Action Day for ACORN in Ottawa Conventions

Arriving for the dawn briefing

Ottawa  The last day of an ACORN Convention is action day. It starts early because it’s also going home day for the members, as they pack out their gear on the buses so they are ready to roll once the work is done. There were already members sitting on the steps outside of the dorm room at 630 am when I hit the street.

Briefing from the leaders before the action

There were speakers in the morning, local and federal politicians and labor leaders came by, but the real preparation was practicing the chants for the day, so that Fair Banking and Affordable Internet substituted on some of the lines where normally a cry for Justice arose. Everyone was in good form by the time the briefing was finished, the speeches over, and it was time to roll downtown.

assembling for the march and asking drivers to honk their support!

After off loading on Queen Street, the march assembled near the War Memorial on Elgin, picking up some supporters along the way, and pressing cars driving by to honk their support as they sang and chanted. Humid days and sprinkling rain had been substituted for a bright day with a steady breeze breaking the heat, so everything seemed in order as the march set off down Elgin towards the building housing the Ministry of Finance, picking up some bicycle cops along the way as our de facto escorts.

coming down Elgin Avenue towards the Ministry of Finance

At the corner of the Ministry building, Ottawa moved along the side door to the formal entrance, while Toronto went towards the Elgin Street entrance, and Nova Scotia and British Columbia took the other side door. Quickly and efficiently everyone was in the large foyer of the building. Some held banners in front of the building with our demands so that all could see. Banking of any sort in the modern day specializes in security, so there was never any notion that the crowd would get past the foyer, so the chants demanded the Minister come down and meet. After some time when the police threatened to call the paddy wagons and begin arrests, all the members responded by sitting down and continuing signing and shouting their chants for action on fair banking and an end to predatory lending.

Come meet with us Minister

We’re Not Going Anywhere!

A demand letter was sent up as the members moved across the business district to rally in the shadow of the federal Parliament building and in front of the creepily named, Ministry of Innovation. The ministry had acceded to our demands for a meeting and held up announcements on internet access they had privately negotiated with telecoms after we protested our exclusion. This was a “warning” rally, that we were watching and waiting, but would be back in force if we didn’t get satisfaction.

marching to the Ministry of Innovation

Marva Burnett, ACORN’s president, addressed the crowd ending the action, and the convention, as everyone roared and then settled in for the trip home and the fights to come.

Marva Burnett, ACORN Canada and ACORN International President addresses the end of the convention

marching home

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ACORN Canada Was Revving Up and Reaching Out on ACORN’s 47th Anniversary

Ottawa ACORN leads the crowd at the meeting

Ottawa  Rolling out of breakfast, ACORN Canada members found themselves under a huge assembly tent, reminiscent of the Denver airport in my mind. Large delegations from Ottawa and Toronto practiced their chants, cheers, and songs they had devised for the march into the meeting hall. Toronto’s highlighted their expansion from the city into the GTA or Greater Toronto Area as its known locally, but christened Greater Toronto ACORN by the members from now on. They did so to the tune of the “Saints Go Marching In,” which was a nice touch as well. Ottawa of course gave their chant a French twist shouting “Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montreal” with the proper accents.

members coming through the doors

An array of power-speakers addressed the assembly once everyone was in place. The Housing Minister for Ontario was respectful and thorough in listing ways that he felt the existing government had stepped up to the plate on issues that ACORN had fought over. They were preparing to invest half-a-billion Canadian dollars in affordable house and what they called “purpose-built” housing for lower income families. He also professed his government’s commitment to continuing to build social housing as well. He got big applause when he mentioned that he had extended the rent control protection to an additional 250,000 families in significant areas. Landlords are allowed increases limited by the inflation index prepared by Statistics Canada.

Max FineDay of Canadian Roots Exchange drew a standing ovation

Max FineDay from the Canadian Roots was the most popular with the members. He gave a lively and impassioned speech focusing on reconciliation between Native Canadians and the rest of the population. He won people over with both well-timed personal anecdotes and moving descriptions of conditions on the reserved lands. Another favorite speaker was the head of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, known as CUPW, here. He was a familiar friend who had also spoken in Montreal at the last convention. The union’s proposal for a postal bank has been supported by ACORN as a way around predatory lending, as well as a way for the union to fight privatization. The crowd laughed when he told of a government committee claiming that such a bank wouldn’t make money, asking the members who knew of a bank that didn’t make money!

