Paul Taylor is a long-time anti-poverty and social justice activist in Toronto and the federal New Democratic Party candidate in Parkdale-High Park. Paul recently talked to Spring Magazine‘s Loretta Fisher about his activism, what shaped his politics, and his decision to run in the federal election. Listen to the full interview here. A shorter, edited version of the interview appears below.
You are an activist and self-described “community builder.” Why did you make this decision to run for politics? What do you hope to achieve as an MP?
Paul Taylor: In retrospect, I’m pretty certain that I made the decision to do everything in my power to make life better for people at a young age. I was 13 years old when I recognized that political choices had significant impacts on families. That’s when Mike Harris was elected Premier of Ontario. And one of the first things that he did was cut welfare by 22%–that was the first time I saw my mother cry.
A single Black, immigrant woman, who did everything she could to make a better life for my brother and me, but struggled. Our family struggled because that government was at war with the poor–and we were materially poor. Shortly after the cuts to welfare, we had much less food, had the electricity cut off and then the heat cut off, which also meant we didn’t have hot water.
There are people in this country who are suffering even more than my family did as a child. There are people without food, a home, or who have been denied access to clean drinking water or the medicines that they need.
What I learned from Mike Harris’ cuts is that, that was a choice that he made and it didn’t have to be that way.
I’ve spent my entire life doing what I can to make life better for folks, especially those most neglected by our systems, institutions and governments.
The other day, a high school friend reminded me that, before exams, I used to host classes after school where we reviewed course material and prepped for the exams. My classes were packed: Black boys from the basketball team, friends whose families moved here as they fled war. I didn’t want them to get left behind. I don’t want anyone to get left behind. I know what that feels like and it’s a cruel injustice that no one should have to bear.
That’s why I decided to run for office. We need to make sure that the folks who have been left behind, left out and harmed the most are front and centre in the work of rebuilding a society that works for us all.
Loretta: How do you see the relationship between being a long-time community activist and running for the NDP in Parkdale-High Park? What do you see as the division of labour between being a community activist and now throwing your hat into politics?
Paul: That’s funny, that’s the same kind of question many asked me when I first started at FoodShare. How can I reconcile my activism with working at an institution, and a charity at that? The way I see it is this: there shouldn’t be a division at all. We’ve allowed these divisions to occur and take root, in the same way that we can dismantle these divisions, divisions that ultimately halt our progress.
We need to continue to build a movement for justice that includes oppressed communities, and it also needs to include social movements, community organizations, non-profits, labour, and even faith communities.
We need to start recognizing how much we have in common, instead of emphasizing what we don’t agree on. We’ve let the richest people in our society and major corporations get away with murder. The slow murder that is poverty wages. The slow murder that is extractive capitalism. It’s destroying our planet. The slow murder of our collective belief that something better is possible. They’re working hard to convince us that transformational social change isn’t possible, but they’re wrong!
We will win together, when we work together and leverage our greatest asset: people power. A broad movement of people committed to working for justice in all of its forms: be it racial justice, climate justice, gender justice, disability justice, migrant justice, economic justice–the justice that we’ve been denied for far too long.
Loretta: I know we have barely touched upon your vast experience working to bring to light a wide range of social issues. Do you think the NDP can become more open to the goals of socialist movements, and our demand for human rights?
I think it’s our party and we need to continue to be involved to ensure that it does. I heard important criticisms of the last NDP convention and we need to listen to those criticisms, because they’re important, it’s coming from our members and ultimately it’ll make us better. As a progressive party, as a movement, we must always prioritize accessibility and centre disability justice in our organizing, otherwise we’re reinforcing ableism. That’s something that I took away loud and clear and that I’ll continue to advocate for.
I’m proud to be a member of a party filled with bold, unapologetic socialists willing to engage in rigorous debate about how we advance justice–everything from taking a bold position in support of Palestine, to questioning the validity of billionaires, to being in solidarity with Indigenous Land Back movements, and having big conversations around the potential for public ownership.
As a progressive and socialist movement, we need to continue to be bold and to fight back against the lack of imagination about what’s possible for Canada.
I benefited from a lot of lessons from my mother, she used to say that “change doesn’t happen overnight”–and she’s right. We’ll get there, we just can’t lose sight of what we believe and know is possible–a country that we can be proud of. One that has justice as our north star and that stands up for human rights, both domestically and internationally.
Loretta: With all the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you think have been the most pressing issues exposed by the system? What are you doing now in preparation to address these key issues and make them priorities?
We often don’t hear politicians speaking about the disabled community and that’s because Disabled Canadians are consistently left behind. I’ve heard disabled folks in my community say that they feel neglected and unsupported by this government, and it’s not just the pandemic. The issues faced by Disabled Canadians are systemic and have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
On Thursday evening, I had a Zoom call with a disability justice activist in my community, who spoke to the frustrations of having to try to survive on ODSP, as they witnessed CERB get rolled out to unemployed friends of theirs at rates high above what they’ve ever been eligible to receive.
The pandemic has made racism more visible to those that have tried to ignore it for a long time. We’ve demonstrated that tackling anti-Black racism isn’t about a one day workshop or a black square on Instagram, it’s about looking at our organizations to identify how anti-Black racism and white supremacy show up. It’s work that we’ve been committed to at FoodShare and it’s what inspired the development of our organizational Combating Anti-Black Racism Action Plan. It includes deadlines and accountability measures.
