Some residents of the Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park neighbourhoods fear the impending closure of their local ServiceOntario location will disrupt vital access for immigrants and refugees starting life in Canada.
Their concerns come as the province announced this month that it will close some ServiceOntario centres and move the locations to select Staples Canada stores — a move it says will increase accessibility and customer experience. CBC Toronto asked the province if this specific location was closing last week and the province did not confirm or deny it.
However, shortly after this story was published, the province confirmed to CBC Toronto that this location, in the Flemingdon Park Shopping Centre close to Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue East, will close and move to a Staples retail store in Leaside.
That confirmation came after the province announced Monday morning a list of nine Staples where new ServiceOntario locations will operate, including one in Leaside.
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When brothers Muhammad and Omar Kinjo arrived in Thorncliffe Park from Turkey in November, one of their first stops was the nearby ServiceOntario to obtain health cards. Their sister Nadima says the location, in the Flemingdon Park Shopping Centre close to Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue East, meant they could access the service without taking a crowded bus or asking for a ride.
"It really saved us time," she told CBC Toronto in Arabic.
"This area is huge and so many people live here, mostly refugees, and new refugees continue to settle here. They need a [ServiceOntario] that is walking distance and not a place that they need to bus to."
The Staples location is about three kilometres west from the current ServiceOntario location — a marginal increase for drivers. But for those who get around on foot, the change in location adds about an extra 20 to 30 minutes to their journey from the centre of Thorncliffe Park or the centre of Flemingdon Park at Deauville Lane and St. Dennis Drive.
Thorncliffe Park is one of the most densely populated and diverse neighbourhoods in Canada, according to the 2016 census. It's a known landing ground for new immigrants and refugees — groups of people that often need support integrating into their new home.
New immigrants reliant on location
Nadima says she understands firsthand how challenging resettling in Canada can be and worries for newcomers who will have to navigate walking to a new location when the current ServiceOntario location does close.
"We got lost a lot when we first moved here," she said, adding that while they used Google maps, if their data was used up, they were stuck.
"And we don't know English to communicate with people to ask for directions."
A ServiceOntario is pictured in Ottawa, Ont. The province announced they are moving several ServiceOntario locations into Staples Canada stores. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)
One community organizer, Omar Khan, has been helping the siblings adjust. He says he works with lots of new immigrants who are reliant on the existing ServiceOntario location, adding newcomers require so many documents and proper ID cards to be able to begin their life.
Losing the existing ServiceOntario is "just another slap to the communities of Thorncliffe and Flemingdon," Khan said.
He notes people in the area already fear losing jobs and the current location of beloved businesses as Metrolinx is placing a permanent rail yard in the neighbourhood.
"It's sort of a warning bell for yet more services being removed from the community. What more are they going to take?" he said.
Leaside is also known as a wealthier neighbourhood compared to Thorncliffe and Flemingdon, said Khan. According to the 2016 census, Leaside has a low income rate, after taxes, of 6.3 per cent. Thorncliffe Park's rate is 45.5 per cent.
"Should we really be worried about Leaside folks being able to access the ServiceOntario?" said Khan.
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Province says service won't be disrupted
CBC Toronto asked the provincial Ministry of Public and Business Service Delivery last week about plans for the Thorncliffe location, a possible ServiceOntario in the Leaside Staples and to respond to criticism regarding the site move.
"A number of factors were considered when our government conducted lengthy consultations with retail partners on the pilot," it said in an emailed statement. Staples was selected as its locations met criteria on size, parking and the ability to be open later to service the community, it said.
The statement went on to say the ServiceOntario locations that are moving are operated by private providers. New locations that open in Staples will be full locations, not kiosks, and "service will remain uninterrupted." Impacted employees will be provided opportunities to continue employment at Staples, it said.
It later confirmed the closure of the ServiceOntario and its moving to the Leaside Staples Monday afternoon.
Jason Ash, the co-founder of neighbourhood advocacy group Friends of Thorncliffe Park, says Thorncliffe and Flemingdon are recognized as priority communities by the city that require additional investments.
That's why the neighbourhoods would be particularly hurt by the move, he said.
"Removal of a ServiceOntario location that is accessible and convenient to newcomers and seniors is, unmistakably, yet another reduction of service," he said.