Cynthia Du Mont’s fondest childhood memories take place in Scarborough’s Golden Mile.
“It was like this really exciting day… It wasn’t just shopping, it was a whole experience,” Du Mont said of one of Canada’s first model industrial areas, located along Eglinton Avenue East, east of Victoria Park Avenue in Toronto.
Du Mont grew up near the neighbourhood in the mid-60s to mid-70s, and remembers donning white gloves and a hat on visits to the area with her mom and brother. As a child, she would frequent the theatre, browse records at Sam the Record Man, and order egg rolls from a local Chinese restaurant.
But over time, as factories moved out of the area — notably, a General Motors plant — stores began to shut down, and poverty rates rose. “I don’t know how and when things changed…. It just felt like it became neglected,” Du Mont said.
In 1981, nearly one in three families living in high-rise buildings in Scarborough were living in poverty. By 2006, nearly half of all families were considered poor.
“They said it was a golden mile and to us, it was golden. I’d like to bring that feeling back for people,” says Du Mont. Now the executive director of the West Scarborough Neighbourhood Community Centre, she’s doing just that. She is a member of the Inclusive Local Economic Opportunity (ILEO) Initiative, established by United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT) and BMO Financial Group (BMO) to ensure that efforts to revitalize the community are inclusive.
The initiative brings together stakeholders including residents, community organizations, corporations, and the City of Toronto, with the goal of creating economic opportunities such as job creation for residents in the Greater Golden Mile through place-based pilot programs which will be monitored, adapted, and expanded as needed.
One of these programs includes the creation of a construction company with a twist — it will be 51 percent community-owned and 49 percent privately-owned by Canadian construction company Aecon. To make this happen, the West Scarborough Neighbourhood Community Centre and several other Scarborough-based community organizations created a non-profit, the Centre for Economic Opportunity – Golden Mile, which is partnering with Aecon to form a new, jointly owned construction company. Their goal is to hire people from the Greater Golden Mile, undertake local construction contracts, and as the venture grows, to distribute profits to the community and its employees.
According to Du Mont, community ownership in the neighbourhood’s development is key, and a way to ensure their voices are heard in efforts to revitalize the Golden Mile.
“I’ve been working in the sector for many years and it’s always difficult to have good relationships with partners and developers. It’s been [in] fragments,” Dumont explained. “This is why I love this project so much.”
Daniele Zanotti, UWGT president and CEO , said the initiative is “essentially an overnight success that took us 20 years.”
UWGT, which has tracked Toronto neighbourhoods’ data for decades, has long expressed concern over the “rapid, dramatic rise” of impoverished neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area, including Scarborough.
According to UWGT, despite higher than average rates of residents with high school education in the neighbourhood, income and employment rates are below the city average. While UWGT supported community organizations and set up a hub in Scarborough offering youth programs, Zanotti said ultimately, there were few economic opportunities for residents of the neighbourhood — and therefore, few opportunities to rise above the poverty line.
Ongoing efforts to spur economic activity in the neighbourhood — like the construction of the Eglinton East Light Rail Transit, commonly referred to as the LRT — raised concerns among residents that it could potentially trigger unintended consequences, like increasing the cost of living and pushing out lower-income residents from the community.
“We want to make sure the people who are here now won’t have to leave if they don’t want to — that they’ll have affordable housing and that they will have new opportunities because of new development and new retail,” Du Mont said.
In 2018, Zanotti, who heard these concerns echoed by other Scarborough-based organizations, shared this with UWGT’s corporate donors, who he said asked what the community wanted.
“Ask, ‘What is it that we can do? What is it within our sphere of influence?’” Zanotti responded, adding that writing cheques and creating cookie-cutter corporate social responsibility programs would not be enough.
“What we want is for you to lean in, and stay a while,” he told them. “This isn’t about a community garden or a program, it’s about knowing what only you can do.”
Zanotti knew what they could do. By committing to social procurement from low-income neighbourhoods like the Greater Golden Mile, intentionally hiring people from the Golden Mile, adopting inclusive workplace practices, paying fair wages and benefits, and starting training and apprenticeship programs, corporations could help move the needle on poverty.
With BMO’s leadership, including CEO Darryl White as ILEO Leadership Table co-chair, major companies including Aecon, IBM, Dentons, and Sun Life Financial agreed, setting the foundation for what became the ILEO Initiative.
With commitments to work with founding partners over the next five years, Zanotti is ecstatic about what this means for residents of the Greater Golden Mile and the influence this will have on the world of corporate social responsibility moving forward.
“That’s way beyond a charitable model. It’s way beyond a fundraising model. It’s a virtuous cycle of economic opportunity that engages the voices that are often unheard or not even participating,” he said.
Community members like Du Mont, who have long felt excluded from the neighbourhood’s development, agree.
“It’s the first time I’ve been able to sit at a table with high-powered folks and they’re actually interested about what [we] have to say about the community,” she said. “It’s really exciting and it’s a little bit scary.”