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Second Life for Toronto’s Trash

21 May

Crowdsourcing’s one of those promising concepts that’s often put to fairly uninspiring uses, whether it’s adding social media sparkle to lacklustre government policies, or advertising tortilla chips.

But last week I wrote about a crowdsourcing site with a social purpose that seems to be carrying out a genuinely useful function.

The article, for Torontoist, was about Trashswag, a website that maps out the location of unwanted wood, furniture and other salvageable bits and bobs left lying in Toronto’s streets.


Anyone who spies some potentially useful junk can add to the map by taking a picture of it and posting the photo on Instagram or tweeting it, using the hashtag #Trashswag.

Creative types are using the site to find materials they can turn into art, wardrobes, seats and tables. Brilliantly, this also means that less stuff is getting sent to landfill.

I wonder whether this has been done in other cities around the world? I hear the site’s founder, Gavin Cameron, was invited onto the Morning Show after producers read the Torontoist article; perhaps the growing momentum will help him expand his empire.

Have you done any “upcycling” via the site? Is it something you might find useful? If you’re not from Toronto, is there anything similar in your home town?


Ugly town…but the bacon’s great

19 Dec

“Whoever’s in charge of promoting Canada abroad completely have their heads up their arses.” So says Anthony Bourdain, the American TV chef who’s visited Toronto for a show due to air in Canada next year, though you can watch it below:

He’s right, there’s a lot more to Canada than mounties, maple syrup and Celine Dion. Though, regarding Toronto, Bourdain seemed to take some winning over.

He starts off by slating the city’s architecture  (“It’s not a good looking town…these architectural fads of the 20th century…Mussolini would be perfectly at home with that one…Soviet chic…butt ugly “) but ends up raving about its foodie culture, furtive bar scene and eclectic neighbourhoods.

He mainly seems to have been won over by his peameal bacon bap at St Lawrence Market, which is understandable, though personally I’d have taken him to Rashers in Leslieville, which seems to be the only place in Toronto that sells proper British-style bacon butties.

Rashers bacon Toronto

Bacon butty from Rashers

Anyway, the video’s quite fun, if you can stomach Bourdain’s scatological turn of phrase; it’s hard to imagine Delia or Floyd referring on air to mushrooms that “give you a big stiffy”or roti that causes a “burning a-hole”.

It actually doesn’t do a bad job of showing the “real” Toronto as a city comprising lots of different, slightly hidden, areas. T Dot’s not – and doesn’t try to be – a New York, or London, with their distinctive, all-encompassing branding.

Instead of fixating on the lack of iconic sights or tourist spots, it features some of my favourite neighbourhoods, like Kensington Market, Mirvish Village, Toronto Islands and Little Italy. The full list of restaurants and bars in the show are listed here.

And yeah, my first impression of Toronto’s architecture tallied with Bourdain’s, but high rise cities – even concrete ones – are often spectacular at night, and during the day the skyline looks pretty awesome from the islands.

Toronto skyline beaches

Toronto skyline from the Islands

Weasels, snakes and other political animals

30 Nov

Oh, what I’d have given to eavesdrop on the negotiations over this correction in today’s Toronto Star:

Correction: This article was edited from a previous version that mistakenly attributed the quote, “I’ll whoop both your asses,” to Mayor Rob Ford. The statement was actually made by his brother, Councillor Doug Ford.

It perfectly sums up the farce that Toronto’s city hall politics has become in recent weeks.

For anyone who hasn’t been following the events, city mayor Rob Ford was ousted from office on Monday over a conflict of interest ruling.

Rob Ford Toronto

Rob Ford, courtesy of West Annex News

It was thought this would prevent him from running again in a by-election, but the judge today confirmed Ford would, in fact, be able to run again in that circumstance.

He was given two weeks to leave his office, but could be granted a “stay”, meaning he wouldn’t have to leave unless he loses his appeal hearing, the first available date for which is 7 January.

In the meantime, he’s fighting a $6million libel case and is facing accusations that he broke campaign spending rules.

To those well-acquainted with Ford, the past few weeks have been eyebrow-raising. As an outsider, the events have been completely extraordinary.

