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Five years ago, a group of community leaders working to address inequality and create opportunities for working people got together to explore an opportunity. They were inspired by the advocacy of Rexdale residents who, years earlier, secured a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for the expansion of the Woodbine Racetrack and Slots at Woodbine Live!, a proposal for a full entertainment district with a casino, hotels, live performance venue, retail and restaurants (which later was abandoned by the project proponent). They were inspired by the work of organizations in the US and beyond to secure local hiring and other commitments from big projects.

However, they were also frustrated with the way new infrastructure investments, especially those paid for by government and/or on publicly owned land, didn’t produce any equitable opportunities for local jobs or opportunities for social enterprises and small businesses.

The coalition quickly grew as organizations across the city saw how investments in big public and private projects could be harnessed to provide jobs and opportunities for historically marginalized communities and equity seeking groups.

With the support of resident leaders, community organizations, labour unions, foundations and social enterprises, 2014 marked the launch of a community/labour coalition; the Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN). Over the past five years, the TCBN has secured CBAs on four large scale infrastructure projects which include the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit (LRT, $8.5B), Finch West LRT ($2.5B), Woodbine Casino and Entertainment expansion (approx. $1B) and West Park Healthcare Centre ($1.2B)

The CBAs include, but are not limited to targets for:

  • Apprenticeship opportunities
  • Professional, administrative, operations and technical positions
  • Social procurement to support local business, diverse owned businesses and social enterprise
  • Environmental protections and neighbourhood improvements
  • Monitoring, reporting, accountability

Throughout the development of these agreements, TCBN carved out a role in supporting strong community engagement, advocating governments for stronger social policy and equitable development process, research and codifying best practices, and working with industry to develop effective recruitment processes.

David Hulchanski’s Three Cities report on income polarization reaffirmed what many of my neighbours, family and friends have been experiencing; a lack of decent work opportunities in Toronto. It was through the RexdaleRising! CBA campaign that I learned about the term “Postal Code discrimination” where a qualified Rexdale resident was denied an interview at a local bank due to the area they lived in.

CBAs have emerged as a strong tool to require equitable opportunities for all, and specifically to prioritize targets for hiring underrepresented groups in the industry.

Over the past five years, we have witnessed the Toronto tech sector add over 82,100 tech related jobs, more than any other North American city. However, a 2019 Brookfield Institute report “Who are Canada’s Tech Workers?” has highlighted that those identifying as Filipino or Black had the lowest participation rates in tech occupations and that Black tech workers' salary was over $13,000 less than the average across all visible minority groups and over $16,000 less than non-visible minorities in tech occupations.

Through CBAs, we have the opportunity to level the playing field and require employers to train and hire those who historically have been underrepresented in the industry. The City of Toronto recently approved a new Community Benefits Framework that applies to all public infrastructure investments, private developments on public land, and when the City provides incentives for developments (usually office development that demonstrate adding over 1,500 new jobs). This provides a new tool that we can leverage to shape a more fair, just and equitable development process in Toronto.

This can be done. We have seen some early successes of CBA on projects like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project where 115 apprentices and over 150 professional, administrative, and technical positions have been sourced and hired through the agreement. In addition, over $6M has been spent on local businesses and over $650,000 supporting social enterprise.

We must act now to ensure that new investments deliver on positive outcomes for residents, and not just the bottom lines of big corporations. Now is the time to ensure that as we build our city, we are also building opportunities and jobs in communities that need it most.