The Westdale Mall ServiceOntario centre in Mississauga is always abuzz with activity as area residents renew their health card, get a new driver’s licence or pick up licence plate stickers. But at lunch hour on June 22, a lot more came by – not to receive services, but to give notice to the government that quality public services matter to them.
A crowd of concerned citizens listens to OPSEU Local 546 President Ken Burns outside Westdale Mall ServiceOntario
In May, workers at the Westdale office and eight other offices across Ontario were told their centres would close. The Liberal government was stunned by the public outcry that ensued and quickly backpedalled, announcing it was “rethinking” its decision to close the offices.
But area residents and Westdale Mall businesses are not waiting. Joining OPSEU members, they staged a rally that sent an unequivocal message to area MPPs Harinder Takhar and Indira Naidoo-Harris and their Liberal colleagues at Queen’s Park.
Jim McDowell, president of the Peel Region Labour Council, Balbir Sall, president of the Merchants of Westdale Mall Association, Ward 6 Councillor Ron Starr, and OPSEU Local 546 President Ken Burns were among nine speakers who drove home the message that local public services matter.
“People in this area may not always think of themselves as the activist type,” said Burns. “But many are deeply involved in their community. They believe the quality of community life is under attack from this government, which is trying to shut down their ServiceOntario office.
“Many spoke passionately to me about ServiceOntario’s services. Since the announcement of the closure, they’re looking at them with renewed appreciation. And they’re not going to take closure of their centre without a fight.”
Burns also pointed out that the area is home to many newcomers and their families. “ServiceOntario centres provide a firm footing for newcomers, who want to live independently but for now are vulnerable and need help navigating the public services that Ontario offers.”
An angry citizens speaks out about the possible closure of the ServiceOntario centre at Westdale Mall
In a show of solidarity, some protestors took their message to the privately operated ServiceOntario centre at 5035 Hurontario Street in Mississauga. Workers there are paid $11.25 – minimum wage – and have no benefits. The employer has refused to bargain in good faith, leaving workers with no choice but to strike.
ServiceOntario workers represented by the Teamsters strike outside the private ServiceOntario at 5035 Hurontario
“Seventy-five per cent of ServiceOntario centres – like this one – are now in private hands,” noted Burns. “This particular owner runs five ServiceOntario offices in the GTA. While he makes a big, fat profit, his employees struggle to survive on minimum wage and customers are denied the quality of service they would get at a public office. It’s an offensive way to treat workers and Ontario citizens.
“Customers tell me they feel rushed. They get a strong sense that the private offices exist to generate profit – not to serve the interests of the public. People, particularly those with language difficulties, feel dismissed before their questions are answered so that more money can be generated with the next customer.”
OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas cautioned Minister Marie-France Lalonde that if she ignored the public backlash in Mississauga and elsewhere, she and her government could pay the price at the polls.
A woman with mobility issues gives thumbs-down to the possibility of closing the ServiceOntario centre
“The people of Ontario are fed up with a government that looks on excellent public services with contempt,” said Thomas. “They didn’t elect this government to close public ServiceOntario centres. They didn’t cast their ballots for second-rate public services delivered by profiteers. They want and need easy access to quality public services delivered by public workers.
“The people’s push-back on this unilateral action should be a wakeup call for the Ontario Liberals: keep public services in public hands in the local community. That’s what the people deserve. Anything less is robbing Ontarians of their rights as citizens.”
Thomas urged Mississauga residents to sign an online petition to keep the Westdale Mall ServiceOntario centre open, and to call their elected representatives to get them onboard.
Click on the link below for a listing of contacts with telephone numbers and email addresses.