Getting at the truth of things

By Joy Connelly

How does one get at the truth of things? And how can the truth be told?

That is the question that has dominated my week, as the Auditor’s Report on Toronto Community Housing became the top story in every local paper, TV and radio station.

Those of you who live in Toronto will already know the story about chocolates from Holt Renfrew and a lavish Christmas Party for staff; sole sourced contracts; appliances ordered from China; and losses on the stock market.

The story’s conclusion? “Heads must roll, and privatize the lot.” The Mayor asked the Board of Directors to resign, and they did. And then hundreds of people take up the chorus on Twitter and media comment boards: the CEO and former CEO must go. Fire them. Fine them. Jail them.

I know both the current CEO, Keiko Nakamura, and her predecessor Derek Ballantyne. Derek is supremely ethical – brilliant and zealous for the good of tenants. Keiko is capable, calm and kind – who would take time from her 12 hour workday to sort out an individual tenant’s bedbug problem.

So through this deluge, I kept hoping to hear the other side of the story. What was the context for these concerning, but not criminal, findings?  Was it the rush to get things done, and who cares about the paperwork? A dis-connect between head office and field? Simply sloppy paperwork?

But no-one spoke up

Toronto Community Housing’s leadership didn’t speak up, I imagine, because there’s a taboo that protects the Auditor General from criticism. And anyways, who would believe them?

Advocates didn’t speak up. Maybe they were fearful of being the next target. Perhaps they were figuring out the angles, wondering how best to position themselves under a new regime.

Activists didn’t speak up. Perhaps they were forbidden to act. One friend working for a city-funded agency started to organize tenants to protect their homes. But the Mayor’s Office found her out. She had to desist or risk losing her job. (As my son says, “democracy has come to the Middle East, and left Toronto.”)

A few tenants did speak up. But many more are angry by what they’ve heard, and angrier still at the seemingly insoluble problems that beset their homes. (This is the real scandal — and should be the subject of a hundred blogs.)

I myself spoke only behind the scenes, cowed because anyone might say, “she’s just one of those self-serving do-gooders [or poverty whores] – always at the trough.” In fact, I hesitated to publish even this blog — innocuous as it is, after I saw a Tea Party-style Youtube video attacking Keiko and Derek. Clearly there are professionals involved in the public outcry. Will they try to ruin my career too?

There have been a few touching moments:

A colleague and I host an invitation-only blog about the future of housing. When my colleague posted some of the facts about Toronto Community Housing as she knew them, it was a sweet, sweet relief to see even a smidgin of balance in print.

The Toronto Star wrote an excellent editorial, calling for a fresh start for social housing, with great ideas for moving forward. (The bad news is that, when I last checked, only 11 people had commented, whereas hundreds had joined the “off with their heads” articles.

Pat sent a poem, aptly entitled The Low Road,  that captured the moment.

Why does the truth cost so much?

Last May I wrote a blog called “To Tell the Truth” about the challenges of speaking the truth in the most basic sense of getting the facts straight. For me, the most important part of that entry was this quote from Gandhi:

“One thing we have endeavored to observe most scrupulously; namely never to depart from the strictest facts.  . .  Facts we would always place before our readers, whether they be palatable or not, and it is by placing them constantly before the public in their nakedness that we will build an understanding between the two communities,” (meaning white South Africans and Indians).

I do believe that bringing out “the facts in their nakedness” is the foundation of any sort of good work. It ought to be a very simple thing to do: just speak the truth as you know it, whenever asked, or whenever it is needed to right an injustice.On the other hand, Gandhi was asassinated, and many have gone to their deaths for speaking Truth to Power.

So how do we speak the truth, easy or hard?


Have you ever been in a similar situation? What did you do? What did you gain, and what did you lose?

And why is it so hard for truth to rise up, even in such a mundane matter as, of all things, procurement practices and record-keeping?

