Life after the end of Peel: Rethinking social service delivery in an uncertain future
Amid the sweeping governance transformations currently taking place across Ontario’s municipalities, the evolving list of concerns regarding the future of social service delivery appears to be dangerously overshadowed.
In the Region of Peel, Bill 112, the Hazel McCallion Act, has sparked such fervour over the province’s plan to dissolve the upper-tier municipality and the contents of the billions in capital assets and public works to be reallocated, that these issues are threatening to drown out all other discourses.
The narrowness of the current conversation and the lack of tools to address it are worrisome. The government's swift initiation of dissolution plans, along with the lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms overseeing a dissolution process, are impacting over 1.5 million residents of Mississauga, Brampton, and Caledon and thus necessitate serious reconsideration.
For nearly 50 years, the Region of Peel has provided essential services to its residents, including water delivery, waste management, public health, policing and healthcare services, and housing support. Moreover, the Region assumes a significant role in providing financial and logistical support to various community organizations; these organizations, in turn, offer programs to the community that may not be directly provided by the Region. By fostering collaboration with its community partners, the Region creates opportunities for greater integration of social services that are more responsive to local needs.
Made evident throughout the pandemic, local community organizations play a vital role in meeting the needs of Peel’s most vulnerable populations, such as racial and ethnic minorities, low-income individuals, persons with disabilities, seniors, and immigrant communities. This is especially important, as a number of these organizations provide culturally and demographically sensitive services to Peel’s rapidly growing diverse community. In 2021, Census data showed that nearly 7 in 10 people in Peel identify with a racialized group, making it the highest percentage in the Greater Toronto Area and among the highest in Canada. As a result, these community organizations significantly influence the quality of life for residents in Peel.
As community organizations in Peel begin to slowly recover from the financial and logistical impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the news of dissolution poses fundamental challenges to their efforts to provide the most vulnerable members of society continued support and access to high-quality services. This is primarily due to the predominant role the Region plays in the delivery of social services and the close working relationship that these groups have established with the Region in their work serving residents. Disruptions in these partnerships due to a dramatic governance shift could have large-scale service delivery implications for the community. The dissolution of the upper-tier municipality could cause many governance arrangements with community groups to disappear and the need for new arrangements and relationships to be created.
Under Bill 112, which was initially proposed to ensure that the municipalities can meet “the ambitious housing pledges they have agreed to”, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing has established a Transition Board that will oversee the dissolution of the Region. The Transition Board will provide recommendations to the Minister on financial matters, labour relation issues, and service arrangements. Though the Board is charged with seeing to it that “municipalities should be treated in an equitable and fair manner whereby all residents, regardless of where they live, are respected and have access to excellent services”, there are few systems in the legislation that enable members of the public to track, promote or ensure that outcome. The Board has no obligations to report on any of its activities to any party other than the Minister and possesses sweeping powers to direct staff and elected councils to do or undo any act, policy, or legislation under set deadlines that the Board creates.
It is important that members of the transition team understand the governance dynamics between the Region of Peel and, community groups, and the people they serve; otherwise, many operational links could be lost. On July 5, 2023, the government named five individuals to serve on the transition board. The announcement describes the appointees as possessing a range of experience “across the public and private sectors, including municipal government and administration, policing, business law and business management, infrastructure delivery and the provincial and federal governments”. Despite this wide range of expertise, it appears that the appointees do not possess direct experience working in the region that is noted in their biographies. While this may prevent conflicts of interest, it is also concerning. Harry Kitchen, a scholar of municipal finance and governance who served as a commissioner during the highly contentious restructuring of Victoria County into what is now Kawartha Lakes, stresses the need for the transition board to fully appreciate the nuances of local concerns.
Awareness of the details of service delivery is even more important given that, as reported by The Trillium, the government’s investigation into how the dissolution process will affect the financial situations of the municipalities included little concrete data in any studies, briefings, slide decks, or other information about the effect of the dissolution on finances in the region. This revelation adds further emphasis on thoroughness in executing such a significant restructuring process.
Two potential policy considerations could help create a more sustainable and equitable transition process as the Region of Peel is dissolved:
Ensure the Transition Board engages in active consultations with residents and community organizations in Peel. The task of dissolving the Region in under two years requires not only a strong sense of municipal governance but also an understanding of the unique needs and considerations of the community. To meet the rapidly evolving needs of the Region, regular engagement from the Board with the community is vital to ensure effective and meaningful policy solutions for all. The opportunity to allow for strong and constructive dialogue for the wide range of issues that appear before the transition board will allow for greater insights and public discussion about these important issues.
Make the recommendations of the Region of Peel Transition Board public. Bill 112 states that the Transition Board will make recommendations to the Minister concerning their work. To hold both the Transition Board and the government accountable, allowing for public scrutiny of the recommendation will ensure transparency in the decision-making process.
As the attempt to tame some of Ontario’s largest “creatures of the province” begins to take form through a highly publicized and intense political landscape, the need for openness, transparency, engagement, and equity throughout this dramatic administrative restructuring is essential to ensure that the residents of Peel are served. By limiting political fervour to a minimum, balancing issues of cost with issues of social impact and emphasizing the need to maintain and improve high-quality municipal services, the dissolution of the Region can offset those risks and demonstrate a commitment to community wellbeing that benefits all stakeholders.
Let’s not forget one of the crucial lessons of the pandemic: that community organizations are vital to the well-being of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
We must ensure their role is strengthened in the transition, not undermined.
Arvind Krishendeholl is the Manager of Health Programs and Prevention at Moyo Health and Community Services and a Researcher at the Public Policy and Third Sector Institute at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.
Rachel Laforest is a Professor at the Department of Political Studies and Head of the Public Policy and Third Sector Institute at the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.
Sean Meagher currently serves as Executive Director at the Change Lab. Previously, he held the position of Executive Director at Social Planning Toronto.
Michelle Bilek serves as the National Organizer at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness and a Member of the Peel Poverty Action Group. She is also the Founding Member of the Peel Alliance to End Homelessness.
Jillian Watkins is the Executive Director of Moyo Health and Community Services.
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