Catching up with MP Bill Blair

Aug 15, 2017

 Bill Blair, Member of Parliament for Scarborough Southwest

Bill Blair, Member of Parliament for Scarborough Southwest

By Hedy Korbee

Bill Blair strolls into The Birchcliff Coffee Bar wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt and sandals, a decidedly casual look for an interview, but fitting for a Member of Parliament who’s on his way to an “ice cream social” at a park in the area of St. Clair and Pharmacy.

Bill Blair swearing in photoResidents of Scarborough Southwest might be more accustomed to seeing their MP in a suit and tie, either speaking in the House of Commons or crisscrossing the country as he spearheads the government’s initiative to legalize marijuana in Canada.

But behind the scenes Blair and his constituency team have been hard at work here in the riding that elected him in October 2015 with 52% of the vote compared to 24% for his nearest opponent, New Democrat incumbent Dan Harris.

Beyond the steady stream of constituents receiving assistance from Blair’s office with taxes, pensions and immigration issues in five languages, Blair said his office is working diligently to help ease the problem of youth unemployment.

At a news conference last week Blair announced a $2.6 million initiative to provide young people with skills training and employment experience through the West Scarborough Neighbourhood Community Centre.

The program, funded by the federal government’s Skills Link program, will assist up to 175 young people in southwest Scarborough who face  barriers to employment.  Beneficiaries could include young people who have not completed high school, newcomers to Canada, people with disabilities and Indigenous youth.

“Projects like this one can help put regular paycheques into the reach of those who need it. But more than that, they give young Canadians the chance to change their future,”  Blair said.

Summer job funding triples

Bill Blair Facebook post

Bill Blair, via Facebook

In addition to the new Skills Link initiative, the amount of money allocated to the riding through the Canada Summer Jobs program has almost tripled since 2015.

This summer, federal data shows the riding has received $781,431 through Canada Summer Jobs, which was used to fund summer employment for 219 young people.

That’s on par with Blair’s first summer in office in 2016 but represents a significant jump from 2015 when 94 positions were created at a cost of $267,222.

The difference, according to Blair came through outreach to community organizations.

“We had a number of people who had been making applications for these things before but it was a very limited number,” Blair said.  “We actually very proactively went out to different community organizations and businesses throughout the riding, about 70 of them we got to apply and we helped them in their applications and then through a little bit of advocacy about where the needs were in our community.”

Scarborough Southwest’s former MP, New Democrat Dan Harris, said he’s always happy to hear about more assistance to the riding but is skeptical whether better results are due to Blair’s efforts or a simple expansion of the summer jobs program by the Liberal government.

When Stephen Harper was in government, Harris said, the money usually ran out.

Scarborough Southwest MP Dan Harris“Every year that I was an MP…we’d always run out of money long before we took care of all the need that was in the riding,” Harris said. “Because organizations, based on a variety of factors when they make applications, they’re given a score and then based on that score they’re all ranked and then the money starts being allocated based on that range until there’s no money left. So typically what would happen is organizations would get roughly often times half of what they’d ask for because if they got all the money that they asked for then even more organizations would end up going without.”

Housing and Canada Child Benefit

When asked about other local accomplishments, Blair said he’s managed to have $13 million in federal funding allocated to improve the quality and state of good repair of social housing in Scarborough Southwest.

Blair also said that almost all families with children in Scarborough Southwest have received more money under the federal government’s revised Canada Child Benefit, which is no longer universal but rather based on income.

According to the 2015 Toronto Child and Family Poverty Update, 18 of the 25 neighbourhoods in Scarborough had child poverty rates  greater than 30% and Blair said that in some neighbourhoods it’s even higher.

“There are communities in Scarborough Southwest where, in one of them as many as 57 percent of the kids in one of our neighbourhoods were living below the poverty line. And with the new Canada Child Benefit those families have been lifted out of poverty. More than 95 percent of the families with children in Scarborough Southwest received more money as a result of that benefit. And almost half of those families I would say substantially more money,” Blair said..

“Every little bit helps,” said Dan Harris but he questioned whether the Liberals are doing enough to help people make ends meet.

“With precarious employment with lots of people moving around jobs and with the cost of childcare, even more money that people have in their pockets doesn’t really leave them better off. I mean the entire amount that the Liberals are giving to families per child covers about a month to two months of child care over the course of a year. So their families are still far off from being able to cover that kind of cost,” Harris said.

 

Former Police Chief Bill Blair. Photo Credit: Chanelle Seguin

Former Police Chief Bill Blair. Photo Credit: Chanelle Seguin

Learning the ropes on Parliament Hill

Blair’s news conference last week about a local jobs initiative was something of a rarity, leading Blair to admit he’s “probably not as good at that as a politician should be”.

“I used to be always frustrated with announcements and initiatives,” Blair says.  “Yeah I’d rather go get it done than create a photo op.”

When he said “used to be”, Blair is referring, of course, to his previous career with the Toronto Police service and his ten-year tenure as Chief of Police.

He views his new job as an MP as a continuation of his career in public service and said the biggest difference is the lack of immediacy; instead of reacting strategically to events in the community as he did in the police department he’s engaging in more debates and discussion and the work is slower

“In government things take much more time. And I’m learning that,” Blair said. Quite appropriately because the issues we deal with, debate and discussion and processes are terribly important and I’m learning about those processes. But at the same time I’m pleased that there are certain things that we’ve been able to move on very quickly and get done that have made a difference. And so in some respects it’s what I had expected in some respects it’s better, in some respects it’s slower and frustrating.”

That government can be frustrating is a candid admission from Blair who is accustomed to keeping his cards close to his vest.

