Every time I go shopping at No Frills, I notice women that are dressed in the tradition of their ancestors. It might the floral print dress and bonnet of the Mennonites, or the sari of the south Asians, or the hijab or niqab of the Muslims. Then I look at the men who are with them. Typically, they are dressed in jeans, or a jacket, or pretty much what their secularized neighbour would wear.
I usually wonder, “Why are the men allowed to fit in, but the women are not?” or “Why do the women have to draw attention to their ethnicity but the men do not?” There seems to be two standards of dress, one for the men, and one for the women. Implied in my wonderings, is the assumption that the men are determining the major components of both male and female wardrobes.
Initially, I patted my secularized self on the back thinking that most Canadian women have more freedom and can wear what ever they choose. They do not have to choose their clothes from a different wardrobe than their westernized husbands or brothers or fathers. It seemed that our secular society had found an answer that these other cultures should share.
Then, I was reading an essay by an imam about this same topic. Except, he critiqued our secular society. He wondered why western women are expected to expose more of themselves than the men. Maybe the imam had been watching coverage of the most recent Vanity Fair Oscar party where the stars, like Rita Ora and Jennifer Lopez, seemed to be “reveal as much as possible” while most of the men kept most of their bodies relatively private in full tuxedos. The imam wondered why western women are forced to draw attention to their bodies while the men are not.
Of course, I had never thought of it this way, but when I did my air of western superiority went out the window, where it belonged. We also have a double standard for gender clothing.
It seems that in many cultures, the male wardrobe is closer to a universal average while the female wardrobe tends toward some extreme, either to extremely hide or to extremely reveal the female form.
In both cases, outsiders attribute the extreme wardrobe to male dominance. Modernists criticize the way in which religious women are kept covered, and the religious criticize modernists for wanting women to be scantily clothed. And in both cases, the women defend their wardrobes as something of their own choosing. Whether covered or uncovered, the women explain that their clothing choices are their own and make them feel more feminine.
In the natural world, we also see a “double standard” but there the male appearance tends to grab our attention while the female tends to blend in with the surroundings. The bright red of the male cardinal contrasts the muted red of the female, and the illustrious sheen of the male peacock contrasts the soft colours of the hen. There is no male-dominated religious council or market-driven share holders imposing any fashions on either gender; only the pattern of natural selection that works for the survival of the species. Biologists tell us that the more brightly decorated male will attract more females and get to spread his seed, and that the quietly garbed female will be less noticeable to predators as she sits on the nest.
Perhaps once upon a time, humans needed a similar pattern of male boldness and female blandness because of their differing roles in the wilderness, but those days are passed. Both men and women need to know and understand what forces, e.g. market or religious, are shaping their wardrobes, and be able to preserve their own dignity by making healthy choices according to their tastes and careers.
I was recently tending a garden in downtown Guelph. The plot was close to a building and I happened to notice a shopping bag in a basement window well. Curious, I pulled the bag out of the well, and then two more bags full of clothes, and shoes and tall fashion boots, and a basket full of cosmetics, and feminine hygiene products. I could only conclude that I had found the personal closet of a homeless woman. Feeling rather awkward, I tucked everything back where I had found it.
How common is homelessness in Guelph Wellington?
A recent report by the County of Wellington, which looks after housing for both the city and the county, revealed a sampling in mid-April that estimated that there were 359 people experiencing homelessness on the day of the sample, including 55 children under the age of 18. As much as I would hope otherwise, the woman of the window well was not alone.
No doubt the extremely low apartment vacancy rate in Guelph plays a role in the problem. Guelph has the lowest vacancy rate in Canada at 0.6 per cent. Victoria and Vancouver, two of the costliest cities in Canada, are next with about twice as high a percentage, around 1.2 per cent apartment vacancy.
The county released its first affordable housing strategy in 2005. It was renewed through extensive consultation and planning to produce the 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan in 2014. It contains the vision statement that “Everyone in Guelph Wellington can find and maintain an appropriate, safe and affordable place to call home.”
This plan contained 8 key short and long-term goals. To prevent these goals from collecting dust bunnies on the bureaucratic shelves, the county will be reporting annually on their progress. The first report was just published, and the progress indicators are encouraging on several dimensions.
