Toronto Star

Saturday, January 16, 1999

You can help save Trillium from Tory ruin

By Michele Landsberg
Toronto Star

Maybe the kerfuffle over the Trillium Foundation strikes you as impossibly remote from your own life -- like gang warfare, say, between "leftie" Grips and "right-wing" Bloods. But you're deeply mistaken if you think this distasteful rumble has nothing to do with you.

Chances are that the Trillium Foundation has already reached into your neighbourhood, your community, even your family, to make your life better.

Did your local recreation centre get a ramp for disabled access, was your cousin grateful for support from the Cancer Society in his hour of distress, did your daughter get a chance to join a baseball team or contribute to an anthology of youthful writings, was your troubled nephew thrilled by a chance to earn a living in an innovative job-creation project'

Maybe Trillium's impact was even more subtle than that. Maybe your purse wasn't snatched or you weren't mugged because the kids living in poverty near you were engaged in acting a play they wrote instead of acting out their frustrations against their neighbours. Maybe your elderly neighbour didn't slowly and secretly starve because a Trillium-funded "food security" program was delivering cheap fresh veggies to her door every week.

A thousand unseen threads weave a community together and make daily life safe, sustainable, lively and rewarding. Our consumer culture bombards us with the idea that our happiness comes in plastic bags from the shopping mall. At some level, everyone knows that it doesn't. But the best things in life have never been free, either: You won't see the stars at night if anti-pollution groups haven't been fighting for cleaner air; you may not smell the roses if there isn't an accessible park or community garden near you.

Over the years, Trillium has quietly, efficiently and responsibly aided thousands of community groups and charities all over the province to do their good stuff.

In the past year, however, the Ontario government has staged a quick and vicious coup -- turfing out Trillium's chair of the board (a Tory, but not of the shark variety) in a surprise election, dumping board members who weren't slavish right-wing Harrisites, handpicking 400 local "volunteers" to dole out money, and summarily firing Julie White, the hugely respected CEO. In the ensuing uproar, the opposition parties accused the government of turning the foundation into a "Tory slush fund."

The government, for its part, defends itself with the by-now familiar all-purpose Harris insults, alleging that Trillium has been resistant to change, Toronto-centred, "elite," left-leaning. All of these are probably ludicrous accusations. Trillium has long relied on hundreds of regional volunteers to sort through worthy recipients. Its grant-giving is impartial enough to embrace both the Fraser Institute and Education Wife Assault, so long as the project yield concrete benefits for the community. It demands solid accountability for every cent g -- the Centre for Philanthropy praises Trillium to the skies for its distinguished record.

It's not too late to save Trillium's integrity: the staff, program and plans for the future, all put in place before the recent Tory assault, are rock solid. It's a long shot, I admit, but maybe cooler heads will persuade Harris to appoint intelligent, diverse, well-qualified people to replace those honourable board members who have recently resigned in protest.

Otherwise, we're all in worse trouble than we may realize. The Premier's spokespeople are already insisting that no more "political advocacy groups" will be funded. Since "political" can mean anything you want it to, we can only assume they are targeting projects run by groups like the Coalition for Services for Lesbian and Gay Youth, or Computer Access for Low Income Families or the Council for Refugees.

Can you imagine a Harris-dominated Trillium giving grants to environmental groups that might challenge Tory policies, or to social conscience coalitions like Campaign 2000, which recently revealed that the number of Ontario children living in poverty has zoomed to half a million under this Premier?

It's more likely, now that Trillium will have $100 million worth of gambling money to shmear across the province every year, that the granting policies of this hardline government will hark straight back to the lily-white, rigidly conformist middle-class values of the 1950s. Those values no longer fit us or answer our needs, small town or big city.

If enough citizens let Culture Minister Isabel Bassett know that's unacceptable, maybe we'll yet save one of our public assets from pointless ruin. Write her at Queen's Park; phone (416) 325-6200; E-mail or fax at (416) 325-6195.