OCAP | Response to the Toronto Sun & Sue-Ann Levy’s Cease and Desist Letter
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is a direct action anti-poverty organization that fights for more shelter beds, social housing, and a raise in social assistance rates.
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Response to the Toronto Sun & Sue-Ann Levy’s Cease and Desist Letter

By A.J. Withers for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty

Last week, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) put up posters in the city’s downtown east neighbourhood calling Sue Ann Levy – Toronto Sun’s columnist – a “bigot.” The posters were a response to a series of articles in which Levy disparages homeless people at Dundas and Sherbourne and agitates against critical services they rely on. The posters depict a photo of Levy, made to look somewhat like a mug shot, with the word “bigot” underneath. The imagery follows the tradition of satirical protest posters that name the offences of public figures. The posters describe Levy’s bigotry and encourage readers to “Build Inclusive Communities” and “Say yes to services, no to bigots.”

On Saturday, October 12, the Toronto Sun and Levy sent a cease and desist letter via their lawyer to OCAP. The letter claims that the “poster contains a number of false and seriously defamatory statements” without specifying what they are. The letter also claims the poster “impl[ies] she is a criminal.”

On September 27, Levy told me in an email interview that “Bigot has become yet another label tossed around by ‘special interest groups’ to try to silence those with a point of view different from their own.” The irony seems lost on her as she and the Sun demand that all of the posters be destroyed and OCAP not “state or imply that Ms. Levy is a bigot” in the future, including at our public meeting on October 17th.

Levy’s reaction is noteworthy because she is known to hurl insults. She’s called the leader of the federal Green Party “looney Liz,” referred to provincial opposition members as “the nuts in Horwath’s caucus,”[1] called fellow journalists “asshats,” and routinely calls homeless advocates, including OCAP, “poverty pimps,” and even called OCAP “poverty terrorists.” But Levy’s response to having her bigotry being named is to claim defamation. But it isn’t defamation if it is true. Merriam-Webster defines “bigot” as “one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” OCAP argues this is what Levy does.

“For a number of months there have been attacks against people who use services in the neighbourhood,” says long-time OCAP organizer, Gaétan Héroux. He tells me wealthy property owners, buoyed by Sue-Ann Levy, have been targeting homeless people and trying to close the services they rely on in an effort to push them out of the area. “It is discriminatory and prejudicial and there is a history of residents in this neighbourhood attacking these services going back to the 1990s and before,” says Héroux.

Levy has a penchant for using inflammatory rhetoric to sensationalize stories, often at the expense of poor and marginalized people, who are portrayed in ways that are that are dehumanizing, degrading or just plain inaccurate. She frequently denigrates homeless people as “transients” and “addicts,” and pits them as oppositional or even dangerous to “residents.” Further, she routinely calls refugees “(illegal) migrants,” especially those who are homeless. Levy uses stigmatizing terms to cast poor people as villains; but, generally she has no idea what the circumstances of the individuals she is writing about are, and she doesn’t seem to ask.

Levy’s work is demonstrably legitimizing and whipping up hate. One 2018 column by Levy decrying the City creating a new respite site for homeless people contained multiple comments calling for mass murder. “Cull the bums and the drug addicts” one person declared. Twenty-three people liked this comment which, not coincidentally, it would seem, uses language for killing animal populations rather than people. Levy’s August 13, 2019 article declaring Toronto is “a city of enablers” had a comment, also with 23 likes, calling for “tough love…if that doesn’t work, give them a safe injection of overdose.”

Screenshot of the first several comments from: Sue-Ann Levy, “City building 2.5M pre-fab for transients in public park,” Toronto Sun, Sept. 19, 2018.

Is Levy responsible for these calls to kill homeless people and drug users? No. Did she contribute to a climate in which dehumanizing these groups is okay? Absolutely. “If you’re already going pretty far towards dehumanization… its not a stretch to think some people might go another step further than that, however that might manifest,” says Jonathan Goldsbie, a journalist covering the media and News Editor for Canadaland.

When OCAP made Levy aware of the comments for the 2018 article (cc’ing the Deputy Editor), it appears she did nothing about it. It was only when OCAP contacted the Vice President of Editorial at the Sun that the comments were removed – 5 days later. Levy says she has “no record” of OCAP contacting her about the comments. She did not indicate she would take any action to address these hateful statements. The comment for the August 13 article remains up; she was made aware of it on September 25.