UK politics are hardly devoid of bluster or colourful characters, but Ford is the one-of-a-kind love child of Eric Pickles, John Prescott and Boris Johnson, with Andrew Mitchell’s respect for authority and Malcolm Tucker’s nuanced approach to communication.

A little round-up of Ford-related fun:
  • February 2003: Ford accuses a councillor: “I know he’s a weasel and weasels and snakes belong in the zoo!” (video)
  • April 2004: Ford allegedly complains of “plant discrimination” after his poisonetta isn’t watered by staff.
  • September 2012: Rob’s councillor brother, Doug, calls the media a “bunch of pricks“.
  • November 2012: Rob Ford misses two hours of a city hall meeting to coach a kids’ football team. He then orders the head of Toronto’s transit system to supply a bus to take his team back to school. It turns out that ordinary passengers were kicked off the bus in the rain. Note: Ford also missed part of a city hall meeting on Monday – the day of the legal ruling dismissing him from office…to coach his team through a playoff match.
  • Yesterday: Rob Ford accuses a councillor of being an “outright liar” involved in a “shakedown” (north American slang for extortion), in a 20 minute verbal battle (skip to 532 for the really heated bit).

You couldn’t really make it up. As a political news geek it’s been utterly fascinating to observe and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

According to some reports, we could see a political lurch to the left, if New Democratic Party Olivia Chow replaces Ford at some point in the future. Although, strictly speaking, there aren’t any political parties in Toronto’s city council – it’s  ruled by non partisan factions. Supposedly.

Again, this is a fusty old tradition that the Fords apparently don’t have much time for.

Whatever pans out, you can bet that it’ll be entertaining. You can also bet that the “bunch of pricks” in the media will be there to put it all on record.

Interview with immigration minister Jason Kenney; Unpublished extracts

3 Oct
Jason Kenney Toronto immigration

Jason Kenney

At the weekend, I interviewed Canadian immigration minister Jason Kenney for a piece published today by the Daily Telegraph.

Kenney told me why he thought young, educated British people who may be looking for work overseas should choose Canada over Australia.

Although Canada’s one of the top destinations for British expats, a trip to sunny Oz is seen by many younger Brits, raised on a TV diet of Home and Away and Neighbours, as an essential rite-of-passage.

I can understand the appeal; I spent three months there after uni. And yes, I visited Summer Bay (the surf shack was closed but I did get to sit on the bench of woe), as well as the Neighbours set (disappointingly, just a suburban street).

Jason Kenney immigration Toronto

Me at the Summer Bay surf shack, back in the heady days of 2004. When pink and blue was apparently a good wardrobe option.

Kenney’s comments, and Australia’s official response, are covered in the Telegraph article. But other areas covered in the interview included:

*The thousands of foreign health professionals in Canada unable to practice their profession due to problems checking their qualifications

*Charges of xenophobia: “That just cheapens very important and loaded language”

*The controversial cancellation of 280,000 residency applications made before February 2008 that had been held in a queue for up to nine years

*Proposals to charge people to phone immigration call centres

Here are some selected extracts (Warning: You might like to skip to the bits that most interest you).

Cancelling the application backlog

JK:  “It was taking 7 or 8 years to process applications, which basically rendered the whole programme dysfunctional. The program was becoming, it was just broken from the point of view of attracting very talented and mobile people. Why would you wait in the back of a queue for 7 years if you could get to Australia right away? Well you wouldn’t. And I think that’s a large reason why a lot of Brits were choosing Australia over Canada, it’s just the speed of their system.

“…I feel badly for those people, I regret what happened to their applications, and I invite them to apply for a new and faster program. But at the end of the day, it was necessary. Otherwise it would’ve taken us a decade to get to a fast and responsive system. It wasn’t working for the immigrants or Canada or for employers.”

Why clearing the backlog of pre-2008 applications was predicted to take until “late 2017 or early 2018”

The reason this is important: In March 2012, the government decided to cancel 280,000 applications from foreigners who’d waited up to nine years for a decision on whether they could move to Canada through the skilled migrant programme.

The applications had all been received before February 2008. Legal challenges are underway.

The decision was justified on the grounds that it would’ve taken until 2017 to process them all, affecting Canada’s ability to deal with new applications effectively.

BUT: In November 2008, the backlog was estimated at 641,000 applicants. Three years later, this was halved. So why would it take 6-7 years from 2011 to clear the remaining 320,000?

