Presenting – Michael Prue, A Working Class Success Story – From Regent Park to Queens Park

One person who has been extremely supportive of my “Celebrate Toronto” project is Provincial Member of Parliament, Michael Prue. He and his staff have connected me with various individuals in the Beach who are good candidates for my first Toronto neighbourhood portrait. Way back in November I was invited to come out to lunch with him and his team and Michael and I even recorded a joint Rogers television show together. He came across as a very open and friendly individual with a bright smile and a boyish charm, and I thought Michael himself might be a good candidate for an interview so people in his riding, “Beaches – East York”, could get to know him from a more personal point of view. So we arranged to meet at the Boardwalk CafĂ© on Toronto’s waterfront, in the Woodbine Beach area. For a few hours I had a chance to pick his brain and ask away while Michael freely opened up to me.

Michael is one of those rare Torontonians whose family tree is anchored for several generations in the Toronto area. Toronto is one of the few cities where the majority of people were born somewhere else (myself included) and immigrated here. Not so with Michael. Both his parents were born in Toronto, six out of eight of his great grandparents were from Toronto. He traces his roots back to Irish / English / Scottish immigrants generations ago and some of his relatives have a bible with Laura Secord’s name in it. (Laura Secord warned the British Army of the advancing Americans during the War of 1812.). Another side of his family is related to the Thompson family in Scarbourough – David and Mary Thompson were some of the pioneers who opened up land to the east of today’s metropolis. A grandfather on his mother’s side was actually from Montreal of Irish and French background. His paternal great grandfather’s name was Proulx and that name was later anglicized to Prue.

Michael was born at Women’s College Hospital and grew up in a tenement building on Oak Street. That’s where Michael spent the first four years of his life before the tenements were torn down and Regent Park, Toronto’s most (in)famous public housing project was built. Families who were living in the area before the housing project was built had first dibs on some of the apartments that were going up in the new housing complex.

Michael Prue’s father was born in 1921 and had a very difficult time finding work during the Depression. He quit school in 1936 to work in various odd jobs. In 1939, when World War II started, he was one of the first to volunteer for the Canadian Army and was sent to the battlefields of Europe. His father often talked about his experiences in Europe and the places he had seen: North Africa, Italy (he fought at Montecassino), Germany, Holland, Denmark, and England/Scotland/Wales. Michael recalls his father talking often about the places, but very rarely about the war itself. He still remembers one of the highlights: a story of his father finding a secret stash of wine in Italy.

After the war Michael’s father worked on Queen Street at a factory that produced rubber components. His job as a regular factory worker was later followed up by a position as a janitor which he held until retirement. Michael’s mother stayed home with her children until Michael was about 12 years old and then started to work as a part-time bookkeeper.

Growing up in a working-class family in Regent Park shaped Michael’s outlook on life a great deal. His family was doing better than average in this neighbourhood considering that many families in Regent Park were single-parent low-income households. Once he entered high school, things started to change. Michael attended Jarvis Collegiate which at the time was attended largely by children from Toronto’s affluent Rosedale neighbourhood.

Michael was one of the few people who attended an academic high school, most of the boys he grew up with ended up at Central Tech while the girls attended Central Commerce, preparing them for work in the trades or in lower-level administrative jobs. Only 8 or 10 of Michael’s colleagues went to Jarvis Collegiate, but Michael said the class differences during his high school years were almost insurmountable. Despite the fact that he was on student council, he never got invited to dances or special events, and that experience of being excluded on the basis of his social class made him feel “a little bitter towards rich people”. He admits that he still works on overcoming this feeling to this day.

This is also what attracted him to the ideology of the NDP, a party whose constitution states “we will invite the co-operation of all persons who are dedicated to the extension of freedom, the abolition of poverty and the elimination of exploitation”. Of his schoolmates Michael was the only one to go on to postsecondary education, and many people ask him today why he is so determined to fight for underprivileged individuals if he himself has done well. To that he responds that he has seen how so many people have gotten shafted based on their economic (or ethnic or racial) background, and that’s why he continues to fight on their behalf to this day.

