Toronto

How Ghanaian-Canadians' push for a Toronto community centre fell victim to COVID-19

After five years of pursuing a site at 150 Rivalda Rd. in North Toronto for a community centre, the Ghanaian Canadian Association of Ontario has learned the building is off the table. The city says it's needed to help in battle against the novel coronavirus.

After a 5-year pursuit of the site at 160 Rivalda Rd., association learns it’s off the table

Since 2015, Albert Aikins-Mensah, left, and Maud Cole Tutu have been working with the city to try to acquire the building behind them as a community centre for the Ghanaian-Canadian community in the GTA. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

Just south of where Finch Avenue West meets Weston Road sits a large beige building at the end of an industrial road.

Its windows are dusty, the brick veneer is discoloured, and you can easily tell it's more than 60 years old. Despite its imperfections, it is the perfect home for a new community hub, according to the Ghanaian Canadian Association of Ontario.

"It would be more or less like a resource centre, serving a bigger purpose … for the bigger community," said Albert Aikins-Mensah, a member of the association.

But the group learned last week the site at 160 Rivalda Rd. in North York was snapped up by the city in mid-April, and was to be converted into a cleaning centre for personal protective equipment to help fight COVID-19.

The association, which represents the thousands of people who've come from the west African country of Ghana to live in Ontario, expressed interest in the site as far back as 2015 and claims since then it's followed all the city's directions to try to acquire the space. 

"For the last five years they've been leading us on — [saying] that if we're able to meet these requirements that we would be able to get this place," said Maud Cole Tutu, an association member who has been working with the city throughout the process.

Members of the GTA's Ghanaian-Canadian community gather at the site that they hoped would be the home of their community centre. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

The city and the local councillor's office said they're both willing to work with the group to help find another space but it's unclear what the new options might be.

'We were waiting, towing the line'

Emails shared with CBC Toronto show that in 2015, the Ghanaian Canadian Association of Ontario contacted then-councillor Giorgio Mammoliti to express interest in the city-owned building, once home to the Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Education.

Association officials eventually toured the facility and continued a correspondence with city officials.

"We realized that our population is based here. So this place is going to be very appropriate for us," said Tutu.

The group was informed that the city had to first determine if there was municipal interest in the property, and that there may be competition.

A view of 160 Rivalda Rd., the city-owned property that was once the Marcus Garvey Centre for Leadership and Education. (CBC)

"So we were waiting, towing the line, and doing all the stuff that they told us to do."

The correspondence continued and in 2018, when Anthony Perruzza took over as councillor for the newly drawn ward of Ward 7, Humber River-Black Creek, the association once again expressed interest in moving forward.

"We came in, we inspected [the building]  again. They came in with a real estate coordinator who told us what to do with zoning. We did all that," said Tutu, who added the group submitted its business plan to Peruzza's office a few weeks ago.

Last week, the association received a letter from Perruzza's office telling them that the city's Corporate Real Estate Management Division determined that the site was to be used by Toronto Emergency Services in the fight against COVID-19.

"We are all disappointed that this is going to be taken out of our hands, when we have done so much," said Tutu.

Perruzza said he too was unaware of the city's plans for the property, and that his office was aware of the association's wish to move forward with acquiring the site.

Coun. Anthony Perruzza says he's been working with the Ghanaian Canadian Association of Ontario, and was surprised by the city's move to use the facility at 160 Rivalda Rd. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

"I'm somewhat surprised that now the facility is occupied by emergency services," said Perruzza, but he added that municipal services take precedence in cases like this.

"If at some point, a municipal department requires [a building] for some activity, it would be difficult to deny them that."

Community needs

Association president Emmanuel Duodu estimates the size of the Ghanaian community in the GTA is approximately 50,000.

"In our population in Toronto, about 60 per cent is made up of youth. And that comes with opportunities and also challenges," said Duodu.

Emmanuel Duodu, the president of the Ghanaian-Canadian Association of Ontario, has been fighting for a community centre for five years. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

He said right now, activities like homework programs, language classes and other events are either conducted in small areas of a local church, in rented spaces or even in peoples' own homes.

With anti-Black racism and identity at the forefront of mainstream discussion right now, those who run the youth programs in the Ghanaian community say it's important now more than ever to have a centre for young people to come to.

"We focus mostly on culture; identity is very important in everybody's life. A lot of youth are falling on the wrong side because they feel they don't fit in," said Mavis Tekpek who runs the association's homework club.

"We hope to be able to have a community centre where everything will be happening," said Mary Akuamoah-Boateng, who runs a program for young Ghanaian-Canadians who are older than 18. 

Mavis Tekpeki, left, and Mary Akuamoah-Boateng, who both run programs for youth in the Ghanaian community in Toronto, say a community centre will help give youth a sense of belonging. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

 "People will come and learn about their culture, learn about themselves, be able to connect and relate with others, do networking, building up confidence, because that's something our community youth really don't have much of."

The group also hopes the centre can be a hub for seniors to learn English and socialize, some of whom are widowed and isolated. 

Other options

No one from the city's Corporate Real Estate Management Division was available for an interview.

But in a written statement, the division acknowledged it met with the association and gave them information about how organizations can lease city space at below-market rent. And it confirmed that it started using the site in mid-April as part of its efforts to fight COVID-19.

"The property is unique in its ability to support the City's COVID-19 response requirements at this time," the City of Toronto said in a statement. 

Peruzza said his office and the city's real estate division are both committed to helping Ghanaian-Canadians find a new home. Association members say they would be open to an alternate location, but wonder how long that'll take, considering it's spent five years pursuing this site. 

"The time is now, with everything that is going on," said Tekpek.

"[A community centre] is where people feel comfortable, in your own skin and in your own space."

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