TORONTO -- On December 8, 150-200 people living on social assistance, mostly women, immigrant/refugees and parents, occupied the City of Toronto’s central welfare office in Metro Hall to demand access to the Special Diet Benefit, a modest allowance that helps people with health conditions afford appropriate food. The group wants the City to recognize doctor-supported applications for them and their children – applications the City has been refusing to process because they are signed by a popular Toronto doctor serving poor and marginalized communities.
“They say they’re not accepting it from [Dr. Roland Wong] although he is a certified doctor” says Asha. “They are the ones breaking the law”.
Dr. Wong has been “filling out the form for those who need it, poor families who need more money to feed their kids” says Ali, a single father raising six children on a fixed income.
As news of Dr. Wong's work spread, Conservative City Councillor Rob Ford submitted a complaint to the Ontario College of Physicians & Surgeons suggesting he is helping poor people scam the welfare system. He is now under investigation by the College and has become the object of critical national media attention - the Globe & Mail calls him "a Chinatown doctor".
Yet nothing has been proven against Dr. Wong. In an email to the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), an as yet unnamed City bureaucrat stated the reason the City is refusing to process his applications is that his office voicemail greeting recently stated he was on vacation and therefore any forms with his signature must be fraudulent - this, despite communication from Dr. Wong to the to the contrary. As a result, hundreds of adults and children struggling with poverty-related health problems remain unable to eat appropriately without the Special Diet Benefit to help.
Welfare and disability recipients are accustomed to being denied access. Case managers “ignore us, they can’t do anything” when individuals try to get help over the phone, says Asha. "I don't have nothing, I'm a single mom."
When frustrated community members went to Metro Hall en mass on December 8, City bureaucrats called in police who threatened the group with fines and criminal charges, and eventually deployed the Emergency Task Force (aka ‘SWAT team’) wearing tactical armour against the peaceful but loudly chanting group.
“We are moms, we have small kids: we cannot go to jail. We’re refugees too: we’re afraid to talk to them.” explains Khadija. “They don’t respect us, they don’t listen to us.”
Community members left after three hours occupying the building’s lobby and 12th floor welfare office.
As the group prepared to leave, OCAP organizers announced that they would hold public meetings to organize further, larger actions, noting that this demonstration attracted hundreds of people with only a few days notice.