His university career includes an Honours Bachelors degree in Political Science and Anthropology from the University of Toronto and a Masters degree in Canadian Studies and Political Science/Anthropology from Carlton University in Ottawa. When I asked Michael what “Canadian Studies” is he explained that it encompasses Canadian literature, geography and history. Although he was accepted by various other universities for his masters program he liked Carlton because he wanted a broader education than just political science. At this Ottawa university Michael also had the opportunity to improve his French language skills.

After completing university he got two job offers on the same day: he was offered a one-year contract position as chief lobbyist with the Independent Publishers Association where he would have been supervising a staff of 5 people. Not bad for a 25-year old straight out of university.

His second job opportunity was as an immigration officer, and after consulting with his future wife he ended up accepting the job with Immigration Canada, particularly since it was a long-term opportunity with the Federal Government. Over his 20 year career with the Immigration Department Michael accumulated numerous interesting stories and anecdotes. He initially worked as an immigration officer at the airport and in 1973 – 1974 there was a lot of illegal immigration from various third world countries. People would arrive pretending to come here as tourists and then disappear and work illegally, jumping ahead of the queue of immigrants who had followed the proper procedures.

Often the job of an immigration officer is quite sad, because by definition it involves splitting families apart. Immigration officers have to assess cases in the family reunification category, and Michael recalls one story where a woman tried to bring in her elderly father who had cancer. Michael declined the application due to the certain costs for the Canadian health care system, knowing that this woman would never see her father again. He compares it to being a doctor, having to make tough decisions that affect people’s lives, but needing to remain emotionally detached.

His university studies in anthropology came in handy several times when he was dealing with refugee claimants from various third world countries. Michael asked some probing questions as to the kinship system in the refugee claimant’s family. Which side of the family, the mother’s side or the father’s side, would be responsible for looking after off-spring if the parents died? His extensive knowledge of matrilineal, patrilineal and other kinship systems of different societies around the world made one lawyer withdraw a refugee claim on behalf of his client. Michael simply knew too much about local family structures and lineages for his client to get away with bogus claims.

Michael also explained that deportations happen to Canadian immigrants from other countries when they commit serious crimes in their new home country. He indicated that anecdotally, along with his colleagues they thought that about half of them were from Jamaica. They were not allowed to keep stastistics. According to Michael, there is actually a sociological reason behind some of the crime problems in the Jamaican-Canadian community: during the 1960s Canada imported a large number of female immigrants from Jamaica to work as domestic servants and nannies. These women had to be single, have a grade 9 education, speak English and have “no issue”, i.e. they were not allowed to have children to qualify for this program.

Many hundreds of Jamaican woman arrived in the 1960s, seeking a better life in Canada. In the 1970s, after they had become Canadian citizens, they started to send for their children, since so many of these women indeed had one or even more children who had actually been raised by aunts, cousins or other family members. As a result of the missing parental attachment, many of these children had grown up without much discipline and little education. In Caribbean families it is often the mother that holds the family together, and once she is gone the family falls apart.

So when these young Jamaican people arrived in Canada to be reunited with their mothers they saw all this wealth around them, they realized their lack of opportunities as new immigrants with few immediate job prospects, and they became resentful. In the end it was Canada’s immigration policy that caused this problem which continues to cast its shadows today.

I asked Michael why he made a move into politics. He explained that politics had always been in his blood and recalls an incident that happened when he was about six years of age. He had gone on an outing with his parents to Riverdale Park, which at that time was the location of the Toronto Zoo. All of a sudden Michael had disappeared and his parents were frantically searching for him in the crowd of people. His father finally found him, admiring a man on a soap box who was sharing his philosophies in front of many onlookers.

