This week at council, City Councillor Joe Mihevc gave up his newcomer advocate role at city hall to take up his new role as poverty reduction advocate, replacing the late Pam McConnell. This is the first time Mihevc has held the position, in a political career that has spanned over 25 years, starting when Mihevc was in his late 30s.
In this week’s Q & A we talk with Mihevc about what a poverty reduction strategy really means in Toronto, his formative experiences, religion and social justice, and what advice he has for up-and-coming politicians.
By Arianne Robinson
This interview was conducted in person and has been transcribed and condensed.
It’s been a month since you were given this role.
A whole month, wow… wow. It’s been a fast month, I am telling you that. It’s been super busy since we’ve started.
At the announcement, you looked emotional.
Yeah, I was. This is what I want to do. This is why I got elected. I want to work at bringing the margins in and fighting for a more inclusive Toronto. No one knows or can identify how one’s DNA gets formed. For me, maybe it had something to do with my parents being refugees from Eastern Europe – my dad worked as a mechanic for his working life, and we were five kids. I had a paper route as a kid because there was no such thing as allowances. We were by no means poor. I don’t know hunger, I don’t know real hunger – my dad does, my mom a little bit, but we knew real, simple, basic living.
Eventually [poverty reduction advocacy work] becomes your passion, it becomes you who are. So I am not really that interested in the – they call it the “fancy-schmancy,” of positions. … Like budget chair deputy mayor… what I am really trying to say here is that, the poverty reduction advocate is something that really speaks to my core so I can say this: that it will get my dominant energy and my first energy here at the city.
In a Toronto Star article in 2011 about the former Toronto archbishop, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, [who died in August of that year,] you said, “He understood what war and revolution was, and he brought that sensitivity to his ministry. I think that’s his gift to Canadian society: advocacy for refugees and immigrants.” I was thinking about that and about the advocacy you’ve done with newcomers and how a lot of the poverty reduction advocacy in the city – there is real overlap there.
Absolutely. My parents are still alive, and their home is still the one we had when I was a kid. They’re almost 95, and they remember day by day what it was like to go on the march from Ljubljana, Slovenia, into Austria when they felt that their lives were at risk. When – post World War II – the Allies win, and there’s this settling of scores. And so people were on the move. So some Hungarians were on the move, Slovenians were on the move, the Croatians, the Germans, the Poles, everything was kind of – people were settling scores and on the move.
They remember every day. They remember life in the camp like yesterday – really it’s an experience of trauma. I know their story so well, I don’t want to listen to it. Sometimes I say to my mom, “Mom I know this story, you don’t have to tell me again, so it’s okay. It’s okay, I don’t want to hear it anymore,” because it’s not my experience. But it certainly had a deep, deep impact on me, to have this sense of being the outsider. So when you see those pictures of the Syrians who were fleeing from – making their way through Europe – that’s what it is. Or some of the Africans also, making their way through Africa and trying to find a way to get to Europe, or stowaways, that takes a lot of just sheer grit to withstand all of that and make it here. And once they make it here, that’s a life-defining experience, to be torn from your place of birth, and have to settle, have to re-settle.
the only difference between you and me is luck – that’s the only difference. I could have been in that position. once you recognize that, you realize that there’s a human drama happening
Do you think about your parents’ stories and experience now, all the time?
It was not my experience, right? But…
But that is a pretty strong experience as a kid to hear that that’s – what your parents have been through.
That’s formative, emotional –
It is formative. Trauma can do a lot of things to folks, and obviously they’ve taken care of me but I’ve also taken care of them, in just kind of listening to it and trying to learn from it and we’re all sensitive to the people we love and live with, right? So being sensitive to my parents’ trauma, I think has given me an openness to hear the trauma of others. So, either homeless, or people who’ve lost a job. I hope I develop some good listening skills and a compassionate disposition to other peoples’ struggles. And that’s what, frankly, you need in this role. I don’t know, I want to be good at that.
