OCAP | Sue Ann Levy
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.”

Poster Campaign: #BackOffBigots

OCAP has launched a poster campaign to encourage solidarity in the downtown east
Build Inclusive Communities | #BackOffBigots

Toronto: The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has launched a poster campaign encouraging residents of Toronto’s downtown east neighbourhood to support healthcare and shelter services for the area’s low income residents. The poster also has a message for the seemingly small but vocal group of wealthier residents who have been aggressively campaigning to have those services shut down: back off.

“The downtown east belongs to all those who live here. It is not the exclusive playground of the area’s wealthier residents, even though some of them want it to be,” says Gaetan Heroux, a community worker and OCAP member who has spent over three decades working with poor and homeless people in the area.

In recent months, the resident group, which controls the Cabbagetown South Residents’ Association, has escalated its campaign against two critical services homeless people in the area rely on: the Street Health community clinic, and the Margaret’s homeless respite centre.

The Association already successfully lobbied the Ford government to terminate provincial funding for the Street Health’s overdose prevention site. The site saved 52 lives in its first year of operation. Not satisfied, the Association is now collaborating with the notorious Toronto Sun columnist Sue Ann Levy in its campaign to have the clinic and the homeless site either shut down or relocated to another part of the city.

Sue Ann Levy has since published a series of columns denigrating poor and homeless people in the area and attacking the clinic and homeless respite as “enablers” of disorder in the neighbourhood. The articles feature anecdotal, and often unsubstantiated, claims from residents that caricature homeless people as dirty, drug addicted and dangerous. Levy also takes pictures of homeless people and posts them on Twitter, often with degrading commentary.

“Dundas and Sherbourne is in a crisis caused by Toronto’s deadly housing crisis and rising poverty. Its victims are not the property owners in the area. Its victims are the poor and homeless people who deal with the relentless strain caused by the shortage of shelter space, crushing poverty, and the hopelessness of the housing market. To attack the two life-support services they rely on shows a vicious disregard for their lives,” says Yogi Acharya, an organizer with OCAP.

“The City can transform Dundas and Sherbourne into a vibrant neighbourhood by building rent-geared-to-income housing and expanding social services. Such a transformation would include the area’s most marginalized people and result in a healthy inclusive community. Spreading bigotry and suspicion only escalates tensions and divides the community further. We’re asking people to choose the former,” adds Heroux.

Stop Vilification of Poor People Who Use Drugs

Toronto is in the midst of a housing crisis that expresses itself most sharply in massive and growing homelessness. As the shelters overflow, the disaster that this creates interacts with an overdose crisis that continues to claim lives. This disaster is now poised to get even worse at the hands of the Doug Ford Government, with its readiness to implement social cutbacks and its hostility to life saving safe injection initiatives.

Those in power and their media mouthpieces love to point the finger of blame at those who suffer the effects of austerity and abandonment. After letting the developers control and profit from the creation of upscale housing, after allowing public housing to crumble, after letting social assistance income decline substantially and after failing to provide adequate shelter for the homeless for years, refugees have become a convenient target to blame for the problem. Now, the same interests are targeting poor and homeless people who use drugs, in a truly despicable move.

Many in the media, with the Toronto Sun leading the pack, have been running lurid stories of homeowners and businesses under attack by what the Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy calls “druggies.” Another piece in the Sun went so far as to call for the death penalty for those who sell drugs and the main objective of these hateful articles is to try and shut down supervised injection services and overdose prevention sites. Levy argues that such facilities only encourage drug use and simply assumes, without any evidence, that the lack of safe options would cause people to give up drug use. In fact, the opposite is true – research in countries around the world has consistently shown that providing people who use drugs with compassionate, evidence-based healthcare like supervised injection services improves their health and helps people who want treatment to access it.

There is no real need to spend much time refuting the threadbare and ignorant arguments of people like Levy. We are really dealing with a hate campaign to whip up local vigilantes and encourage the intense criminalization of people who use drugs and the outright abandonment of the homeless. Supervised injection services only enable people in poverty to have some of the supports people who use drugs and have money enjoy, and they are desperately needed in midst of the present lethal crisis. In place of the class war crackdowns and denial of shelter and services the Sun is working for, and that Doug Ford and others in power want to deliver, we call for the following:

  1. Raise social assistance rates in Ontario so that people can afford to stay housed.
  2. Stop boarding up public housing and create real social housing to meet the need that exists.
  3. Open enough homeless shelter space so that the system is not running above 90% capacity.
  4. Open shelters mainly in the central area where they’re most needed with an emphasis on low barrier facilities.
  5. End the criminalization of people who use drugs and address the poisoned drug supply with evidence-based, harm reduction measures
  6. Legalize and regulate all drugs, rapidly develop prescription heroin and hydromorphone programs in Ontario.
  7. Extend the funding of current overdose prevention sites and expand access to SIS and OPS sites.
  8. Politicians must stop providing legitimacy to gentrifying residents and business interests organizing against homeless people and poor drug users
  9. Treat the kind of articles that have appeared in the Sun as incitement to hatred rather than journalism.

OCAP is calling for a press conference on Monday, July 23 at 10am at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne to support the continued operation of supervised injection sites, to oppose the re-introduction of programs like TAVIS, and to demand the creation of adequate shelter and housing.