Chris Ballard MPP and Ontario Minister of Housing told us they had expanded rent control

Mike Palechek, Canadian Union of Postal Workers, spoke for a 2nd convention to cheers

In the afternoon, the members paired up in teams and hit the neighborhoods of Ottawa to gain support for the campaign for Fair Banking and an end to Predatory Lending. The winning petition teams filled 39 and 40 petitions in their two hours, including some new members from Hamilton which was exciting to everyone.

role plays before the doorknocking outreach

Marva Burnett, the chair of both ACORN Canada and ACORN International, gave some remarks over dinner that challenged the members about whether they were prepared to lead in building organization globally. She underlined the success on tenant issues and the demands by tenants for ACORN to build a tenants’ union in various countries.

Burnett also mentioned that June 18th was the 47th Anniversary of ACORN’s founding and led the members in singing Happy Birthday to ACORN.

What a great day!

more fun, food and speeches at the banquet

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Working on Skills and Listening to Promises at the Convention

Members from Toronto arriving to Convention

Ottawa  We could find members of the ACORN Canada convention delegation wandering lost around the University campus pretty easily, thanks to their bright red t-shirts. There were nicely designed ACORN “arrows” on the sidewalks and signs aplenty, but the campus construction and the different buildings could easily confuse so a small army of volunteers and staff shepherded people from place to place from the time people got off the buses on arrival.

Meet & greet before the work begins

An ACORN convention is about serious business, so the members had hardly said, “hello,” before they were on their way to workshops. Some attracting crowds were Disability-Social Assistance: Rights & Benefits, Big Turnout/Planning Chapter Meetings, and Affordable & Livable Housing run by leaders from British Columbia, Ottawa, and Toronto. There were smaller sessions that dove deep, like one I listened to for a while and run efficiently by an Ottawa member on Social Media and Action. Participation was key in all of the workshops. In that one they broke into two groups to figure out what they would “post” on Facebook and tweet on Twitter three weeks, two weeks, one week, and the day of a coming action to help communicate and move members to attend. Thanking the workshop leader later for the excellent job she did, she seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, saying it was her first time doing such a thing, and she had been so nervous.

heading to the workshops

These workshops help move consensus for the members for actions after the convention is over as well. A workshop on “energy essentials,” were dealing with fights against privatization of public services, especially electricity. Pay Equity/Childcare was a workshop preparing for a future campaign direction to try and win better income support for lower income families for childcare and achieve pay equity for women. Fair Banking/Internet for All was a large workshop on the two largest national campaigns for ACORN in Canada and was seeking to hone positions for future actions and negotiations.

Head Organizer, Judy Duncan, keeping it rolling

Nothing like a university cafeteria to make people happy though, no matter how hard they work. Buffet style with choices of desert? Wow! Is this what life could be like! Members had to be pried out of their seats, but they were ready for the first evening plenary to get ready to rock.

an Ottawa member speaks up at the disability and social assistance workshop

Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, was the guest speaker, after the ACORN national board was introduced to chants, whoops, and hollers. Ontario is the California of Canada in terms of its size and reach in the country so would be a huge prize for progressives. Leader Horwath loved finding a friendly crowd that roared “Shame!” again and again as she listed the issues and roared with delight every time she committed that the NDP would join ACORN in the fight.

a Toronto leader runs the workshop on big actions

The real applause was saved for the reports from leaders from city to city throughout the country on their victories over the last year. Chants greeted the reports crying, The People United, Shall Never Be Defeated, and Who are We, Mighty, Mighty ACORN.

members listening intently to another Ottawa member tell them how to use twitter

the evening plenary is reading and rocking in their seats

Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, commits to ACORN’s issues in her speech

no one was getting lost on the way to the dorms to prepare for the next day

 

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ACORN Canada Leadership Plans Its Next Moves

Ottawa’s Ashley and Jill are ready to make the registration work for the convention

Ottawa   The annual general meeting and board gathering for ACORN Canada’s leadership convened on the eve of the organization’s biennial convention in Ottawa at the University of Ottawa this year. While ticking off the legal requirements, signing minutes, audit reports, and other requirements of the Canadian Societies Act, the board found much to celebrate. The membership had now crossed 100,000, and the organization’s aggregate expenditures had broken $1 million in 2016, both huge accomplishments after fourteen years of organizing. Campaigns, some of them stretching back more than a decade, like the Toronto fight for landlord licensing, had been victorious. ACORN was now part of the conversation and a vital part of the coalition in any progressive campaign in Ottawa, Toronto, and greater Vancouver, from the fight for $15 per hour to hydro rates to blocking privatization and more.