One of the goals was to help low-income households close the gap between incomes and housing costs. To reach this goal, the county has entered into some significant community partnerships. Dunara House is one of the partners and provides on-site supports in a shared living environment to individuals experiencing mental health challenges. Guelph Hydro is another partner that helps make accommodations more affordable through the Low Income Energy Assistance Programme. This program subsidizes utility deposits, and replaces older appliances with models that do not cost as much to operate.
Another goal is to provide a variety of supports to rescue people at risk of losing their homes. Actions have included $177, 343 and over 500 services to prevent eviction. A Housing Stability Programme used $458,682 for 841 individuals and families to get or to remain in housing. Another partnership involves Sister Christine’s Drop-In Centre which finds housing and supports for up to 20 persons at any given time. Landlords in the region are also partners, and have been involved in landlord information sessions to better understand their role.
More affordable housing options for low-to-moderate income households was another goal. Advocacy work resulted in an increase in the affordable housing reserves in the 2015 municipal budgets. The city had been neglecting the affordable housing reserve fund, so this was a welcome change under the new mayor and council. The Investment in Affordable Housing Programme helped fund the new Michael House which will provide 8 affordable units and supports to young mothers. The county and city have also granted reduced tax ratios on multi-residential properties in hopes that the landlords will keep units more affordable.
Homelessness is a humiliating state for anyone. It is good to see that the county is leading the way, and that they have the city and other key partners to help realize their vision. Having “an appropriate, safe and affordable place to call home” should be considered a right. No one in a prosperous city like Guelph should have to live out of a window well!
I attended university during the free-thinking seventies. It was very common for professors and students to wag their heads knowingly at the hypocrisy of the Victorian era. The Victorian upper class went to church on Sunday and gave alms to the poor from the profits made on the backs of those same poor people. Leaders in society professed the importance of family but winked at the their extra-marital affairs as long as they were discrete. Today we learn about Victorian hypocrisy on the popular television series Downton Abbey. We are all glad that we are no longer in living in such a judgemental society; we are free to exercise our freedoms from such religious morality, and to act on our genuine interests and desires.
But I sometimes worry that the hypocritical judgemental society is making a comeback.
I recently bumped into a friend of mine and her son in No Frills. We were near the frozen food section, and chatted for a moment. The next day she sent me an email explaining what they were doing carrying a package of chicken nuggets. Suddenly I felt like a priest hearing confession! This friend is probably one of the healthiest people I know on any dimension that could be measured. What could have given her the impression that one must excuse the purchase of chicken nuggets? But sadly, I understood her feelings exactly.
I shop for a handicapped friend of mine. This person’s medication that can dull the senses. He feels much better if he drinks Coke, so I often have 8 large bottles of Coke in my shopping cart. I put them in my cart last, and head straight for the checkout, hoping that no one sees them. At the checkout, I have to fight the urge to explain to the clerk why I am buying all this Coke.
Many people I know would not want to admit that they buy chicken nuggets, or drink Coke, or shop at Walmart. But market research shows that millions of us do. Guelph City Council fought tooth and nail to keep Walmart out of Guelph, but who were they representing? Anytime I drive by, the parking lot is full!
It seems that we are entering back into a Victorian era where the leading voices claim one moral code while society is actually dominated by another. Of course, the moral code is no longer identified with an organized religion. It is identified by secular religions like environmentalism, healthy foodism, multiculturalism or feminism. Before you drag me before the Inquisition, I need to explain that I actually support the main tenets of these “isms.” But you have to admit that there is a lot of hanky panky going on.
Take environmentalism for example. Automakers are boasting about their fuel efficient cars. We all applaud ourselves on such signs of progress! The only problem is that January sales figures in Canada show that sixty-nine per cent of all vehicles sold by the big three automakers were actually trucks and SUV’s. They have big motors and big appetites for fuel but if you ask the manufacturers, they will tell you that they are responding to consumer demand.
Our professed worship of healthy foodism is equally suspect. When it first started gaining converts, even Tim Hortons offered low fat muffins. I bought them regularly, but their shelf is now filled with things like Skor brownies! Why aren’t they selling a healthy muffin? Customers did not want them! We all profess to be more health conscious but the sales of fatty foods like chocolate and bacon have never been higher.
According to my university professors, the Victorian era was characterized by a judgemental moral code on one hand, and hypocrisy on the other. I hope we are not heading back into that era, but I would not want to be the judge of that!