[1] I encountered that taboo myself 20 years ago, when I wrote a response to a Provincial Auditor’s report on non-profit housing. As I recall, the Auditor had said the province had spent too much, with the new average two-bedroom unit costing $158,000 to build. It turned out that there were NO $158,000 two-bedroom units; the auditor had extrapolated the costs from one bedroom units, forgetting that two bedroom units do not have two kitchens, bathrooms, roofs or exterior walls. But when my little booklet was distributed under the then Minister’s name, the legislature actually appointed an ad hoc committee to censure the Minister! Everyone disowned the booklet. And to this day, I still do not understand why no-one could talk about what seemed like a silly mistake.



Filed under Joy's entries, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Getting at the truth of things

  1. Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

    Thanks, Joy. It’s a relief, reading your piece, after days of feeling upset about how this is being reported. Joe Fiorito at least spoke about the need to not jump into Dump the TCHC movement and to recognize the need for strengthening – not weakening- supportive housing. But he also took the initial reports as correct and neither he nor anyone else is saying, “Hold on here! Let’s make sure we’re getting it right”. I welcome any future observations and insights you can provide.

  2. Fabulous article Rosemary.
    I have circulated to my CRC (Toronto Christian Resource Centre in Regent Park) friends including Board and Honorary Board and have posted the article on my Facebook page.
    There is more that must be done. Any private developer were it subject to the kind of scrutiny TCHC was, would come off ten times worse. For all the bad things that can be said about public housing, the capacity for care far exceeds what the private sector offers to vulnerable and marginalized persons.
    Thanks Joy for the wake-up call. It isn’t too late to speak up!

  3. Jamie Perttula

    I am fully aware that in situations like this one with TCHC, the full story is not coming out in the media. And it is hard for anyone to stand up and try to explain the full story when everyone else if pointing fingers. I must confess, though, that I was caught up in some of the furor about TCHC.

    My reactions to this story were based on two of my hats. First, we are neighbours to a TCHC house – a “scattered” unit. Over the past many years, I have had to call TCHC on several occasions to deal with issues related to the management of the property. I have frequently assured those to whom I have spoken that I support social housing and am pleased to have the property on our street. However, I have not been impressed with the management of this property based on the issues that I have had to address with TCHC. And so my first reaction to the story this week was that it supports the impression I have been developing of careless management. I realize this is not a fair judgement of the whole corporation as it is based on a very limited understanding. Nevertheless it was my gut reaction.

    Second, as a civil servant I am always aware of public scrutiny and the need to be aware of how things might be misconstrued. I have seen several spending scandals arise over my years in the government. Each time something like this comes up, I wonder how those involved could not see that their actions could cause problems. This too reinforced my gut reaction that there is incompetence at TCHC.

    It is unfortunate that Keiko Nakamura was not given an opportunity to respond fully to this story. At one point she seemed to indicate that actions have already been taken to correct some of the issues raised by the Auditor General. However, there seemed to be no interest in exploring this by the media or the public. This is part of the truth that people need to hear.

    I’m not upset about TCHC being held to account for its actions. But your blog entry reminds me, Joy, that I should always step back before jumping to conclusions and judgments to ask what facts I might be missing.

    • Good comments, Jamie, and they get at what I think are two of the key issues raised by the TCHC story.

      The first is, “What is happening on the ground?” To me, the real scandal is that for a whole variety of reasons – some historical, some policy, some structural, some financial, and some I don’t understand myself – much of TCHC’s housing has failed to live up to the “safe, quality, affordable housing” that TCHC aspires to provide.

      The scattered units are a case in point. TCHC has known for at least five years that it is incapable of managing the scattered portfolio well. It is simply too different from the rest of its stock, and always gets short-changed. They have come up with a variety of plans, some of which have been thwarted politically. (For example, the plan to sell off 45 houses, and use the proceeds to fix up the others, was opposed by councillors on one side of the spectrum. An alternate plan to transfer ownership of 20 or so houses to Wigwamen – a corporation with extensive experience managing scattered units – was opposed by councillors on the other side of the spectrum.)

      I am aching for a real debate about these issues – and there are many others – and then some concerted, collaborative action. My concern is that the debate won’t happen, and tenants will be the losers.