You’ve been doing this for almost 30 years. What’s the advice for people who are thinking of getting into municipal politics? What’s the one thing that you think is most important about doing what you have been doing for so long, that you’re an expert in?
That’s a very good question. I am leery of people who come out of university and immediately want to jump into politics. Because I think sometimes they’re inspired by the game of it, right? Winning and losing and the late-night debates and the counting votes and all the jostling that happens around here. I don’t think that that’s really the kind of formation that I would [recommend] to someone who’s a budding community leader. Do we need leadership in our community? Absolutely we need leadership in our
community. And what I would say the best thing for you to do is, go and work with a vulnerable community.
You can tell the people who’ve worked overseas, say, in a development project in Africa or Latin America or wherever, you kind of develop a sensitivity. You kind of develop a sense – holy smokes, do you come with a lot of privilege to this planet. In that process, it has been my experience – because I actually used to teach a course that took students to Latin America and it would just blow their minds when they would be in the south with Indigenous communities in South Mexico, or in El Salvador, or in Peru. A lot of times I went to Peru and dealing with Quechua people where you’d have to do double translation – and you realize, holy smokes, there’s a lot of wisdom in those folks. And if you have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, you can learn a lot.
So we didn’t go there to teach, we went there to learn from them. And I think politicians who have had that, it doesn’t have to be overseas, it could be an Aboriginal community in Toronto, could be an Aboriginal community up north, it could be dealing with, say, victims of violence against women, it could be dealing in an Out of the Cold program, as long as you have an experience of having witnessed life from the margins. There’s a perspective that you gain if you’re at the center of power, which is politics. I’m at the center of power here at the City of Toronto. That’s a pretty privileged position. But it’s what I bring to it. And my hope is that, when I’m listening to the better angels of my nature [laughs], that I’m bringing those perspectives of voices that haven’t been heard, that are on the side.
Going back to the idea of winning and losing in politics, do you think the mayor is invested in the poverty reduction strategy?
I think in his heart he is. I do believe that.
Are you on side with the mayor? Do you support the mayor?
I support good policies and I oppose bad policies. I don’t make it about the person. I believe all people are essentially good. I don’t think that dividing up the world by “am I with you or against you?” It’s not about you, it’s about – I’m with you on poverty reduction, I’m not with you on the takedown of the Gardiner expressway. I am with you on supervised injection sites, I’m not with you on the Scarborough subway. I don’t want to park my brain when I indicate support for anyone. And that includes people on the political left as well. I want to be thoughtful about things that I support. I don’t like to say someone is anti-poor – like, no one’s anti-poor. It’s, we do things because we do not apply the right thought or consciousness to decisions. We made a bad decision last week [referring to the appointment process at council for the new councillor of Ward 28] that pushed us one step back, and hopefully with other decisions we will go two steps forward.
I keep on thinking about this idea of lived experience of poverty and how it relates to politics, and thinking about your lived experience in coming to the role of poverty reduction advocate. Is there a particular part of your own lived experience that you think is the most important in doing this work?
It would probably be my experience in Latin America. I used to work for this organization that took students there. I can remember very clearly, 1979. You know, everyone has their “aha” moment, and it was my “aha” moment. I was there for a summer. I got sick twice – really sick – and I came back and I said, “No, this is my life now.”
What was the name of the organization?
It was a link to the Catholic community.
Is some of that part of your lived experience as well?
