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A man sits in a tent at a homeless camp on Port of Vancouver property on June 10, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Brittany Andrew-Amofah is senior policy and research analyst at the Broadbent Institute. Alexandra Flynn is assistant professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia. Patricia Wood is professor of geography at York University.

COVID-19 has laid bare the massive crisis of inequality in our cities, exacerbated by systemic racism in policing, education and health. In our view, city governments must address inequality not only by condemning injustice, but by permanently changing their governance models to include the voices of racialized and marginalized people.

Most Canadian cities have shared jurisdiction over pressing issues such as policing and social housing, which disproportionately impact Black and other racialized communities. Cities have a lot of power in shaping the ways that they make decisions.

After a long fight for the collection of race-based data, we now know that racialized and other vulnerable community members in Toronto have the highest rates of COVID-19 infections. (Other cities have so far refused to release the data.) Many racialized people work in low-paid service jobs that have been deemed “essential,” putting workers and their families at greater risk of being exposed to the virus in order to avoid losing their incomes and homes.

It is clear that cities must change as a result of COVID-19. As public-health measures begin to lift, the City of Toronto recently released a recovery and rebuilding strategy, acknowledging that local service delivery and financing will be completely reimagined.

In an open letter to Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Council, local organizations including Progress Toronto recommended 10 principles for their vision of a bold, green and just recovery for the City of Toronto in the aftermath of the crisis, including immediate consultation with racialized and other vulnerable communities. Last week, city council affirmed that the voices of marginalized communities must be included in the process.

In this new pandemic city-building era, municipalities must incorporate social equity and explicit race-based lenses. One way to do this is by changing their relationships with local civil-society organizations. When we listen to them, we realize that “safe streets” are about policing, not just bikes and cars. And, thinking about housing means humane decisions about those living outside or forced to stay in shelters.

In cities across Canada, racialized and poor people are disproportionately policed at all times, and especially in this current health crisis. The city must pay attention to those with lived experience and hold accountable the divisions and agencies that allow surveillance and harm to marginalized communities, including the police.

In most municipalities, councillors are the first point of contact with residents and thus have an even greater responsibility to ensure local governments don’t continue to uphold governance practices that fuel and produce inequality. Most municipalities in Canada have councils that are mostly white and male. In addition, councillors may not have sufficient proximity to residents. For example, Toronto’s current governance model has big challenges thanks to its reduction to 25 councillors – each now representing an average of more than 110,000 constituents. This is the highest ratio in Canada – a highly concerning governance model for a city with a widening social and income gap.

The result is that many people do not know who their city councillors are. Difficulties speaking English may hold people back from contacting an office where they don’t know anyone, in areas of the city that are unfamiliar to them. Neighbourhoods perceived as unfriendly territory prevent youth and vulnerable adults from seeking the services they need.

The same is true about senior staff, who are also not usually representative of local populations. Many cities, including Vancouver and Toronto, have equity and diversity offices that bring the experiences of Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities to decision-makers. But these departments are often staffed by only a handful of people out of tens of thousands of city employees, making it difficult to effect real change.

As COVID-19 unfolded, Toronto began working more closely with civil-society organizations such as Social Planning Toronto to address the needs arising from the uneven impact of COVID-19. The city sees that these partnerships are essential in delivering the programs and services needed by the most vulnerable. This is a promising start. Closer connections with these organizations should not be a temporary fix but a permanent change, especially given the lack of direct access to councillors.

This pandemic has exposed the democratic deficits in local decision-making. City governments must change how they consult and make decisions. At this critical point in planning for the future health and well-being of Toronto’s residents, the voices of these residents must be clearly and permanently integrated into the City’s governance model.

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