This could have been a time for a bit of chest thumping and back slapping. A bit of gloating might have been in order. The leadership never drew a breath. Instead they focused in almost every conversation – and I know because I was keeping the minutes – on what they needed to do next, what issues might be on the horizon, and what had to be done to win.

Board Meeting

The multi-year “Internet for All” campaign had seen ACORN become a stakeholder at the table, so one of the most interesting questions, still unresolved at the end of the meeting was whether or not the weirdly named, Ministry of Innovation, would be a federal target for agitation during the convention. The process of expanding internet access had been fraught and ACORN’s role had been key in pushing the regulatory body and its hearings into a serious examination of what was needed to bridge the digital divide for lower income families. Many of the monopolistic telecoms had bent to ACORN’s demands over the years, but always in piecemeal fashion, beginning with Rogers concession in lowering fees to provide access to all public housing residents in Toronto. Others had carved out similar small slices to answer the call as well, but none were moving to the need, and likely wouldn’t without the government playing a stronger role. The new Liberal government under Justin Trudeau had indicated they were preparing a major announcement in this area recently that they had worked out with the telecoms, but ACORN and others protested that they were excluded from the consultation and having none of it. The government had backed off of its plans in order to re-position because they had left us out of the mix, promising that we would be allowed to impact the plans before they were finalized. So, the leadership debated with that concession, should they be left off the action list because they were now moving towards us or should they still be front and center because of their arrogance and lack of action?

Convention Swag

The debates now had high stakes. How would ACORN position its demands with a possible new minority government in British Columbia led by the NDP (New Democratic Party) in coalition with the Greens? With the federal Liberal government’s coming review of the Banking Act this year would we finally be able to advance our predatory lending campaign? Would the municipal elections in Ottawa finally allow ACORN with our labor partners and others to advance our municipal agenda on housing and living wages where we had been so close to winning in the past? Would be be able to force affordable housing construction in Burnaby and Surrey, the huge satellite cities around Vancouver and block demolition/evictions?

A measure of the organization’s weight was a special address to the board by the Secretary-Treasurer of the huge NUPGE, the National Union of Provincial Government Employees, representing a wide variety of public employees at the provincial or state level. NUPGE was concerned that the government’s move to create an Infrastructure Bank could mean a wave of privatization of public services, and of course public workers, that displace thousands, cost more, and render worse service to citizens. Meeting with ACORN, the Canadian organization that demands better public services for low and moderate families, somehow seemed a natural first step in any campaign.

ACORN Canada has much to celebrate, but they may not have time to pause to do so, because the next moves and one campaign after another demands the leadership’s attention and meets the membership’s demands.

Answering member questions at the registration table

 

 

 

 

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The Human Face of Payday Lending

montreal-road-in-vanier-which-has-the-highest-pay-day-loan

http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/activists-fight-against-high-concentration-of-payday-loan-outlets-in-vanier

Little Rock    People can read the reports of banks cutting back on small business lending, nod, and say, but, hey, I don’t have a small business. Others can understand that banks make even fewer small personal loans and have surrendered that market to payday lenders and other predatory shysters, and say, hey, it will never happen to me, while ignoring that it is likely neighbors, relatives, and friends walking through the door of these shops that are growing like weeds along the sidewalks of our neighborhoods.

Recently in a story in the Ottawa Citizen, the reporter put a human face on ACORN’s campaign there for tougher regulations, higher licensing fees, and a ban on new stores in close proximity to existing locations.

 

“When chronic illness forced Robbie McCall to quit his job as a heavy equipment operator, he was living comfortably in a three-bedroom home with a finished basement.

His only daughter, now an adult, was attending private school.

McCall, 47, had been a customer at his local bank since he was seven years old — almost 40 years. He had his mortgage with them and had used bank loans to pay for his vehicles.

He owed $2,100 on his credit card and had overdraft protection.

But after his illness, his regular paycheques became welfare and disability cheques so he decided to explain his circumstances to the bank.

“I thought it was better to be honest with them because I wanted to stay in good standing,” he said.

In short order, he says the bank cancelled his credit card and the first time he went over his overdraft limit, they cancelled his overdraft protection. Crucially, they slapped a 10-day hold on personal cheques he received from family and friends.

Angry and in need of fast cash to pay his bills, he turned to one of the many payday loan outlets near his home in Vanier. He says they charged an $18 fee to cash his Ontario government cheques and gave him separate $100 loans.

At one point, he said the fast-cash operator charged him $193 interest and fees on a $300 loan.

