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Illustration by Robert Carter

The agitator

Rev. Cheri DiNovo gave up ministry for politics, but her mission never wavered. She’s still an outspoken champion for society’s most marginalized.

By Chantal Braganza


During a question period last November, NDP member of provincial parliament Rev. Cheri DiNovo asked Ontario’s minister of labour about a man on a hunger strike. This man, a constituent of her riding, had been sitting outside the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board offices in downtown Toronto for nine days, refusing to eat or leave until the WSIB agreed to grant him a new hearing on a workplace injury that stemmed back to 1991.

His name was Ippokratis “Jimmy” Velgakis, and it wasn’t the first time the ex-Zamboni driver had done this. Amid a summer heatwave in 2011, Velgakis camped out in front of the WSIB’s appeals office for a week until the board agreed to give him another hearing. A year later, the WSIB decided it didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case, effectively nullifying the hearing. Now, Velgakis’s hunger strike posed a serious threat to his health. The 72-year-old diabetic was consuming about a cup of broth a day and enduring temperatures close to freezing. Concerned, DiNovo decided to bring his cause to the provincial legislature.

“As you know, I am also fasting along with Jimmy,” DiNovo said to Yasir Naqvi, the labour minister, during question period, “because no response from the WSIB has been forthcoming — none whatsoever, and I’ve tried.” Running on herbal tea and water for nine days herself, DiNovo seemed a little slighter in her suit jacket, and her face, typically heart-shaped, had thinned. But her delivery was nonetheless direct and dramatic: “Minister, will you step in to save Jimmy’s life?”

Naqvi has no jurisdiction over worker injury claims, the WSIB being at arm’s length from the government. But DiNovo got the results she was looking for: the next day, the WSIB agreed to request another hearing from its own appeals tribunal.

The eventual hearing may not result favourably for Velgakis, but both he and DiNovo are pleased the tactic worked. “I was really just trying to amplify what he was doing with the fast,” DiNovo said later.

In her seven years in office as the MPP for Parkdale-High Park, DiNovo has centred her work around transgender people, front-line emergency workers, down-and-out constituents with injury claims issues: “people who everybody else shuts out.” You might describe it as her calling or mission — terms that wouldn’t be out of place for DiNovo, an ordained United Church minister who led a famously vibrant congregation in west Toronto for eight years before entering politics. Serving the widows and the orphans, so to speak, is “maybe my only saving grace in this job,” she says.

Take the minimum-wage earner. When she was elected in the fall of 2006, one of the first things DiNovo did was introduce a private member’s bill to raise Ontario’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. The province’s rate was then $7.75 and set to rise by 25 cents in a few months. At the time, the province had been increasing the wage by 30 cents every year since 2003, but that didn’t seem like enough: even full-time workers lived beneath the poverty line.

Then-premier Dalton McGuinty warned the $2.25 hike could hurt jobs by pricing out small business owners, but DiNovo had hit a nerve. The Toronto Star published editorials in support of the bill. The International Women’s Day march in Toronto that year made the $10 wage its central theme (at the time, women accounted for close to 60 percent of minimum-wage earners in the country). Canadian Auto Workers union leaders joined in. Within a few months, the province decided to raise the minimum wage to $10.25 in increments over three years. The problem is, it’s stayed there since 2010.

In the last three years, consumer prices have risen by over seven percent. Over half a million people in Ontario now earn $10.25 full time, putting their incomes 19 percent below the poverty line. At one of our meetings, DiNovo was getting ready to attend a minimum-wage demonstration at Queen’s Park where anti-poverty organizations would demand $14 an hour, a wage that would put earners 10 percent above the poverty line.

“This is absurd, that we need to launch campaigns every year to raise the minimum wage,” she says. What DiNovo and others want is a living wage bill that’s indexed to inflation. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne recently announced a plan to do just this, as well as boosting the minimum wage to $11 an hour — still far short of DiNovo’s goal.

“Even Henry Ford said that his workers had to be able to buy his product: cars,” says DiNovo. “He understood that you had to pay workers a decent enough wage so they can afford to take their place in the economic cycle.”

