Hot Docs film Unarmed Verses puts uprooted TCH community in spotlight

The Hot Docs film Unarmed Verses, opening Monday evening, features residents of Toronto Community Housing's Villaways neighbourhood before a project to revitalize the area forced them to move.

The documentary opening Monday sheds light on Toronto TCH's Villaways neighbourhood

Carleen Robinson, left, Keisha Primus, centre, and La-Vane Kelly return to Villaways neighbourhood for the first time in almost a year. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

The Villaways townhomes are vacant, the lawns are covered in twisted piles of rubble. 

Keisha Primus is standing on the other side of the fence looking on in disbelief.

 "You know, for me it's really heartbreaking because this was like my first home," said Primus, who lived here for eight years with her children.

Seeing what's left of the Leslie Street and Sheppard Avenue neighbourhood was also tough for Carleen Robinson.

The revitalization project is scheduled to be complete in 2020.

The Rec, where she helped run the program Art Starts, is all boarded up now.

"For me there's a sense of loss. There's a sense of loss of community," she said.

But thanks to a documentary at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, it's not completely lost.

Unarmed Verses

Director Charles Officer has captured that sense of community in Unarmed Verses, which opens Monday evening at 6:30 at the Isabel Bader Theatre, located at 93 Charles St. W.

Officer shows the Toronto Community Housing neighbourhood through the eyes of Francine Valentine, 12, and other youths, just as residents are trying to come to terms with the revitalization project that will require them to leave their homes. 

Officer's motivation for making the film, he says, is "growing up around black youth and understanding the disparity of who has a voice, who has space, who gets represented. Ultimately that's at the core of it."

He says he's been bothered for a long time by the stigma that's attached to living in Toronto Community Housing buildings and neighbourhoods. This was chance, he says, to show the neighbourhood through a different lens.

Charles Officer, director of Unarmed Verses, says he wanted to know 'what's breaking the hearts of these young folks who are living here.' (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

The director said "the stories that usually the media covers in communities such as this is when something violent happens."

But those stories don't capture the essence of the people who live there, Officer said.

"I witnessed a lot of love between them and I wanted to capture that."

Through poetry and music the documentary shows the younger members of the community finding their voice, including La-vane Kelly. 22.

Having seen the final product, the spoken-word artist says the film is a "beautiful depiction" of his neighbourhood.

"We're shown in a light that we don't get to see often and that people don't get to see of us," Kelly said. 


The revitalization plans for the area now dubbed Leslie Nymark, will include the construction of a 496-unit Tridel condominium building, as well as 115 TCH rentals units with three and four bedroom.

Leslie Gash, vice-president of development at Toronto Community Housing, says all of the residents will have an opportunity to move back into the community when the project is complete. 

 "As long as you have the appropriate number of people for the number of bedrooms, you can move back to the same size unit again, " said Gash.

But that won't happen until at least 2020.

For now, the former residents of Villaways have been moved to other TCH neighbourhoods.

"Now they're making new lives in their new communities," said Robinson.

As time goes by she doubts that many residents will want to relocate again.

Keisha Primus who now lives in the TCH community on Parma Court , has no doubts.

"If I have the opportunity to move back, yes, I will."


Makda Ghebreslassie

CBC Toronto reporter

Makda is a CBC Video-Journalist, who from time to time fills in as TV news anchor and a newsreader on Here and Now and Fresh Air. She worked in newsrooms in Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Windsor before moving back home to Toronto.