Our food distribution system in North America is broken. Recently I heard a speaker from a large produce company in Burlington estimate that up to thirty per cent of the farm harvest does not make it to the table. This number applies to fresh and processed food. Skids and skids of canned food sit in warehouses, not making it to the shelf before its expiry date. On one hand, we have people going hungry and on the other hand, we have food going to waste. Of course, the food industry has to build the cost of the waste food into its pricing structure. Ironically, this pricing structure makes the food in grocery stores that much more expensive, and out of reach of the poor.
Some of the problem is caused by consumer pickiness. We only want fruits and vegetables that conform to our picture of perfection. Everything else goes to waste. Until now. Grocery stores in Europe have been selling ugly produce at reduced prices for several years now, and recently the leading food chain in Canada started selling “naturally imperfect” apples at roughly half the price of “perfect “ apples. Score one for common sense, and for food security. Next step might be to train consumers that a “best before” date does not mean “toxic after.” Most expired foods are still quite edible.
We need to find more ways to get food efficiently from farms and canning factories onto families’ tables. Emergency food providers are only a stop – gap measure, and even they come in different shapes in different cities.
A food bank in Woodstock works on a unique model. It has switched from handing out food to handing out food certificates. In Woodstock, Operation Sharing hands out food cards and the people shop for themselves in retail stores and use their food card to pay. The food cards are funded by ongoing donations collected at grocery check-out counters. This approach preserves dignity, and it also reduces the need to gather food in food drives, sort it, store it and run a storefront.
The Food Bank of Waterloo Region works on yet a different model. It is focused more on distributing food through its member agencies than on direct handouts to needy families. It collects and distributes food all over south-western Ontario through other Food Banks, and through neighbourhood groups.
In Guelph, we have one big Food Bank that rounds up food from producers and retailers and distributes it directly to needy families, as well as to neighbourhood groups. Additionally, we have a number of emergency food providers that work independently of the Food Bank, such as the Salvation Army , and Hope House. They meet needs outside of the Food Bank and take it upon themselves to find their own sources for food and hygiene products, like the Spring Food Drive coming up at the end of May.
Guelph is unfolding yet another model for addressing food security. The city and the county have been working with Neighbourhood Support Coalition and the Guelph Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination to create a central food resource called the Seed Community Food Hub. The Hub aims to “create a space to bring people together with food to improve health, community, access and advocacy efforts.” It will be able to create a larger scale organization that can attract funds for cold-storage and refrigerated trucking. So much of the fresh produce that is discarded by producers and processors could go to the emergency food providers if they had cold storage. The Seed hopes to address that gap. One of its unique goals will be to advocate for policies and programs that will address systemic issues.
Hopefully, concerted community efforts like the Seed will be able to move beyond the stop-gap efforts of emergency food providers and start to address the complexities of our broken food distribution system.
While weighing in on the St. Matthias debate, the local Anglican bishop recently referred to the almost 200 years that the Anglican denomination has served Guelph.
Oddly enough, almost 200 years ago, the Anglican Church used to own the whole township in which the St. Matthias property would have been situated! This land was part of the colonial clergy reserves set aside to support the Anglican Church. This privilege upset a lot of people because the Anglicans were not the only denomination in Ontario; though they did make up about 30 per cent of Guelph at that time. This injustice was one of the inciting factors of the Rebellions of 1837 (in which my direct ancestor was sentenced to hang). Out of the rebellion came an act which reduced the Anglican share down to one-third of the clergy reserves, or about 5 percent of all the land in the province.
Times have changed. Today, it is very difficult to find institutional space in Guelph. While the principal of a Christian school in town, I was involved in the difficult search for institutional land, and from time to time I sat listening to local religious leaders lament having no place to locate their congregations. Congregations can only settle on property that is zoned institutional. There are very few open institutional lots left in Guelph. We can’t afford to lose any.
From its beginning, Guelph has been a planned city. As the planners and politicians figured out the plan, some land was zoned for institutional use. Only places for education, religion and health care are allowed in this zone, and nowhere else. City leaders have an interest in setting enough land aside for institutional purposes because these uses contribute to the well-being of the city. They also have an interest in not designating too much institutional land because these uses do not pay property tax.