One of DiNovo’s first experiences with Queen’s Park was sleeping in the bushes just outside where her office is today. That she spent her teen years on the street is no secret: both in her previous life as a United Church minister and now as a politician, she has been open about her troubled early life. DiNovo grew up in a Toronto rooming house owned by her parents. Her father, a second-generation Italian, worked as a house painter and was a volunteer canvasser for the NDP. “He experienced a great deal of prejudice, living here,” DiNovo says. “He died quite early in his 60s of emphysema. It was probably because of the lead-based paint they used to use in those days.”

Her home life after her father’s death was unstable. “This is often the case for homeless youth,” says DiNovo. “It’s not always about poverty. Usually it’s about abuse or chaos. And I certainly felt that anywhere was safer than home, with the fights that were raging.” After witnessing her stepfather’s suicide, DiNovo dropped out of Grade 10 and left home. She bunked with friends, slept on the street and often visited the United Church’s Fred Victor Mission for meals and to talk to a pastor she’d befriended. It was her first experience with a church.

Like many street youth, she was also drug-involved. Much was made of her public admission to having smuggled LSD from California to Toronto in hollowed-out Bibles as a teen. But her experience at Fred Victor Mission convinced her to do three things: take her high school equivalency test, enrol at Toronto’s Centennial College and take out a student loan. In the summers, she worked as a bartender and server at Swiss Chalet. Her self-sufficient student life wasn’t easy — at least a couple of times she ran out of money. 

DiNovo soon switched from Centennial to Toronto’s York University, and was quickly swept up in the student protest spirit of the 1960s and ’70s. After reading Das Kapital one semester, she eagerly showed up to a Young Socialists of Canada meeting in one of her favoured looks at the time: false eyelashes, platform shoes and sheer sequined pants. In a room full of plaids and sandals, she didn’t quite fit in, but was soon hanging out with anti-war and gay rights activists.

“She was fun to be around,” remembers Brian Waite, who took part in the Young Socialists with DiNovo and later Toronto Gay Action. “A young, energetic, activist woman. It’s interesting when you think about the future trajectory of her life . . . both of us were all-out atheists. We’d go out and question belief.” They also raised a ruckus about LGBT equality, participating in some of the city’s first pride picnics — events that would eventually give rise to Toronto’s Pride Week — and signed their names to “We Demand,” Canada’s first gay liberation manifesto. At a time when attaching yourself to the gay rights movement had serious implications, DiNovo and Waite were the only signatories. A staunch feminist, DiNovo saw gay rights as a natural extension of gender equality. “Not to sell myself short, but realistically, it wasn’t bravery, it was recklessness,” she told an LGBT community newspaper in 2011. “I mean, I believed in something, so it was like, ‘Damn the torpedoes. Who cares?’”

A few credits shy of a degree, DiNovo married, had children and began working full time at a corporate headhunting company. Then, in the early 1980s, she started her own company, the Abbott Group, a recruitment firm that specialized in placing women in high-profile jobs. She “rode the equity wave,” as she calls it, and since jobs were plentiful, business was good. “If you could walk, talk and chew gum, I could find you a job. And the minimum wage for our contract placement staff back in the 1980s? Ten dollars. You couldn’t find anyone who would work for less than that.” The Abbott Group cleared half a million dollars in its first year.

She moved into a 4,000-square-foot home in Richmond Hill, an affluent community north of Toronto with her then husband Don Zielinski, who worked in advertising, and their children, Damien and Francesca. Like many in their generation, they made a lot of money and then grew restless.

One late-October morning at her constituency office on Dundas Street in west Toronto, DiNovo was fielding media calls about a recent announcement from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. A year after a widely publicized series of Toronto Star stories on cases of alleged cruelty and improper care of animals at Marineland, the province was introducing new funding and investigative powers to the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. DiNovo, who knew a couple of the animal trainers (both whistleblowers now being sued by the theme park) and was fundraising to help pay for their legal fees, was having none of it. “It’s absolutely laughable,” she told one reporter over her pink-and-white rhinestone BlackBerry. “This organization is partly funded by places like Marineland, places they’re meant to inspect.”

DiNovo is known for wearing an opinionated heart on a very public sleeve, and she’s no different when pointing out problems she sees in the United Church. “What would you say of an institution that’s closing a church a week?” she asked me rhetorically. “If we had a business that was closing an outlet a week, someone would come and take it over. The reaction would be horror and an emergency situation of thinking about how to stop the bloodletting. But instead there’s this kind of attitude that, ‘Oh yeah, this is happening.’”

