01/16/2017 04:57 EST | Updated 01/16/2017 05:00 EST

How Ontario Is Changing Lives With Construction Job Opportunities

Premier of Ontario Photography

On December 7th, Premier Wynne was joined by four of her cabinet colleagues for an announcement about a unique agreement for "Community Benefits" for the Eglinton Crosstown transit project. The room was crowded with representatives from Metrolinx, the builder, community groups and unions. Most importantly, a number of young men who are hoping to enter a career in the trades sat behind her as she spoke of setting goals of ten per cent of the work hours to be performed by apprentices or journeypersons from diverse communities.

On the same day, a court in Toronto sentenced one of the shooters from the 2012 Danzig tragedy. He was 17 at the time he pulled the trigger, and the incident sparked a massive debate about youth violence and how to address it.

In a column shortly after the shooting, John Lorinc posed a question: if there are many young black males who don't see a future for themselves and fall into destructive lifestyles, but at the same time we will need thousands of workers to build the massive transit projects in Toronto -- why can't someone put those things together and come up with a plan?

Four years later, the announcement at a packed training workshop was exactly what Lorinc had called for. It represented four long years of organizing by the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN), a community-labour coalition that started in the Weston-Mt. Dennis neighbourhood after the Kodak plant closed. The original focus was to secure jobs for local residents at a planned TTC maintenance garage. But after Metrolinx took over the site as part of the Eglinton Crosstown line, a broader conversation started with their CEO Bruce McCuaig. There had already been strong commitment by building trades unions to diversity training. Could that become the part of Metrolinx approach?

The inspiration came from Los Angeles, where a referendum passed in 2008 to raise $40 billion for transit funding through a small increase in sales tax. A key piece of the argument by the proponents was that the investment would do double-duty. As well as bringing much needed rapid transit to poorer areas of the city, there would be careers opened up for African-American and Latino youth in the construction workforce. That brought a chorus of voices in support -- community groups, faith leaders, politicians, unions and anti-poverty organizations. A project agreement was put in place that set goals for hiring from historically disadvantaged communities, and a monitoring system created to ensure the goals were met.

The concept of Community Benefit Agreements spread to other cities in the U.S., and has a growing level of support from civic leaders and charitable foundations. After the initial Framework Agreement was signed between Metrolix and TCBN, the government of Ontario introduced legislation to require large infrastructure projects to support both apprenticeships and community benefits. At the federal level, York South Weston MP Ahmed Hussen's private member's Bill 227 is making its way through the parliamentary system with the same objective.

There is one significant difference between the U.S. precedents and the agreement reached on the Eglinton project. All of the previous versions addressed blue-collar jobs in the trades. In Toronto, for the first time, there is an addition of white-collar careers in the professional, administrative and technical occupations associated with the project. To date over 40 people from diverse communities -- either internationally trained or recent graduates -- have been hired. In fact, three of them were in the back of the room, smiling with pride, as the premier made the announcement on December 7th.

There's really only one unresolved question. It's in the numerical value of community benefits. Are the project dollars doing double-duty, or, given that building transit reduces Toronto's carbon footprint, is this really an innovative investment in shifting to a triple bottom line? Either way, hundreds of lives are being changed and local economies strengthened. Sometimes, it turns out, that when there is a will, there can be a way.

John Cartwright is the President of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council and co-chair of the Toronto Community Benefits Network.

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