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?
 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.