Michael Bryant is a former attorney-general of Ontario and was a Toronto-area MPP for a decade. He now speaks and writes on addiction recovery and mental illness.
I was wrong about the anti-squeegee bill introduced by the late Jim Flaherty 15 years ago this December, when he was Ontario attorney-general. As Liberal justice critic, I called the Safe Streets Act, 1999, "offensive" and "a joke." But it was no joke. It's been used to ticket the poor for being unwell for 15 years, and it's time to repeal it.
Of course the better time to repeal it would have been when I was attorney-general from 2003-2007. I failed in that regard, and I'm here to repent. Shoot the messenger all you want, I say, but listen to the voices that say this law hurts people who deserve our help, not an unpayable ticket that can land them in jail or deprive them of a job opportunity.
The Homeless Hub, a Web-based research library and information centre, provides buckets of social science proving the unhealthy, unconscionable impact of the 1999 law. My own reckoning on this bill came when the street-involved community that frequents Sanctuary Toronto welcomed me into their lunch and dinner drop-ins, three years after my term as attorney-general, and within weeks of my being charged with a serious criminal offence that involved the death of Darcy Sheppard. Where they might have offered me the back of their hand, instead I have been blessed with many cherished friendships; kinship amongst equals, notwithstanding the gross economic inequality they suffer every day.
One such friend came to me excited that he'd received a job offer to drive a fork lift in Calgary. After years on the street, unwell, and often homeless, he had gotten better, and landed himself a job.
Or so he thought. In order to get the license upgrade to drive the forklift, he had to pay thousands of dollars of unpaid fines arising from Safe Streets Act tickets. Fines that only the wealthy could afford, let alone an indigent man in social housing with a few weeks of recovery from alcoholism under his belt.
"It was like a game, with the police," he said. "They'd sometimes have the ticket written up already, with my name on it, then they'd see me and hand it over. They'd let me keep panhandling or drinking wherever I was, as long as they could meet their ticket quota." Thanks to the Safe Streets Act, my friend may lose the job opportunity – a devastating result that could ruin his recovery, his sanity, his fleeting hope.
Who gets ticketed? The poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, addicts, alcoholics. My friends, our neighbours.
Who doesn't get ticketed? "Street canvassers" who solicit donations on our sidewalks on behalf of well-known charities. The exemptions for charities was carved out via a 2005 private member's bill by Liberal MPP Jean-Marc Lalonde, after firefighters' boot drives were found to be in violation of the Safe Streets Act.
And herein lies the crux of the ignorance behind this law: registered charities can panhandle with snappy clipboards, colourful vests and cheerful, sophomoric smiles, in contrast to the often grubby faces of homeless panhandlers who get ticketed by the police. Both are quite annoying to passers-by. Politicians who "mainstreet" during an election often get the same reaction. I did. But only the poor are ticketed.
Only the poor get ticketed, because too many are frightened by street-involved people. The Safe Streets Act capitalized on that fear. Personally, I used to know that childish fear, unnerved but mostly spooked by what I misconstrued as menacing. But now I see how those ticketed under this horrible law are punished for seeking the same charity that many freely give during the office fundraising drive. Having been befriended by the very people I feared, now I stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in stand in judgment at how they carry it, to paraphrase Los Angeles gang pastor Greg Boyle.
Of the many things that Queen's Park ought to do to improve the lives of people in pain, they can start by repealing the Safe Streets Act before its 15-year anniversary on Dec. 14. It's never too late to be what you might have been, said George Eliot, and it's never too late to repeal a rotten bill.