JK: “It’s just a question of math really. We’re admitting 65,000 skilled workers per year, both principal applicants and their family members. And so, even if we were to completely freeze applications, it would take a few years…to bring that inventory down to zero.

“…The number of admissions in the skilled worker program have gone down as we’ve expanded other programs. We used to bring in 120,000 skilled workers a year. That’s down to about 65,000. And the difference has gone to provinces to select immigrants, which has been tremendously positive effect of a better geographic spread of immigrants across the country. So we, the government, ceded some selection power, to provinces, particularly in the west and Canada, there’s been a huge growth in these provincial nominee programmes, which brings in skilled trades people…and reduced the intake. And we were bringing in more skilled workers in the early years than we are now, hence reducing the backlog takes longer. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear before. If you’re sitting on a 320,000 person inventory, even if you’re taking in applications, it’s going to take us five years to draw that down, admitting 65,000 a year. It’s just a math problem. Sorry, I’ve never talked to journalists who are interested in this level of detail.”

Note: Following a supplementary question to Kenney’s office, I received the following reply:
“Our projections showed that it would have taken until 2017 to eliminate the backlog due to the volume of applications that had already been received, projected new applications, and operational constraints. Although the number of federal skilled workers processed each year has remained high, the government determined that having to process applications that were submitted as many as eight years ago reduces our ability to focus on new applicants with the skills and talents that our economy needs today. The government has placed top priority on attracting immigrants who have the skills and experience our economy needs.”

Labour shortages:
“There are huge shortages, especially in the west, for the welders and boiler makers and heavy equipment operators and I think there are a lot of people with those skills in Britain who’d find huge opportunities in Canada. But also, it’s right across the skills spectrum. For example, there are shortages in the IT sector. Just to give you one example, you’d think that a dream job for a lot of young guys would be programming video games. Well, there’s an acute shortage of video game programmers in the very large industry here, Montreal and Vancouver, so the opportunities are endless.”

Turning temporary jobs into permanent residency:
“For someone who doesn’t yet have a job lined up, and they’re not quite sure what to do, if they come through that visa [International Experience Canada] they then get to know how to find a job in Canada, they land something decent for 12 months, they could eventually stay as a permanent resident. They’ll often be working pouring pints in a pub in Toronto or in a ski hill out west for the first three or six months. But if they’re thinking long term, and they land a skilled job for 12 months, then we’re gonna invite them to stay permanently.”

Rising immigration
“We believe immigration is important to help fuel our future prosperity and to counteract our increasing age of our labour force. We have very acute labour shortages. We see immigration as a solution to that problem, but not the solution, because for us merely to maintain our average age through immigration would require that we more than quadruple levels to more than a million a year, about 4 per cent of population per year and there’s absolutely no public support for that.

“So even though Canadians are generally pro-immigration, welcoming towards newcomers, there are some real caveats attached to that. Canadians are four times more likely to say ‘cut immigration levels’ than they are to say ‘increase them’. So 45 per cent of the population say we should reduce levels, about 40 per cent say keep them around what they’re at and around 10 per cent say increase levels. I think it’s very important that we don’t end up disconnecting immigration policy from popular opinion.

“This is a mistake I think was made in European countries, where I think political elites became completely disconnected on immigration and this helped, I think to fuel the backlash that we see in many European countries…It’s very important to keep an attentive ear to the public’s sense of our capacity to integrate newcomers, which is large but limited. And so consequently, I think it’s unrealistic to see any significant increase in levels in the foreseeable future.

“My focus is more on quality than quantity. For three decades we’ve seen economic results for newcomers on the decline. Immigrants now make, on average, 60 per cent of the average income. It used to be, in the mid/late 70s, 90 per cent. The unemployment rate for immigrants is twice as high as it is in the general population, the unemployment rate for immigrants with uni degrees is 4 times higher than it is for Canadians with uni degrees. My focus is on turning those numbers around, selecting people who are more likely to find and keep good jobs or start successful businesses immediately upon arrival.

“If, over time, we see that the rate of unemployment for newcomers approaches that of the general population, and that the average income levels are increased to the general average, then I think argument might be raised for raising levels, but until then we’d be doing no-one any favours to increase the number of folks who end up being under-employed or under employed.”

