ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

A refugee’s worst fear is being deported. A tenant’s worst fear is being evicted. Since 1971, the Parkdale Community Legal Services, a.k.a. Parkdale Legal, has been a fierce advocate for both of those targeted populations. Now the clinic itself faces a dire existential crisis and may be homeless by mid-summer. 

The Parkdale Legal clinic has been located at the corner of Queen West and Noble Street, one block west of Dufferin, for the past 18 years. Last October, their lease was terminated – a new building will be built on the lot – and they were told they had to be out by Jan. 1. Negotiations led to an extension until July 31, 2019. A new location was secured at King and Jameson – still in the heart of the community, home to many refugees and low-income tenants – with a five-year lease. Moving in was supposed to be the end of a year-long bumpy ride.

Then came Doug Ford’s cuts to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) in late April. The Ontario Conservatives specifically cut off legal-aid funding for refugee and immigration services, a key component of Parkdale Legal’s work. But more cuts have been promised to the system in general, and to Parkdale specifically. As a result, LAO agreed to only a one-year lease on Parkdale’s new location, with no extra money for moving or construction costs. (Legal Aid Ontario declined to comment for this article.)

“The worst-case scenario is already upon us,” says Parkdale Legal director Johanna MacDonald, who started in her position 18 months ago. Because of the forced move, she says, “we were already downsizing by half. We now have to consider moving to smaller locations that will not be able to sustain us in our current form. Our front-line services and professional obligations are severely impacted by the delay and uncertainty of long-term commitments.” She says layoffs are inevitable.

The irony is unmistakeable: The legal clinic that has tirelessly helped tenants fight for their rights in a quickly gentrifying neighbourhood is now being evicted and cannot find a home. “It’s a powerful environment to be in. Which is why we must stay,” says MacDonald. 

The Parkdale Legal Clinic is particularly activist, helping to organize rent strikes and publicly decrying many of the Ford government’s cutbacks, including a rollback of the $15 minimum wage. It’s hard not to wonder if, in the current political climate, Parkdale Legal’s high profile and unapologetic anti-Ford stance has something to do with its current dilemma. An LAO spokesperson told the Toronto Star that Parkdale isn’t the only clinic being affected by these cuts. 

MacDonald says an integral part of the job of community legal clinics is to do community outreach and emphasized the “other services” that are part of its mandate to provide “legal and other services.” “It is about community voice and empowerment and participation,” she says. “Those non-direct legal services are absolutely integrated and valued. They were in the conception of community legal clinics,” of which Parkdale was one of the first.  

But it’s precisely those “other services” that are likely to suffer the most, says Parkdale–High Park MPP Bhutila Karpoche. “Parkdale Legal is already working on such a tight budget, doing so much with so little, there is no more space to make cuts. The only place you could possibly make cuts is in the advocacy piece, which is foolish, because if you don’t make systemic changes, the casework will be never-ending. You have to make the policy changes that will prevent these cases in the first place.” 

Legal aid serves the poorest of the poor: the threshold at which one can qualify for legal aid is low enough ($22,413 a year for a single person; $25,959 for a single parent of one; $30,356 for either a single parent of two or total household income for a childless couple), a parent working full-time at minimum wage ($31,200 a year) wouldn’t qualify. 

“The Ontario Bar Association says that for every dollar spent in the justice sector it saves six dollars in other sectors,” says MacDonald. “The role that legal services and community justice services play in health and education – it’s all so entwined. To cut one, and focus on a very narrow conception of that, is absolutely short-changing us in the future.” 

Parkdale Legal is one of eight clinics in the West End, with its catchment borders roughly defined as Bloor to the north, the Humber River to the west, the lake to the south and Dovercourt to the east. Parkdale has long been a landing point for new populations, notably hosting the largest concentration of Tibetans outside Tibet. Considering the changing face – and price – of the neighbourhood, can it remain so? “We still have new populations of people arriving,” says MacDonald, citing the Roma, Syrians and various African groups including Somali and Kenyans that are more recent arrivals.

Parkdale is changing of course, but so is the specific corner of Queen and Noble. Pia Bouman’s dance school, which has been the legal clinic’s Noble Street neighbour for the last 15 years, is also being evicted for a new build and is moving to the Junction in September. Until last July, the West End Food Co-op was on Queen; it’s been replaced by a gourmet sandwich shop and a premium tea café that had a total of four customers in them at noon on the day I interviewed MacDonald. Right beside them, the Queen West Community Health Centre is still hanging in. 

“It is important that Parkdale Legal stays in Parkdale,” says Karpoche. “It’s not just a legal aid clinic that does casework; it’s a hub. The community service is very important. If you move it, not only is it going to be inaccessible to community members, but it intensifies the pace of gentrification. You have not only people being moved, but the core services people rely on. That will displace people much more rapidly.” 

MacDonald is running out of options. She can rally people to lobby the government and Legal Aid Ontario, but if those efforts fall on deaf ears she’ll have no choice but to start fundraising. “We don’t want to fundraise,” she emphasizes. “We consider ourselves an essential service, and we have been for decades. That would be a great loss.”

This ongoing online column will be about those who make it their job to make this city work. I’ll be following not only representatives at City Hall and Queen’s Park, but also the neighbours who run businesses, sit on committees, spearhead projects and light up our lives. Hit me up with tips at