Two years later, McCall’s bank had reclaimed his house and he was living in one room at the rear of a Montreal strip club. He said he was permanently broke, medicated for depression and unable to pay the money he owed.

 

It hurts to hear this story, but an independent study done by a lawyer at ACORN’s request found this is pretty much standard operating procedure. He found in the heavily French, lower income community of Ottawa called Vanier, “…there are 16 payday outlets in Vanier — about one for every 1,000 Vanier residents — and eight of them are within 1,000 metres of each other on Montreal Road. That’s 16 times the provincial average and 24 times the national average.” Name the country and this would be duplicated many, many times. Furthermore, its different from state to state, province to province. In Ontario, interest can soar to 600% for payday sharks, while next door in Quebec the cap is 35%.

There’s not a happy ending to this story, but at least in McCall’s case there were hard lessons. According to the Citizen:

 

“Robbie McCall said after two years dealing with payday operators, his family helped him pay his bills on the promise he would never borrow from the outlets again.

“It was like a monster out of control,” he said. “I was so embarrassed — my pride wouldn’t allow me to talk to anyone about it. You know that commercial where a guy jumps on your back to symbolize debt? Well, that’s exactly how I felt. It was crushing me.”

McCall, who in the past year says he has been able to move into a one-bedroom apartment and slightly improve his financial situation, warns anyone he meets to stay away from payday loan vendors.

“Never, never, never,” he said. “Underline it and put it in bold capitals. You’ve got to find a better way.”

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Renewable Energy Cooperatives

6222_logo1Gatineau         George Brown is the Ottawa ACORN pro bono lawyer, which is how I came to meet him and find myself in an interesting chat on a wide range of subjects in the lobby of the Best Western hotel in Gatineau across the river from the national capital in Ottawa in the shadow of Parliament Hill.  George is of course much more than a general in ACORN’s volunteer army.  He is also a former city councilor in Ottawa and the nominee of the New Democratic Party in the federal election in south Ottawa against a longtime incumbent.  He has been a key architect in putting together teams of law students to represent our members in the housing tribunal mediating disputes between landlords and tenants. Having said all of that it turned out that he has been a veteran of numerous microfinance, social enterprise, and cooperative endeavors both as an attorney and as a sparkplug.  He caught my attention, given my recent dip into the energy and power wars between coal and renewable energy sources, by telling me about the Ottawa Renewable Energy Cooperative or OREC, where he had helped do the legal work on a number of their projects.

OREC hasn’t been around but a couple of years and its cluster of projects are therefore still modest in scale but its basic organizing and business model is fascinating and speaks to great success to come.  First, it’s a cooperative, meaning that individual members own the operation and democratically are empowered to govern the business through their elected board and employed staff.  Each share costs $100 and the only qualifications are pretty much an Ottawa address and being over 16 years old.  Secondly, you also have the opportunity to invest in their projects as they come on the drawing board and ripen for financing.  The minimum investment is essentially $2500 with a lifetime limit of $100,000 to keep everyone on an even keel, because this is a good deal.  Thanks to a piece of provincial legislation in Ontario the local electric utility, or hydro as they call it in Ottawa, has to purchase 20 years’ worth of the electricity generated through such renewable projects at a set rate per kilowatt hour that pretty much guarantees the investor a 5% dividend yield for the first five years and then larger participation shares through the 20-year term of the investment.  Since the numbers are based on firm contracts the yield is certain, though by law they can’t formally “guarantee” the rate in case hell freezes over, which is becoming more unlikely every day with climate change.  No surprise that the cooperative was able to raise $3.5 million in its offerings so far.  Sweet!  The only surprise is that they only have about 150 members so far on their 500 member goal.  I’m shocked they don’t have lines in front of their door!

And, what do they do with that money?  They lease for a 20-year term land or roof space for their solar panels.  Many of their leases are with nonprofit or cooperative housing developments in Ottawa who are mission driven as well and love the fact that they are helping produce their own electricity.  Here’s what they say:

OREC currently has 7 solar rooftop projects, including five 10 kilowatt (kW) solar power projects on the rooftops of non-profit or co-op housing buildings across Ottawa, a 75 kW project on the roof of Samuel Genest School, and 50% of a 250kW solar rooftop project on a storage facility in the Dunrobin area. We lease roof space from the respective property owners for the solar systems and our investors benefit from the revenue received from the sale of power.

George is right.  OREC’s model – and of course the law that allows it! – are dynamite opportunities.  These are the kinds of ideas that we need to spread, and try for ourselves as well!

***

Dick Gaughan “Handful of Earth”

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