The estimated 6,000 to 10,000 foreign doctors unable to work in their profession due to problems checking their qualifications
[Me; do you agree those figures are accurate?] JK: I suppose so. Of course there’s a joke in Toronto, the safest place in the city in which to have a heart attack is the back of a taxi cab because of all the underemployed physicians. It’s a much broader problem than just for physicians, this problem of credential recognition, and essentially we’ve been accepting huge numbers of immigrants through our skilled worker programme, often coming from developing countries, who‘ve come with the expectation that they’d be able to work in their licensed profession, only to find there’s a length and often very rigid process to get their credentials recognised by the college of physicians or engineers, and the other 40 regulated professions. This is a big issue in Canada. We’re working with the provinces, investing $15million in a process with the provincial governments, who are responsible for labour market regulation, to simplify and speed up the process for recognising those credentials.

“The problem is this, though. We want to give people a fair shot of getting their license to practice without lowering the Canadian standard, and the difficulty is that many people who come here, often from developing countries, don’t actually arrive at the Canadian standard for training and that’s one of the problems our immigration reforms are designed to fix, by in the future doing a pre assessment of the credentials of the people who want to work in licensed professions. This is what Australia started doing a few years ago….Because what’s the point of leaving wherever, your underdeveloped country where you’re working as a doctor, in order to drive a cab or work in a corner store in Canada?

“…Some of the provinces who regulate the professionals and the health system have been quite creative in identifying foreign doctors who they know can work with a license on arrival. So they’re been going to places like South Africa, to recruit doctors to work in remote communities, basically on a contract. Because in a province like Saskatchewan, no one wants to go and work in a little medical clinical or a small rural clinic in a small rural town: When I say no-one, no Canadian doctors. So it’s an inducement to get those rural communities served.

“One last problem is that because of the rationed management of our health services by the provinces, they want to limit the number of licensed physicians who can bill because they regard each additional licensed physician with a billing number as an incremental cost for their systems that are becoming ridiculously expensive. So they’re rationing the number of residency positions that lead to licenses. ….We don’t even have enough residency positions for Canadian grads and Canadians who’ve done their residency abroad. Why would we be bringing in physicians from abroad to add to that category when there are not enough spots available?”

[Me; Can federal pressure be put on the provinces by holding back funding?] JK: “We’ve looked at that, there’s really no legal stick that we can use, in the constraints of the federation we really can’t. Because, after all, it’s the exercising of their constitutional authority over labour market regulations. We don’t have the constitutional authority to penalise them for allowing some of the professional bodies to maintain unreasonable procedures. There are 10 provinces, 40 licensed professions. We’re bringing each of those around the table to hammer out a streamlined, faster process. The explicit objective of which is to give applicants an answer on their credential recognition within a year of their application.”

Claims that Canadian immigration policy reflects xenophobia or underlying racism:
“Many of our significant immigration reforms have been misinterpreted by some people, typically on the left, as being somehow anti-immigrant. It’s manifestly absurd to say that the country with highest levels of per capita immigration in the developed world, the highest sustained levels in Canadian history, the highest naturalisation rate in the world, is xenophobic and anti-immigrant. It’s bizarre. That just cheapens very important and loaded language.

“…But the reality is, that too many newcomers have been struggling. Our old immigration system just dropped people into the general immigration market to sink or swim and many were struggling to keep their head above water. By the way, immigrants to Canada are more likely to say we should reduce levels then people born in Canada. This is not xenophobia, this is just a reflection of the public’s intuitive sense of our capacity to integrate people.”

Budget cuts affecting immigration services
“To be honest we’re a government bureaucracy, so we get a flat level of resources. [With] ever increasing demand for services, consequently people wait longer and don’t get the service they should. So I’m actually exploring ways that we can operate in a more sensible business-like fashion. For example, I’d like to maybe operate a call centre on a more commercial basis, so if you’re going to place a call it’s a $5-10 dollar charge, that reduces frivolous calls. That allows us to hire more people and provide a better service. Those are the kinds of solutions I’m looking at.”

New rules ‘make it harder’ for older Britons to settle in Canada – my story in the Telegraph

17 Sep

Today the Telegraph has published a story I wrote on the plans to change Canada’s immigration rules.