The pandemic has also revealed that our essential workers are essential in name only. Our governments have refused to legislate employers to provide the support that our essential workers deserve.
In Ontario, and most other provinces, essential workers are putting their lives at risk without adequate paid sick days. They are also more likely to be paid poverty wages, especially if they’re racialized. We’ve also seen the few employers that offered temporary pandemic pay bumps roll them back as soon as they possibly could. It seems more like a PR stunt, than actual support and honouring of workers. And again, no legislation introduced to protect these workers.
FoodShare, where I’m the Executive Director, has had a very different approach to supporting our essential workers. Firstly, I have deep respect and appreciation for our colleagues that have been taking significant risk since the onset of the pandemic to deliver Good Food Boxes to families that order them, right across the city. They’ve also been delivering our Emergency Good Food Box, which has allowed FoodShare to provide over 2,000,000 lbs of free produce to folks struggling the most to access food as a result of the pandemic and of course the rigged systems that existed pre-pandemic.
From the onset of the pandemic, as an employer, we reminded our essential workers of their right to refuse unsafe work and also bumped up their wages by $4/hour. We’ve since transitioned that increase into a permanent liveable wage. We’re now an official member of the Ontario Living Wage Network. FoodShare’s minimum wage is now $22.08/hour and we’re committed to indexing it, so that it remains liveable.
At the onset of the pandemic the need for additional paid sick days was clear. Almost as clear as the fact that the jurisdictional government finger pointing wasn’t going to achieve much, especially with a stubborn premier and a prime minister more focused on slogans than policy, so we immediately introduced an additional 10 days of paid sick days in 2020 and then added another 10 in 2021. We also knew that some of our colleagues were struggling with access to care. So, we also provided folks with access to 24 additional days off if they were struggling to provide care during the pandemic.
The last thing that I’ll say about our approach is that, challenging income inequality isn’t just something that we talk about, it’s something that we actively do within the organization as well. We have a policy that connects the rate of pay for the lowest paid worker to that of the highest paid worker, it’s a 1:3 ratio. It means that the highest paid worker can earn no more than three times what the lowest paid worker earns.
I’ve spent my entire life using my power and the resources available to me to do what I can to make life better for folks, especially for those that have been made to struggle the most as a result of government neglect. And that’s exactly the type of Member of Parliament that I’ll be.
In light of the recent struggles of our BIPOC politicians, from Celina Caesar-Chavannes resigning from the Liberals, to Jagmeet Singh being expelled from the House of Commons for calling out racism, to Annamie Paul leading the Green Party right now: is it possible to prepare yourself to fight the inevitable racism that will come up against you? Can you find real allies to back you up with the truth that it’s not calling someone a racist that should be punished, but it’s the practice of racism in politics and everywhere that should be kicked out?
Paul: Absolutely, over the last little while, I’ve had the opportunity and the pleasure to get to know racialized progressive MPs, like Leah Gazan, Matthew Green, and of course the leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh. They’ve consistently stood up for racial justice and challenged the very existence of race based inequities. We’ll only see change at the policy level, if more MPs are in the House fighting for racial justice every day. I’m grateful to them for the work that they’re doing and the leadership that they’re displaying on an issue that should be a priority for every political party and Member of Parliament.
I remember catching glimpses of leader’s debates on the news as a child. Always white folks debating away. I was almost certain that politics was something that was only for white people. We need to continue to dismantle that myth by further diversifying parliament and electing more leaders willing to stand up for justice, which includes pushing back on the way that governments have been centred around white supremacy and most recently middle of the roadism and protection of the status quo.
As activists, we are drawn to many of the same causes, whether as members of Spring or as the NDP. Many activists, both inside and outside the NDP, want the party to campaign on a platform of bold proposals during the federal election. How do you respond to these calls? What role could you play to help the NDP advance a bold and ambitious vision for social justice?
Paul: What grounds me, is knowing who I am and what I’ve always fought for, in any space that I’m in: bold progressive change rooted in social justice.
That’s who I am as a person, that’s who I am as the Executive Director of FoodShare, and that’s the kind of MP that I’ll be.
Bold progressive change isn’t going to be won just because it’s promised in an election platform. It’s going to happen when we continue to focus our energies on building a broad based movement for progressive change. We’re only going to be able to do that if we engage and prioritize the folks that have been made most vulnerable by our current systems: disabled Canadians, gig workers, women, the queer community, migrants, Indigenous peoples.
This is work that happens outside of elections; it’s movement work. It’s the ongoing listening, the exchange of ideas and experiences, the building and a commitment to solidarity. It’s the showing up in tangible ways for those same communities that bear the brunt of inequity. That’s the work that I’ve long been committed to and I won’t work any differently once I’m elected!
Last question, Paul: When political parties develop their platforms, they usually rely on polling and focus groups to choose their top election promises. But that approach has its limits. It doesn’t challenge the status quo where it needs to be challenged; it merely follows it. How could the federal election be an opportunity to improve public opinion on issues that matter to activists? For example, how could the campaign help the public get a better understanding of the reality of anti-Black racism, for example?
Paul: It’s all of those things that I just described. Election promises are just a small number of commitments, especially when you consider the wide range of issues and policies that a political party takes positions on in between elections. Elections are important, but they’ve been constructed as the be all, end all in some ways.
It’s the time in between election cycles that we make more proposals, but it’s where we have more of an opportunity to explain why some of the positions that we’ve taken are critical to tackling things like anti-Black racism or any of the other horrible things that we seek to defeat.
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