Oh, I come from a very, very conservative Catholic background. That was part of the ethnic experience for me as the son of Slovenian parents, and their church community held them together. I am absolutely sure if I was born even 10 years earlier I would have been a priest. I’m absolutely certain of it. But you know, I was a child of the ’60s, and then through the Catholic Church, I had some great teachers and professors who really opened me up to a more, call it, progressive Catholicism – and there is such a thing – and I was part of that. Social justice and faith are not contradictions, they aid one another. So it’s the religious perspective that informed a Martin Luther King, that informed a Ghandi, that informed a Desmond Tutu in South Africa and Mandela and so on, and I was part of all those struggles, the human rights struggles in Latin America, and we were demonstrating in front of the embassy and getting arrested from the Peace Movement. So I went from a conservative, more, call it, liturgically focused Catholic to, frankly, a pretty radical Catholic around 1979 to 1981, 1982. I haven’t turned back. I’ve become more not as in your face, but more dialogical in recognizing how social change happens, and sometimes you have to be patient with it, sometimes you have to be impatient with it. Hopefully I’ve become a little smarter at it. But ever since those trips to Latin America, ever since, visiting folks in prison, thinking the only difference between you and me is luck – that’s the only difference. I could have been in that position. Once you recognize that, then you realize that there’s a human drama happening here, and we are either individually going to be in solidarity with that side, or we’re going to say, you know what? I’m going my own way and I am going to live it up. And I made a decision: I’m going that way.
What’s the most important thing in the poverty reduction strategy?
The most important thing is systemic change. It’s not about me being kind to somebody who’s unemployed or finding a job for one person. It’s about a system that, if you’re black and young and male, you know what? You’re going to have a tougher time finding the opportunities for yourself. If you’re a teenage mom and you got a kid you’re going to not have the best chances in life. So it’s about changing systems. That’s one of the things that I learned in Latin America. It’s about systemic change. It’s not just attitudinal, it’s about finding those transformative things that really make a big difference to a lot of people.
For example – you know what we did with smoking in restaurants? We went from something like 25 percent smoking, now we’re down to something like 12 percent smoking in the last 10, 15 years. We had to fight really hard for that. But when you think about that, 12 percent of Torontonians smoke less now than they did 15 years ago. Maybe you would have smoked, maybe someone else would have smoked, but you don’t now. It’s not part of the culture anymore. It’s seen as a kind of bizarre –
So is this about changing the culture?
We changed the culture. This is about changing the culture.
we can’t be creating islands of happiness in oceans of despair
What part of the culture needs to be changed now?
Say, from one that’s solely focused on building bigger and better and more expensive, to one that is inclusive – to include in those values that we’re a booming Toronto. And of course, I support the boom because it has given people a lot of resources to live a pretty good life in Toronto. I’m not speaking against that, but within that, make sure that everyone has a shot at it and that no one is left behind. I think that’s the transformative change that has to happen. And some folks, I think, unless they are formed right either by virtue of their education or faith background, or participation in the union or because they themselves are refugees or whatever, some folks really don’t want to make room for them. Really don’t want to make room. “I’m okay, Jack, thanks very much.” So you know, I would say, we can’t be creating islands of happiness in oceans of despair.
Is it about the individual? What about the research on income disparity, not just in Toronto, but everywhere. Where are we going, is it getting better or worse?
Today, I would say, and this is not a slap at council, I think we are getting worse, actually. I think the trend lines are not good trend lines–
In terms of poverty…
In terms of poverty.
The city is getting worse.
All the indicators that I’ve read show that in many key areas, hunger is up: increased use of food banks, obesity is up, diabetes is up, housing waiting lists are longer, more and more people are having to get two, three jobs to make ends meet, latch-key kids, so I think there are some disturbing trends in our society.
Is there something that people can do?
What I like to say is grow where you are planted. If you’re in the fire department and you say, “You know what? It’s time we stopped hiring white guys, and start hiring people who don’t look like us to diversify a little bit, so that that kid in Jane-Finch thinks that he can be a firefighter and he can go home with the vest, or with the jacket and the hat in his community.” All those acts are going to change the world.
How does that particular example affect poverty?
There are hardly any black young males in the fire department.
And those are good jobs.
Those are damn good jobs.
So it’s really as simple as making sure that–
That those jobs are shared and that for vulnerable communities, for whom those kinds of jobs don’t come too often, have the benefit of seeing one of their own make it. And then someone else is going to think, “Hey wait a second – city hall is not some alienating institution that’s way downtown that has nothing to do with me. I can be part of that.” And then they might become a police officer, a firefighter, an EMS person, and so on. It gives them hope.