It was a really interesting piece to research, and one of the most striking comments I came across was straight out of the government’s regulatory impact assessment (always the best place for juice – news hacks will know I’m not actually being sarcastic).

The bit that caught my eye was: “Foreign work experience is largely discounted by Canadian employers when the immigrant first enters the Canadian labour market, and it is a weak predictor of economic success.” This was based on detailed research, but feels like a slightly weird message at a time when workers are more internationally mobile than ever and busineses are increasingly globalised.

Talking to immigration consultants and lawyers, it doesn’t seem to be that the foreign work experience is seen as intrinsically invaluable or irrelevant, but that Canadian employers just like to stick to what they know. Rather than tackling this rather inward-looking culture, the government’s opted to simply reflect the status quo in its regulations.

Experts I spoke to also said Canadian authorities often struggled to verify foreign credentials, leading to doubts over professionals’ qualifications and delays in securing work, including for UK-trained doctors.

But there’s good news for the would-be skilled migrant. The same studies also suggested that, once an employer takes a chance on a foreigner, all that experience built up in lands far, far, away starts to be taken seriously.  And, as the article highlights, the emphasis on English language skills is growing under the new rules, making it easier for (most) Brits to settle here – as long as they’re under 35 and/or well-educated, working in a recognised profession.

The advice from the lawyers? Apply as soon as the federal skilled workers scheme re-opens (expected to be in January 2013); the current freeze means Canada could be inundated with applications. One source said applications were unlikely to be processed until 2014 unless they were submitted in the first three months.

Cheer up Canada!

14 Aug

Given its less-than-dazzling display at London 2012, you’d think Canada would leap at the opportunity to shout about achievements in other spheres.

So I’m baffled as to why the Canadian press seems to have ignored the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest annual survey on the world’s most liveable cities, which was published today and places three of this country’s cities in the top 10.

Granted, the top slots haven’t changed much since last year, with Melbourne basking in pole position, followed by Vienna, then Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Adelaide, Sydney, Helsinki, Perth and Auckland. The top five places haven’t budged at all.

However, it’s a strong return to form for Canada after an experimental metholodogy, in a separate EIU survey last month, saw Toronto drop to eighth place and Vancouver fall out of the runnings. This blog explains some of the potential weaknesses of July’s survey, in which Hong Kong was placed first.

It all got me thinking about the good and bad aspects of living in Toronto – based on my very limited experiences so far. Just for fun, I’ve incorporated my thoughts into a Prezi, which you can also see below (best viewed on fullscreen):

I’d be very interested to know other people’s take on Toronto’s ranking – does it deserve such a high accolade? What are your favourite things about the city and what needs to improve? If you’re from a different part of the world, does your hometown deserve to be in the top 10?

16 August 2012: Update: The liveability story finally made it to the Canadian newspapers yesterday – but not until the evening. I’m intrigued; is the delay due to a staggered international embargo? Surely such a concept has been made redundant by the internet? Please enlighten me if you know the answer.

Shakespeare in High Park

22 Jul

“I hope this one’s easier to get – the last play we saw was in English or something?”

I, like, totally, understood where the nine-year-old girl on my left was coming from. It was Friday evening, it’d been a tough week, and I wasn’t in the mood for deciphering heroic couplets.

Luckily for us both, the version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream being shown every Tuesday to Sunday evening in High Park throughout the summer has been stripped back to 90 minutes of mounties, golf buggies, power walking and audience participation (don’t sit at the front if your lion impression isn’t up to scratch).

The language is still unmistakeably sixteenth century, but the bawdy humour is translated into actually funny, 21st century, jokes with the aid of comedy detachable-trousers and some racy physical comedy. Plenty of genuine LOLs all round, especially at anything involving unflattering underpants.

But what was the nine-year-old’s final verdict on a play in which the cast are literally ripping off each others’ clothes? “That was disgusting!”

I think she meant it in a good way.

Photos of the stage were banned, but here’s one I took of the seating area just before it started.


Drinks and snacks are available on site and you can even hire back rests and rugs. A perfect Friday evening; I’d recommend getting there at least an hour before the 8pm kick-off to grab the best seats.

John Howson

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