SPPA Municipal Symposium highlights practices for achieving community benefits

In early March, York University’s School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA) in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS) held its third annual Municipalities of the Future Symposium at York University’s Keele Campus.

The 2020 symposium was co-hosted by United Way of Greater Toronto (UWGT) and focused on the theme “Advancing Communities Through Better Business Solutions.” The topic of the symposium was best practices for achieving community benefits for large public infrastructure projects such as the Gordie Howe Bridge Project by the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, and examples like inclusive and diverse hiring, apprenticeship programs and procurement policies took centre stage at the day-long event.

April Lim (left), policy development officer, Social Development, Finance and Administration of the City of Toronto during panel discussion on Community Benefit Initiatives in Action with Heather Grondin (right), vice-president, Communications and Stakeholder Relations, Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority

To underscore the importance of partnerships for advancing community benefits in Canada, the symposium opened with two keynote addresses: first by Daniele Zanotti, president and CEO of UWGT, followed by John M. Beck, Chairman of Aecon Group Inc.

LA&PS Dean J.J. McMurtry welcomed the symposium participants along with co-hosts Nation Cheong, vice-president, Community Opportunities and Mobilization, UWGT and Alena Kimakova, director of SPPA.

From left: Lorna Schwartzentruber, associate director, Access Programs and Community Engagement represented York University at the panel on Community Benefit Opportunities; other panelists included Dennis Bailey, executive director of the Community Legal Clinic of York Region; Mercedes Sharpe Zayas, workforce planning coordinator for Parkdale People’s Economy and Joseph Silva, director, Strategies and Partnerships, Community and Health Services at the Regional Municipality of York

Systemic barriers, visionary leadership, effective stakeholder engagement and project management issues were discussed by panelists and an audience representative of the diverse groups that partner for social and economic benefits for local communities: the corporate sector, labour unions, non-profit and advocacy groups, community members, public servants, academics and students.

Panel participants discuss collaboration on projects (from left): Chris Campbell, business representative of the Carpenters District Council of Ontario; Margaret Taylor, executive director of the Ontario Association of Demolition Contractors; LiUNA! representatives: Merissa Preston, Manager, partnership and business development and Wayne Brown, construction craft worker apprentice, 3rd Term, Crosslinx Transit Solutions; and Marc Arsenault, director, Stakeholder Relations, Ontario Ironworkers Council

Experts from the United Kingdom were able to offer insights from the experiences of another jurisdiction with a longer track record of community benefit agreements, including their enforcement and impact measurement.

Mark McDonald, CEO, Moonbeam Trading moderated the panel on Innovation and New Players with panelists Richard Houston, associate director, Simetrica (UK) in partnership with Jacobs and Steve Van Binsbergen, senior director, Ontario Public Sector, Rogers Communications

The symposium concluded with a participant engagement session to facilitate further co-operation across sectors, and outline the key lessons learned and suggestions for improvement. York University President Rhonda L. Lenton also attended the session and thanked the participants for their engagement.

Rosemarie Powell, executive director of the Toronto Community Benefits Network (second from left) with symposium guests served as facilitator at the participant engagement session alongside SPPA Professor Dagmar Soennecken, director of the Master of Public Policy and Administration Program (not shown in the picture)

“It will be interesting to see the role that community benefits play in restarting the economy after the covid-19 economic shutdown,” said Kimokova.

While the pandemic’s different impact on Canadians from different socio-demographic groups has clearly been brought into focus, at the same time, industry groups have already called on the federal government to relax the provisions for diversity employment on infrastructure projects to achieve faster economic recovery. The Toronto Community Benefits Network, United Way Greater Toronto, United Way Centraide Windsor-Essex, and Lenton, on behalf of the University, and others have responded by issuing a letter to federal government “to remain steadfast in its commitment to integrate and expand community benefit expectations in publicly funded infrastructure projects” in the face of the current challenges to achieve recovery and growth with equity.

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada Toronto Regional Group (IPAC TRG) and the lunch break included ethnographic virtual reality presentations from:

  • the Firgrove Mixed Media Oral Narratives Project by Professor Joel Ong from the Department of Computational Arts and Director of Sensorium at the Centre for Digital Arts and Technology, and David Han, PhD student, Cinema & Media Arts, a collaboration between York University and the Firgrove Learning and Innovation Community Centre in Jane-Finch; and
  • Ancient Thoughts and Electric Buildings by Michael Trommer, PhD student, Cinema & Media Arts, an ethnographic VR cinema/ambisonic project which examines the portion of Toronto’s downtown core that stretches along Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway – a site of extensive condo and commercial development as well as a locale that a large number of homeless people call home.