Pay Day Lending in Canada

 Toronto: Four months ago Jude Duncan, ACORN Canada’s Toronto Head Organizer, and John Young, ACORN Canada’s executive director were driving endless miles around the neighborhoods of what is called the GTA — Greater Toronto Area — looking at the turf for countless areas that would become ACORN local community organizations in the coming years.  Now, I was back for a series of meetings to connect the work to other initiatives and critical people.  Basically, it was time for a time and temperature check.

 Jude from the “Peg” — Winnipeg that is– assured me that it was unseasonably warm for my visit.  Cool enough for me for sure, but for two days straight I listened to one blissful “old timers” reminiscence after another about “when the weather used to be really cold” from Jude, John, and about anyone else who was willing to join the conversation.  Gradually, though for no good reason, I started to believe that this might be true, though I had no way to judge it of course.

 We were getting a good start in the neighborhoods with our first organization in East York.  We had topped the first 100 members so we were starting to move.  Our office on Draper was large and ungainly in a 2nd floor walkup that had a lived in feel to it, though it was still clearly a “work-in-progress” with furniture half-assembled, random working and hardly working donated computer bits and pieces, and the usual detris of hard working organizers.  At 8 PM I met our organizing staff as they came in from the field.  It was a diverse and interesting team.  A Mexican-Canadian who spoke English and Spanish; an Indian raised in Kenya and educated in Canada who spoke English, Swahili, and Urdu; and the 3rd young man of Korean heritage, raised in Paraguay and then Canada, who spoke Spanish, Korean, and English.  The fresh faced young woman just in from Vancouver for training in the Toronto neighborhoods before returning to open up ACORN’s office there almost seemed out of place in such a wild bunch.  But, interestingly the staff in its own way was part of the creative brew of cosmopolitan life that defines our low-to-moderate income constituency in the diverse Toronto mix. 

 While I was meeting the staff, downloading e-mails, and listening to the organizers make the membership reminder calls for an upcoming meeting, which I have done many thousands of times before, though it was still exciting because this time we were in Toronto moving forward in a brave, new world in a new country, John Young was on a local cable talk show pumping ACORN Canada’s “hot off the presses” report on the scandal of the “pay day lending” industry.   Pay day lending has been in the cross hairs as an emerging target for the ACORN Financial Justice Center, and Canada has been the rollout to an interesting response.

 In Canada, the criminal code is clear — there is a maximum interest rate that can be charged by these bums, but the truth is different than the law, and ACORN was routinely finding interest rates up to 300%.   The industry was a billion dollar operation in Canada, but totally unregulated.  Our report,  Protecting Canadians’ Interest:  Reining in the Payday Lending Industry, (available on our website www.acorn.org) interesting included some very nicely turned maps of neighborhoods in Vancouver and Toronto which made a very telling point.  Some 600 local branch banks had been closed, many of them in the major cities, and by plotting where these mainstream financial institutions were closing, ACORN could plot where the predatory pay-day lenders had swooped in to fill the vacuum and suck up every penny they could at usurious rates.

 In the news and in the neighborhoods, it almost seemed that ACORN was part of what was heating up the temperatures in Toronto while I was there.

John Young, ACORN Canada, being interviewed on Bloor Street next to a Money Mart office location.

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Churches on Sunday

 New Orleans: So much for resting on the 7th day, since it now appears that the progressive forces need to do a much, much better job of crossing line that separates the altar from the curb.  Our friends are putting out a story that seems credible thus far that indicates that the organizers on the other side can drop a dime and call up the forces of  one-hundred thousand (100,000+) or more churches to send a message on mobilizing on the right. 

 No sense pretending.  We can not do that.  At least not today….

 You would think that we could though? 

 We have strong local networks of church based community organizations aligned with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and the Gameliel Foundation both headquartered in Chicago, DART in Miami, and PICO based in Oakland each of which represents hundreds of churches.  Problem though is that added together that is still only at best a consolidated network of thousands, and it is hardly consolidated.  The other problem is that they can not do this.  Virtually all of these organizations at the local and network level are tax exempt c3 or c4 organizations that can not transmit political messages, except to their members (in the case of a c4).  Additionally, the sturdy backbone of most of these networks is still the Catholic Church, which is now much embattled and also rigorous in its posture on political action around abortion and similar issues.  Nonetheless this is a place to start and should be part of the equation.

 Recently, Steve Kest, ACORN’s national representative, and I met with Rev. Bob Edgar, the former Pennsylvania Congressman, who is now the head of the National Council of Churches headquartered in New York City.  He seemed to be moving within his affiliates to look at what it took to build the list and know were to move an active network.  The NCC should be a part of this new progressive configuration of religious.

 Years ago we had helped set up something called People of Faith, which was also based in New York, but it never quite got traction.  Kim Bobo and the Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice would know others in her network.

 There is a long list to be made and a lot of work to be done.

 The point is simple and clear though. 

 We can not surrender institutions with progressive potential or the local pieces of these larger institutions that may be ready and willing allies and places housing many people looking for a way to act on what they believe.  We have to engage them on the full menu of issues from local to national that threaten and challenge our constituency.   We have to make sure the debate is organized and joined about the proper place for the church and its people so that choices are clear and directions are set. 

 Plainly and simply, we looked the other way here and we got caught singing while others were running through the aisles and working the pews.  We have a base here, now we have to make sure we are moving it — 7 days a week, 365 a year, and on election days.

Worship service.
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