Making Low-Income Women of Colour Count in Toronto

Article excerpt

An independent, community-based project called "Breaking Isolation, Getting Involved," was officially initiated in September, 2000, supported by grants from Status of Women Canada and The Access and Equity Office of the City of Toronto. The project was designed to engage women rather than simply survey them. Meetings were approached as an opportunity for women to share their stories, listen to one another and learn from the facilitator, as well as from each other, about how their experiences relate to public policy-making at various levels of government.


Solidarity and Learning

In most cases, a warm sense of solidarity evolved over the course of animated conversations. Women began to see themselves within a broader picture of women of colour in low-income neighbourhoods across the city, and they developed a deeper empathy with their neighbours and the challenges in their lives. Women repeatedly decried the fact that there are very few ongoing opportunities for them to meet in this way. They expressed a desire to learn, share and unravel their everyday encounters with others outside of a social-work framework in which they are pathologized as clients with problems.

The overall picture that emerged from the discussions is both stark and optimistic. Poverty is the women's biggest challenge, and even their tough resourcefulness cannot overcome the impossibilities this condition creates in their lives. Yet the women, many of whom are racialized immigrants, have insistent dreams of better and more independent lives. Managing rising levels of stress and ill health, Toronto's low-income women try to make the impossible possible. Decent housing is hard to find in a tight rental market, and many landlords discriminate against women who are either single mums, social-assistance recipients, or racialized women. Increasing numbers of women have lost the roofs over their heads, while many more face an invisible form of homelessness in which they are bunking with relatives, barely surviving in substandard, expensive, overcrowded and badly maintained units too often infested with pests and vermin.

In spite of their great desire to work and better their economic circumstances, few of these women are able to find paid work. Those who do have jobs find themselves in part-time, insecure, low-paying positions, which offer little hope of advancement. Many aren't able to even look for work because of the lack of affordable childcare. Few know how to access regulated care and, where they do find childcare, informal arrangements are the norm. Elderly women, many of whom speak little English, find themselves stuck doing long hours of unpaid work caring for their children's children.

Social assistance doesn't bring in enough money to pay the bills. But it still exacts a heavy price, as it takes away dignity and privacy through the constant scrutiny of authorities who investigate for minor "infractions," including unreported gifts, food, or money from friends and relatives.

Isolation and Weakness

Women are keenly aware of their isolation and how it weakens their position. Opportunities to make connections outside of their immediate family, cultural and religious networks are extremely limited. As a result, they are housebound and vulnerable to abuse from partners, children and other family members. Some have been in Canada for many years and, despite having gone through formal language training programs, have never had the social opportunities needed to develop their conversational English skills.

There are few accessible, non-commercial and secular places for healthy activity and social interaction among women, especially near their homes. Women and girls are no longer a designated priority in the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and there are few, if any, women's programs left in the schedule. As a result, recreation centres too easily default into a competitive, masculinist sports culture that implicitly excludes most women. …