      The second issue is, “what are the optics?” I appreciate your civil servant eyes, but I personally think it’s a shame that these things have become so important. When I was a child, one of my favourite events was the annual City Hall Picnic. My dad worked for the City of Vancouver, and this event featured races with prizes, and free hotdogs and donuts served under an awning, all paid for by Vancouver taxpayers. I still don’t see that as a bad thing. To me, the real waste of taxpayers’ money are reports that are ignored, or programs that are dumped or delayed for political reasons. But these don’t doesn’t make such juicy reading, do they?

      • Jamie Perttula

        I’ve been thinking about this further – my earlier comments and your question about why it is hard for the truth to rise up. I think my reaction to the TCHC situation is an illustration of why it can be hard for the truth to rise up. If I see or hear something that confirms something I believe, I don’t feel the need to hear more or I may not want to hear more. I assume that I am hearing the truth because it matches what I think and believe. And I feel justified in my judgment of the situation. Of course, whatever I believe is true, right? For the truth to rise up requires us to step back from our judgments and also be prepared to consider that we may not have it all right. Hard to believe, but it’s true!

  4. I will not pretend to understand the public housing situation as many of you do. I had never even heard of it when I was living a normal middle-class life.
    Now that I am in it, I bless it’s existence. Without it I would be the’ mad woman’ of Gerrard street, a place now held by someone else.
    I shall tell you what I as an ex-middle-class home owning non-welfare person felt and then what a under the poverty line, underclass non-working on disability person thinks.
    As a working middle class home owner. This is the short version. ‘Are there no prisons are there no work houses? Fill in the blanks.
    As someone who moved into my present housing with a second hand bed (lumpy and cheap) my clothing and 30 year old shelving (are you getting the picture). I am grateful for the support of both ODSP for a start-up (799.00) The furniture bank which existed then. The food bank and clothing room, which existed then, and last but most important. Rent geared to income housing. Without which, instead of being the person who drinks her morning coffee looking out the window of her clean well cared for affordable housing. I would be on the street, limping with my cane looking through the window at that woman who dares to smile down at me… to patronize me…………… well you get the picture… fact as my first food bank boss once said……….’you wouldn’t last 5 minutes on the street or in jail’. Not actually something I care to contemplate.
    So here’s my position. Either there is affordable housing, or we will have a Dickensian city. If you think I wouldn’t steal to survive, you’d be wrong. How I would manage this with my disability is in question, but I would try.
    So, we have a government agency that has some ‘rotten apples’. If we were to removing the supports of public housing, our streets would fill with; the poor, the mad, the children……………….and me (all of the above).
    Has no one in the position of authority looked to the UK for the results of ‘ privatization’. A complete and utter failure.
    If the system is bad, fix it. If the people are wrong, replace them. But don’t for your own middle class home owning sakes dispose of it, because if you do………………….do I hear the rumble of the carts on the way to the guillotine?………..cause if you privatize they will find a way to make a profit and if they make a profit they will evict, and if they evict, you will fill the streets and the jails……shades of Scrouge…. again…..are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?
    Society will pay either directly by constant robbery or by supplying prisons large enough to take whole family’s. Again Dicken’s.
    I saw the problems of public housing (200 Wellesley et al) but is that a good reason to dump the entire system. Fix it from the inside. I don’t know how but I will tell you this for nothing….I bet you dollars to donuts that there are hundreds of tenants that could. If they could be sure they were safe from eviction they would speak………….but would the gov’t listen to the dare I say it ‘undeserving poor’. NO because( and this has been my personal experience in my own building)…they don’t vote. Without the vote they have no power. Unfortunately, money and power tend to go together….but then….there was once this man called Gandhi……and this woman Rosa Parks and Martin Luther….June Callwood…………… al.
    Pardon my rambling. My education was predicated on being a female so I am self taught. I never learned to write essays, or punctuate… yet like George VI…………I have a voice and refuse to be silenced.
    Well that’s it really.

  5. Pingback: Getting at truth (by trial and error) | A Bigger Circle

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