatory two week vacation.

“This is what we’re going to see here with the Pan Am Games,” says Varga.

Click here to see more photos from the rally held last Tuesday.


John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.