Let’s not forget her notorious October 2018 article in which Levy falsely claimed that homeless refugees staying in the Radisson Hotel were slaughtering goats in the public washroom of the hotel. This claim, evoking the racist imagery of Muslim “irregular (a.k.a. illegal) migrants,” was based on an unverified Trip Advisor review. The hotel was firebombed on the night of Oct 2. The National NewsMedia Council found Levy committed a “serious breach of journalistic standards for accuracy in reporting” for effectively publishing hearsay as news.[2]

Levy told me her goat slaughter “article was published on Oct. 3/18.” The Toronto Sun website also says this. According to this timeline, the hotel had been firebombed the night before. In actuality, the article was published October 2, the day before the arson attack (a discrepancy that was first noticed by Canadaland). Levy would not respond to my questions about the publication date change. When I confronted her with proof and asked for her to clarify, she stopped answering altogether, saying: “I’ve answered your questions to the best of my ability and have spent considerable time doing so.” It’s possible that the publication date was changed on the Sun’s website in error. It is also possible, but improbable, that Levy misremembers the publication date as well as her October 2nd tweet promoting the article. Levy has written that it is “contemptible” to try to link her article to the arson. Indeed, there is no evidence connecting the two.

But there is a profound hypocrisy in Levy and the Sun making the claim that there is no link between the arson and Levy’s article. On one hand, Toronto Sun Editor-in-chief Adrienne Batra told journalist Sarah Krichel that speculation of a direct link between the ‘goat slaughter’ article and the arson attack is “utter bullshit.” On the other hand, the cease and desist letter OCAP received claims that “it is foreseeable” that Levy, a public figure whose photo is all over the internet, “will be targeted and harassed… and such confrontations could result in Ms. Levy being physically harmed” because of the poster. While Levy and the Sun can speculate Levy may have negative interactions in response to the poster, it is indisputable that the arson did occur.

Levy has been writing about poor and homeless people for a long time but lately has focused on those in the Dundas and Sherbourne area and two essential services they rely on: the Margaret’s homeless respite site and Street Health clinic. Street Health’s overdose prevention site (OPS), the smallest in the city, saved about a life a week during its first year of operation. But the vocal residents’ association was successful getting its provincial funding terminated, even though Street Health says it has comprehensively responded to their concerns. In the midst of a deadly homelessness crisis caused, in part, by a shortage of shelter space, Margaret’s reduced its capacity from 50 to 35 to appease the residents’ association. The respite site now also plays classical music on the street to deter its own residents from using the space immediately outside the building (and, I’m told, for both the entertainment and pacification of those who stay). The result: fewer indoor places for people to stay and a more hostile outdoor environment.

Still, Levy condemns Street Health for the “dizzying tsunami of drug addicts, sex workers and drug dealers” and Margaret’s for the people outside. She claims to have followed a woman off of the TTC to Street Health and posts photos of homeless people on her twitter, seemingly without their consent but with disparaging commentary.

Levy isn’t big on empirical evidence, but her stories are full of anecdotes from, as Goldsbie observes, “seemingly random people.” But, Goldsbie says, “She tends to place their comfort” – the comfort of property owners or ‘taxpayers’ “much higher than the health and safety of people involved on the street… that’s very evident in the writing.” While Levy often couches the concerns of these wealthier area residents talking about things ‘getting worse’ after respite sites or OPSs open up near them in the context of safety, Goldsbie says it is about making things “clean and pristine and not sullied by poverty.”

Levy blames homeless people for the situation they’re in and not the housing crisis. She tells me, for instance, that “the lack of affordable housing has been used as an excuse for street sleepers for 20 years.” Her ideological position is contradicted by the evidence which clearly shows that the housing crisis is driving homelessness. The great irony, of course, is that things will keep getting worse at Dundas and Sherbourne and in many other neighbourhoods in Toronto. This not because the neighbourhoods have OPSs or other essential, even life saving, services for poor people and refugees but because we are in the midst of a housing and shelter crisis coupled with disastrously low social assistance rates. Premier Doug Ford, who both Levy and the Sun seem to support, could alleviate these problems yet he, like Levy, scapegoats refugees and blames poor people for the conditions they are abandoned in.

Meanwhile, Gaétan Héroux says OCAP will continue to “fight to defend our communities.”

[1] While Levy expressed concern for people with mental health issues to me, she denigrates them through her use of this language.

[2] It also upheld a separate complaint against Levy for calling a homeless advocate a “poverty pimp.” Levy told me the complaint was “vexatious especially considering I’ve used the same term for years.”