Not only does Michael enjoy public speaking, but he also wants to make a sincere difference, particularly for the less fortunate people in society. During his last few years with the Immigration Department he ran six times for politics and won twice and became a Councillor in the former Borough of East York, which since our municipal amalgamation on January 1, 1998 is part of the City of Toronto.

All East York Councillors were part-timers who would attend committee meetings on various evenings and afternoons, and Michael would simply take unpaid time off work to mind his civic duties as a Councillor. From 1993 to late 1997 Michael was the Mayor of the Borough of East York, a time of a major economic slowdown. Michael is indeed the first person that I heard refer to this era as a “depression”. And by any economic definitions this time was indeed a depression since it was a period of more than six quarters of negative growth in a row.

This was a time when no new major commercial or industrial projects were undertaken at all in Toronto. As a matter of fact, Michael indicates that the new Dorothea Knitting Mills factory in East York was the only new commercial / industrial project in all of Toronto, and his borough was able to attract this new investment due to their favourable licensing program that would give new entrepreneurs all necessary permits within a 90-day period, unheard of in any other part of the city.

Michael loved being Mayor since he could really effect change and make a difference in people’s lives. Being a provincial Member of Parliament in opposition is a different story. Since Michael is a member of the New Democratic Party’s caucus he is not part of the ruling Liberal government. As a result his role is limited to being a critic, something that he finds frustrating. He has, however, been able to make some changes.

One example was the case of a woman on welfare who found a $25,000 bundle of money on the streets. She correctly assumed that these funds were the property of the local bank, and it was indeed confirmed that this large bundle of money had been dropped by armoured car employees. The bank gave her a $3000 reward for her honesty, however, because she was on welfare the provincial authorities clawed back the $3000 from her welfare payments, in effect punishing her for her honesty. This honest citizen would have seen none of her reward if Michael Prue had not intervened. He brought this case to the attention of the Minister of Community and Social Services and after persuasively arguing his case, the woman was allowed to keep her reward without having the same amount clawed back from her welfare payments.

Michael also went to bat for a man who is suffering from late-stage diabetes. His disease is so serious that he is losing his vision and will have one of his legs amputated in the next few days. This man is receiving a regular disability support payment because he is unable to work. The provincial government has cut his nutrition subsidy in half, a supplementary payment that allowed him to pay for a special diet which involved expensive items such as macrobiotic yoghurts and protein shakes since he has a hard time digesting proteins due to his condition.

Michael explained that the government was saving $10 a month in nutrition supplements while incurring extra hospital costs of $600 a day for the leg amputation which happened it is believed primarily due to the lower grade diet the man was forced to eat because of the cut in his nutrition supplement. Sometimes governments’ decisions do not make sense from an economic point of view and they can cause serious hardships to the individuals in question. Wherever he can, Michael tries to point out these contradictions and tries to help the people affected.

I questioned Michael about his Beaches-East York riding – the electoral district that he represents. He explained that some areas of his riding have a fair number of low income residents, new immigrants and other people with social issues. A relatively recent wave of Bangladeshi immigrants along Danforth Avenue has caused a readjustment in the neighbourhood as they have started to open stores and hold cultural events along this popular Toronto thoroughfare. Michael has experienced the Bangladeshi immigrants as a very adaptable and resourceful group of people who have adjusted quite successfully to their new environment. Michael has found them to be hard working and very interested in the local community. Individuals from this community have gotten involved in political campaigns of different candidates from all parties and they participate in the democratic process.

We also talked about the Thorncliffe Park area, for which Michael was responsible when he was Mayor of East York. This area has Canada’s largest concentration of Muslim immigrants and many of these residents are Ismaili Muslims, a Shia sect that celebrates the Aga Khan as its spiritual leader. Michael characterizes this group of Muslims as real immigrant success stories since they often arrive from other countries without much money and a lack of English skills. He admits that when he saw some of them arrive in winter in short sleeved shirts and light cotton pants, just having landed from various places in East Africa, he thought that they would never make it.