In a piece published in the Ottawa Citizen, journalist Tonda MacCharles described Blair as  someone who tells “safe stories” – anecdotes that are used as “narrative shields” for journalists.

“I think it’s probably a fair comment on me,” Blair says, noting that it comes from his days on the police force when he had to choose his words carefully in order to not compromise investigations.

As an example, he sites former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his battle with substance abuse prior to his death in May 2016.  Blair says he had a lot of information that he didn’t share because it wasn’t appropriate because he was chief of police.

“I remember one conversation with a journalist one time, he was quite upset with me because he said you know you have to tell us what you know because it’s in the public interest. And I said to him there’s a difference between the public interest and what the public’s interested in. I said what the public is interested in is your job. But the public interest from my perspective is that the police chief should uphold the law and obey the law. In its letter and in spirit and therefore I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to just tell stories,“ Blair said.

Blair chooses not to heckle in Parliament

In her profile, MacCharles also wrote this:  “Truth be told, Blair — the politician — doesn’t look much like he’s having fun in Ottawa.  In his Commons seat, he has the serious bearing of a police officer of high rank. Stern, focused, barely allowing himself a wry grin from time to time.”

When asked by Birch Cliff News if he isn’t having any fun, Blair said he believes the comment relates to his comportment in the House of Commons.  You won’t see Blair engaged in heckling because he doesn’t believe in it. He said it runs counter to his police experience where people didn’t interrupt each other and spoke to each other with respect.

“I like vigorous debate and that always implies for me that people are listening to what the other guys have to say. And some of what I see in Parliament is…I don’t enjoy the nasty partisan tone that goes back and forth.  I don’t believe that’s what the people Scarborough Southwest sent me to engage in. They sent me to get some things done. I like getting things done,” Blair said.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Martin via Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Jennifer Martin via Creative Commons

Navigating the marijuana file

Blair serves as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and a significant amount of his time is spent on the issue of legalizing marijuana.

He’s careful to point out that the file includes much more than legalization — the government is also drafting strict rules for consumption, production and distribution of marijuana to protect children and take the business away from organized crime.

“I would hope that people would recognize is that if all the government of Canada was doing was legalizing cannabis this would be pretty straightforward and it would also create a mess. And it’s really important to understand what we want to do instead is replace a completely inadequate system of control with a far more effective and comprehensive system of controls,” Blair said.

Once the government announced pending legalization, it wasn’t long before marijuana dispensaries started popping up in many Toronto neighbourhoods prompting police raids and arrests.

It wasn’t lost on Blair’s constituents that two dispensaries popped up on Kingston Rd. directly across the street from his constituency office.

When asked about it, Blair said:  “Not any more. My two closed.”

Blair added that decisions on where to conduct raids are the sole responsibility of Toronto Police and he doesn’t work there any more.  But he supports the raids.

“We’re not legalizing the illegal dispensing of cannabis. What those pop-up dispensaries are doing is illegal today and it will be illegal when we’re done. The only place where cannabis will be sold is in whatever retail environment the province decides to license and put in place. And anybody who’s selling cannabis outside of that licensed regime will be illegally trafficking,” Blair said.

Harris noted that 15,000 people have been arrested for marijuana related crimes since the Liberals took office, most of them for simple possession. He faults Blair and the Liberal government for not decriminalizing and offering amnesty.

“Blair was saying decriminalization fixes none of the social harms associated with marijuana whereas I would argue that people getting criminal records and tying up the criminal justice system does tremendous social harm. Most people end up with criminal records and of course it’s clogging the courts and you know the courts are overburdened with important cases and we’re seeing some other cases get tossed out because of huge delays. So I mean even just a signal from the government’s to stop prosecutions would have gone a long way towards helping out and towards being more efficient with the budget.”

Community

Bill Blair presenting community leaders with pins.

Bill Blair presenting community leaders with pins.

During his hour-long interview with Birch Cliff News, Blair used the word “community” 39 times.  Despite his growing national profile, it’s always been about neighbourhoods for Blair, going way back to his days as a street cop walking the beat.

On Canada Day he co-hosted a community barbecue with City Councillor Gary Crawford and presented local community leaders with special Canada 150 pins crafted from the copper roofs of the parliament buildings now under renovation.

Of late, he’s been working with local activists and merchants to organize a “Kingston Road Day” on Sat. Aug. 26  to promote the concept of a vibrant main street in southwest Scarborough, similar to celebrations such as the Cabbagetown Festival, Taste of Lawrence and Corso Italia.

MP Bill Blair talks with residents at ice cream social.

MP Bill Blair talks with residents at ice cream social.

“When I was the police chief I used to spend a lot of time trying to make Main Streets work. There’s great potential on Kingston Road but the fact that it’s broken up into a whole bunch of little retail environments… so I started sitting down with some of the people because we don’t have a BIA on Kingston Road…and so we talked about how we can support Kingston Road and how we can get people locally to come to the business to know that the business is there,” Blair said.

Gerard Arbour, a chiropractor and community leader whose office is across the street from Blair’s, is helping to organize Kingston Rd. Day.

“He’s been very involved since his presence and has been on Kingston Road. And from my past experience I never had any dealings with any MPs on Kingston Road…. But Mr. Blair said right from the get go, he met with community leaders and got their feelings for how things were.  The concerns for the community and I think he’s kept a good pulse there.”

The interview wraps up and Blair is on his way to meet the ice cream truck he’s rented for the social at St. Clair and Pharmacy.  He said he hopes a lot of families come out with their children because he wants it to be “a community thing and not a political thing”.

“We try to just encourage people to come out and interact with each other….to get people to come with their kids to the park and meet their neighbours and to have a reason to be there together. That’s a good thing for neighbourhoods.”

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