Rescue or racism? Social assistance in Ontario is broken and cruel

Newmarket’s massage parlour bylaw puts Asian businesses at risk while offering their workers nothing After decades of cuts, politicians can no longer ignore that doubling social assistance in Ontario would end legislated poverty

news@ nowtoronto. com · @ nowtoronto BY KAI CHENG THOM Bob Murphy is a recipient of ODSP and member of the Brain Injury Society of Toronto. Chiara Padovani is a social worker who has coordinated a network of food banks in Toronto. She is a candidate for



NOW Magazine


This May, the Town of Newmarket introduced a new bylaw that has shut down virtually all its Asian massage businesses – thereby putting an entire sector of Asian, mostly migrant, women out of work. The legislation seems largely based on the stereotypical notion that Asianowned and - staffed massage businesses are hotbeds of “human trafficking,” though no proof of such criminal activity exists, and many of the workers have actively spoken out to decry the bylaw. No financial or vocational assistance has been offered to Newmarket’s Asian massage workers, most of whom are now effectively out of a job and on the hook to find a new livelihood. This raises some troubling questions: What exactly is the Town of Newmarket doing here? Some misguided attempt at rescue? Or is this plain old racism rearing its head? And how will Newmarket’s Asian massage workers, many of them middle- aged and older women with families to feed, survive in an economy heavily impacted by the pandemic? To really understand the social and racial dynamics at play here, one needs a basic understanding of the fraught debate surrounding massage work in Newmarket and Ontario at large. The majority of Asian migrant massage workers practise their profession as informally trained or foreign- trained alternative wellness providers in “body rub” parlours; this differs from Registered Massage Therapists, who are certified and regulated by the provincial government. Newmarket’s new bylaw prohibits anyone from practising alternative massage if they have not been trained by an accredited Canadian institution, essentially shutting out most migrant massage practitioners, including those with foreign credentials and years of on- thejob experience. One such massage provider, Mei, told Newmarket’s town councillors, “After hearing about Newmarket’s new regulations, I was very angry. I think this is a double discrimination: racial discrimination and industry discrimination. We are old and have language barriers. How can we meet the new training requirements?” Newmarket’s town council appears to be operating on the assumption that workers like Mei are sex workers and human trafficking victims – if their statements at a series of public consultations on the new bylaw from earlier this year are any indication. ( Notably, the public consultations were only advertised in English, posing a challenge for many Asian massage workers to actually attend the proceedings.) For example, Mayor John Taylor said at one consultation meeting, “I don’t want to send a message to our community that prostitution or sex work is acceptable. I don’t want to send that message to my daughter.” A number of selfproclaimed anti- trafficking organizations and activists spoke to a supposedly urgent need to shut down alternative massage parlours. But are Asian massage workers really human trafficking victims? Are they even providing sexual services at all? Under closer scrutiny, the evidence seems disturbingly unclear. Heated rhetoric notwithstanding, scant evidence has been presented for any humantraffickingrelated crime in Newmarket’s alternative massage industry. Rationalizations behind the new bylaw seem heavily based on the hearsay and anecdotes of non- Asian, nonmigrant lobbyists, rather than on any particular local statistics or interviews with the massage workers themselves. Last year, York Regional police told the Toronto Star that there had been no recent charges of human trafficking or any other offences laid against Newmarket body rub parlours. Elene Lam, executive director of the Toronto community group Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, holds a Master’s degree in social work and a Master’s degree in law, and has engaged with over five thousand Asian workers in massage parlours in Southern Ontario. Lam’s organization has put out a petition to the Town of Newmarket decrying the new bylaw as racist and unfairly discriminatory towards migrant massage practitioners. Over 50 community groups, scholars and activists have signed the petition to date. “I chose to work in massage because my English is not good. I can only find low- wage work with bad working conditions with my limited English. Massage is the only skill I have that I can support my family and afford my cost of