It might be easy to see this candour as political grandstanding, but DiNovo has a track record of working until she gets results. In 2008, a paramedic came to DiNovo’s office to ask for help. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the job, Shannon Bertrand was denied compensation by the WSIB for her long-term disability. She wanted to prevent other front-line workers from experiencing the same. DiNovo tabled a bill to fast-track PTSD claims by paramedics, firefighters and police officers, but got nowhere, even when she tried again in 2010. Two years later, she managed to carry the bill through its first reading, but McGuinty’s surprise resignation and the resulting election set her back to square one — so she tabled it a fourth time last May. This month, six years after her first attempt, it will get its second reading.

Even before she became a politician, DiNovo cared deeply for the people struggling in her community. When Peggy Nash was elected federal MP for Parkdale-High Park in 2006, she met with community leaders, including DiNovo, then a minister at Emmanuel-Howard Park United. “She raised issues about hunger in the community, lack of affordable housing, lack of support for people with mental health problems. She shared concerns about children going to school without adequate food or clothes. I didn’t know if she was a political person, but I thought, my goodness, are you a social democrat,” says Nash. “That’s why when there was an opening in the MPP election, her name popped up for me.”

In 1988 — a year that many left the United Church over its decision to accept openly gay and lesbian ministers — DiNovo and Zielinski started church shopping. “Neither of us were believers in anything, but we thought our children should hear these stories,” DiNovo says. They found a home at Richmond Hill United, where ethics writer Ken Gallinger was a minister at the time. While their kids attended Sunday school, DiNovo and Zielinski found themselves drawn into the congregation through its politically progressive activism and Gallinger’s sermons — “Boy, were they good,” DiNovo recalls.

For his part, Gallinger remembers that DiNovo and Zielinski “had a Harley-Davidson in their front hall. It was a professionally decorated house. They had tons of money, but they both came from an activist background, and I think they got to that point in life where they were thinking, ‘Is that all there is?’ I know it’s clichéd to say they were looking for meaning, but I think that’s true for them.”

Before long, DiNovo decided to take up ministry. She finished the final credits she needed for her York degree and enrolled at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto. A couple of years later, in 1992, Zielinski was killed in a freak motorcycle accident on his way home from work one evening. “I knew that night that the life I’d chosen, to go through ordination, to go through as clergy, was the life that I should have chosen,” she said in a 2006 interview on VisionTV’s 360 Vision.

After earning her master of divinity in 1995, DiNovo served a rural charge in Brucefield, Ont., for two years before beginning her ministry at Emmanuel-Howard Park United. She moved to a small home in the neighbourhood, enrolled in the PhD program at Emmanuel College, married Gil Gaspar, a college professor, and fell in love with community radio. Her faith-based show, The Radical Reverend, ran from 2000 to 2006 on CIUT. She now hosts a weekly show on women in politics.

The congregation she cultivated at Emmanuel-Howard Park — diverse, inclusive, focused on the needs of the marginalized — can be seen as a model for how she sees and works with her riding at large. “I can’t make changes unless the government agrees to make those changes, but if I have one thing as an opposition member, what I can do is I can gain access to those corridors of power. I can amplify the voice of those who are never heard in those corridors; I can give them a voice there,” she says.

While DiNovo obviously loves her job, some aspects of it range from disagreeable to just plain dirty, like when opponents in her first election tried to run a smear campaign against her using details of her past as a street youth. “It hurt congregation members who were still street- and drug-involved. It sent them the message that they would never escape their past.”

There’s also the seemingly glacial pace of progress. With the prospect of another provincial election this spring, DiNovo’s current bills for front-line responders with PTSD and inclusionary zoning to provide affordable housing could be shelved for a while longer yet.

“There’s days when I think, I don’t want to do this anymore,” she says. “I’d love to go back to ministry. It’s my first love. I always say that. But then I think, what about these constituents? We’ve come so far with these issues. Who will pick them up in the same way?” She’s committed to running again in the next election, whenever it happens.

“It’s easy to get cynical, jaded and frustrated. My activism is tinged with a more fervent hope, which is faith. You know a better world is coming. You know it in your bones.”

Chantal Braganza is a freelance journalist in Toronto.


Author's photo
Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor in Toronto.
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