The current debate over the use of the St. Matthias property is rather ironic. Once upon a time the Anglican Church held this property as part of the clergy reserves. Then in 1854, the government took control of the land, and the church was told to get in line for institutionally-zoned property. So, the Anglican Church successfully applied for this specially-zoned land and erected the building that is there today. And, in keeping with the privilege of institutionally-zoned land, the church paid no property taxes. How many millions of dollars have the residents of Guelph paid to subsidize those property taxes? And we did it gladly, because of the benefits of community space and the care of souls offered there.
Various people engaged in this debate have been making this point, and it is very valid. When the Anglican Church obtained this land it was zoned institutional. They knew that and they used it appropriately. They were happy to accept the limitations on that zoning at the time. They were also happy to accept the tax subsidy that went with that zoning. Now the Anglican Church wants to sell it.
Suddenly, the denomination has forgotten that the site is zoned institutional and wants to sell it to a residential builder, and one that wants to build over density in an area that is not designated for intensification! Suddenly, the denomination has forgotten that the people in the neighbourhood invested in that site for all these years, and it wants to cash in. Suddenly, the denomination has forgotten that this property has been subsidized all these years by the neighbours who did pay taxes, and it wants to cash in. Maybe City Council should pass a by-law that if an institution sells its property to a non-institutional buyer, it has to pay back the property tax subsidies for all those years! If the Anglican Church wants to treat the sale of St. Matthias as a business proposition, then let the city get its fare share of the profits.
The neighbourhood concerns over the loss of community space at the St. Matthias Anglican church building are quite valid but some of the arguments being used in the discussion belong to a different era.
The valuable contributions of churches to the city’s quality of life should be enough to convince our councillors to not re-zone the property at the corner of Edinburgh and Kortright. It was zoned institutional for valid urban planning reasons, and nothing has changed; the neighbourhood still needs that institutional space.
Many of the reasons being given by the neighbours, however, relate to issues that probably no longer warrant the councillors’ attention. These are the issues that are raised every time someone wants to replace, or add to, a current building – more traffic, more noise, loss of privacy, shortage of parking, incompatibility with the neighbourhood, lower property values, cut-throat contractors, etc.
The reason that the councillors can no longer give these concerns the credibility that they once did is that the Queen’s Park has sent down a master plan for growth that applies to the whole province. This master plan is called Places to Grow, and we had better get used to it.
Places to Grow was released in 2006 and updated in 2013. It is a comprehensive plan to preserve green belts by forcing population targets on the existing urban areas. Urban areas will must grow inward and upward but not outward.
In Places to Grow, each urban area was given population targets. Guelph has been told to grow to 177, 000 by 2031, 184,000 by 2036, and 191,000 by 2041. In 2014, Guelph’s population was about 129,000. We are currently growing at about 2 per cent per year, and if we sustain that growth, we will reach the Places to Grow target of 177, 000 by 2030 but where will we put all the people if we can only grow in and up? What will that growth look like?
That kind of growth will create more density than we might like. It will mean more traffic, more noise, less privacy, scarcer parking, and more awkward, perhaps ugly, infills and additions. Many of the complaints being brought against projects like the six-storey building on the St. Matthias’ site, or an apartment building at 15 Mont St., will carry little weight as Places to Grow takes over. In fact, Places to Grow is in its ninth year and those complaints do not carry much weight even now. Of course traffic, noise and parking are not directly caused by denser housing; they are caused by our much-beloved automobiles. As more people start walking, cycling, skateboarding and riding the bus there will be fewer complaints about traffic, noise and parking!
Another complaint is that such projects will lower property values. Really?! The law of supply and demand will force all property values up within all of the urban areas. If property values in Guelph go down, it will be part of a province-wide decline. Anybody moving from the GTA will notice a huge discount and not the 3-storey addition or a six-storey low-rise next door.
And of course, some Guelphites will curse the builders. But how are we going to reach the Places to Grow goals without new buildings? And without the builders? No business should be given carte blanche to do as it pleases, but we are going to have to be noticeably more open to new housing ideas than Guelph’s reputation would suggest we have been. Guelph’s zoning by-laws and building regulations have to be re-written so that the densities and flexibility implied by Places to Grow become the new baseline, and so that the builders do not have to fight to get them.
Reflective community spaces like St. Matthias need to be preserved as Places to Grow inevitably forces a more intense lifestyle on our urban centres.