living,” says Maple Li, a massage worker in Newmarket. Social hysteria around Asian migrants and alleged sexual immorality is nothing new in North America – such attitudes have proliferated in Canada since at least the late 19th century, when the English language media frequently portrayed Chinese women as “syphilitic whores” luring white men into damnation. Indeed, the stereotyping of Asian massage providers as a sexual social evil was the impetus for the murder of six Asian massage workers in Atlanta last year. Today, beneath the veneer of supposed “rescue” efforts, there is often a tone of moral panic. At one of the bylaw consultation meetings, Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh stated of Asian massage parlours and the alleged prostitution going on therein, “I think we really just want to drive it out of our town, quite frankly.” Drive what, or rather who, out of town? These as- yet unmaterialized human traffickers? Sex workers in general? Asian migrants? If Newmarket really cared about the experiences of Asian women in massage parlours, wouldn’t they consider the impact of abruptly cutting off their means of making an income? Wouldn’t there be municipally funded social assistance, language learning programming and vocational training offered? Is taking away an entire community of women’s livelihood really the best way to support the cause of women’s rights and preventing violence against women? With friends like these, Newmarket’s Asian massage workers don’t need enemies. Deep cuts to social assistance were one of the signature acts of Mike Harris’s 1990s Conservative government. In his 1996 budget, he cut support for the poorest Ontarians by 22 per cent. Many were outraged. But quietly over the past 26 years, things have grown worse. Today, people on social assistance are barely surviving in Ontario – especially as rent skyrockets. For people with disabilities, the Ontario Disability Support Program provides a maximum of $ 1,169 a month. For someone ineligible for ODSP and unable to work, Ontario Works provides just $ 733 a month. It’s legislated poverty. Social housing waitlists are well over a decade long. They’ve forced many people surviving on social assistance into overcrowded and unsafe housing they can barely afford, and for some the consequences are tragic. After rent, there’s nothing left for food, which is why food bank visits have been steadily increasing even before the pandemic. For many, the threat of eviction and homelessness is a constant source of anxiety. Social assistance in Ontario is broken. After the past two decades of Liberal and Conservative governments, people on social assistance are now worse off than in the 1990s when Harris first cut social assistance. After Harris’s cuts, social assistance support was frozen. And under the four premiers since Harris, in the few years when social assistance was increased, the meagre increases were quickly outstripped by inflation. Now, adjusted for inflation, a person surviving on ODSP is actually $ 264 poorer each month than in 1996. The cruelty of Ontario’s social assistance system has finally become impossible for politicians to ignore, but some still won’t commit to raising social assistance above the poverty line. Conservative leader Doug Ford says over a four- year term he would increase ODSP by five per cent, to $ 1,227. The PCS haven’t committed to increasing support for Ontario Works. Liberal leader Steven Del Duca says over a term he would increase Ontario Works by 10 per cent and ODSP by 20 per cent to $ 1,414 over two years. Both platforms leave people on social assistance far below the poverty line. On the other hand, Andrea Horwath and the NDP have responded to concerns raised by anti- poverty and disability advocates and committed to raising social assistance rates above the poverty line. The NDP will immediately increase social assistance support by 20 per cent and double ODSP and Ontario Works by the end of 2023, increasing the maximum ODSP payment to $ 2,338 a month. The Green Party has also committed to doubling social assistance rates. People on ODSP have disabilities that often mean they can’t get a paying job. And even when they can, the system is designed to keep them in poverty through unfair clawbacks. Historically, over a third of the people supported by social assistance are children. Many are single- parent moms fleeing threats and violence with no child support. But it doesn’t matter how someone ended up on social assistance. No one in our society should be living on $ 1,169 or $ 733 a month. It’s cruel and dehumanizing. Ontario’s social assistance is broken. This election, after 26 years of cuts and freezes, doubling social assistance is on the ballot. Eliminating poverty in Ontario is possible, and it starts with immediately increasing social assistance.