Within a few years the Ismaili Muslim immigrants had achieved substantial economic success and virtually all their children were attending university or college. Michael explained that their unique traditions are key to their success: these immigrants pool their money and dedicate themselves to helping one another achieve a better life. But their generosity and community assistance is not limited to members of their own group: they become involved in charitable activities that help people of other communities and backgrounds. Their stated goal is to become good citizens of the country they belong to and they see it as a duty to make their home country a better place for everyone. Michael admits that he truly underestimated the ability of this group of immigrants and expressed his praise and admiration to them during a recent public event.

Another part of his riding is the Beach, also referred to as the Beaches. I tried to clear up the confusion as to why some people might call this area “the Beach” while others might refer to it as the “Beaches”. Michael explained that historically the area consisted of several beaches, including Woodbine Beach, Kew Beach, Balmy Beach and Scarborough Beach, but the commercial strip along Queen Street East from Woodbine to Victoria Park has always been referred to as “the Beach”. The wider area outside the Queen Street strip is still mostly referred to by many as “the Beaches”.

When Michael’s mother was growing up in Toronto’s East End near Victoria Park and Danforth, the area was still very WASP (white / Anglo-Saxon / Protestant), and especially leading up to and during the second World War there was a lot of racism, not just in the Beach, but in other parts of Toronto and Canada as well. This era was not a proud moment in Canadian history. Michael refers to an excellent book called “Sabbath Goy” written by a Torontonian about his youth growing up in the Christie Pitts area and being hired by Jewish families to complete light work on the Sabbath.

The Beach neighbourhood generally presents very few concerns to their provincial member of parliament. One thing residents are passionate about is education, and when the provincial government cut funding to schools, Michael received numerous letters from constituents in the Beach, indicating their worries about this policy. At the time when the provincial government passed a law outlawing pit bull ownership due to many violent dog attacks, various residents of the Beach also spoke out, both on the pro and con side. Overall, he says the residents from the Beach are very easy to deal with. He says he’s been having “a hoot” working in politics and really enjoys interacting with the public.

Very recently there has been some controversy in the Beach: St. Aidan’s Anglican Church has proposed to participate in a city-wide drop-in program for the homeless called “Come in from the Cold”. Once a week homeless people would drop in and have a place to stay at St. Aidan’s for the night while other locations throughout the city would house the homeless on other days of the week. Michael has received letters and faxes from people who were opposed to the project. The project would have a total of 12 homeless people spending one night a week at St. Aidan’s Church. The referring agencies in downtown Toronto would have to call ahead and make a reservation before the homeless people actually receive a streetcar token to get to St. Aidan’s.

Some of the local residents expressed concerns that the homeless people might bring in diseases, or a criminal element into the neighbourhood. They did not want their children exposed to communicable diseases like tuberculosis. Various rather nasty articles were written in different Toronto media about the lack of community spirit in the Beach. Finally a meeting was held on January 16 which was attended by hundreds of people. Details of the program were explained to the residents and most of the fears were allayed. In Michael’s view, 95% of the concerns were unfounded. Many of the residents stood up at the meeting and said that they agree with this project and feel ashamed about this fearful reaction. More than 100 people volunteered to help out with the homeless program. Money was being collected and one woman donated $1000, saying that she is a devout atheist, but she supports the program and wants to put her money where her mouth is.

Michael adds that the police don’t see a problem with the program. Homeless people generally do not present a large crime issue, although they may get verbally abusive if they are asked to move. Michael laughs and says that many police officers have been told to get lost (Michael actually used more colourful terminology) by a diverse group of residents, not just the homeless. He commented “it’s amazing what 10 or 12 people can do with a fax machine” and says it’s ironic because the Beach is really a rather left-wing area that consistently votes for the NDP. So the big controversy over the “Come in from the Cold” program was rather surprising, and fortunately the residents’ fears have been addressed at the recent meeting.

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