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Torontos recreation services make community contributions that change the lives of young and old alike. From parks and pools to gyms and rinks, with countless programs in between, recreation services create healthier, happier people, enriching neighbourhoods. Many fear the contribution will disappear as user fees create a two-tier system with deep divides.

When the megacity was amalgamated in 1998, large areas with no recreation user fees, such as the old city of Toronto, collided with regions that charged fees. A back-and-forth struggle over a new fee policy followed. At first, city council committed to keeping most recreation programs free. But that decision was reversed under a cost-cutting cloud, in a 2001 move that slapped a $25 user fee on many recreation programs including swimming lessons, summer camps, indoor soccer as well as some science and music programs. Fees rose in other programs that were already user-pay.

Low-income families can still access free services at 25 priority community centres, or by applying to have fees waived at other centres through a process that asks them to prove their need. But front-line recreation workers and community advocates say the policy shortchanges poor neighbourhoods and demeans already-marginalized youth and their families.

It all adds up to severely restricted access for those who need services most, leading to the ghettoization of recreation, says community recreation coordinator Helen Kennedy.

In a lot of cases, in the high-need, low-income community I work in, parents just dont have the money, says Kennedy, a member of CUPE 79. She says registration dropped in a lot of her programs, including swimming, after the fees were introduced.

Without good recreation programs, theres nothing for young people to do, says youth activist Kehinde Bah, and that creates problems. Young people in so-called high risk communities need more services to plug into, not less.

Recreation worker Kristy Davidson says shes observing a dangerous slide into division, where fee-based programs get more resources and attention, sidelining free programs for low-income people. She says it was a struggle to get her priority centre to offer more than basic swimming lessons.

Its a two-tier system. The free program lumps six to 12 year olds together in a class where there are about four levels of skill, for only half an hour. In the paid program, there are fewer kids, theyre all at the same level, and they have an hour, she says. The message is, if you cant afford to pay, then this is what you get and youd better not complain.

Kennedy says when management makes programming choices, money talks, and those programs without user fees get drowned out. More and more decisions are being made about what programs to run based on whether theres revenue to go with them. So we have to fight for priority centre funding. Were getting less and less money to run them, which means we have to make decisions on cutting programs.

Forcing people to prove poverty before they can get fees waived at non-priority centres is a humiliating process, says Kennedy. It means many wont apply. Those who do apply get rationed access thats limited to one program per person.

User fees have also hit adult and senior programs in the past three years. In both cases, participation went down when fees were introduced or increased.

The fees further isolate vulnerable communities. Having recreation fees highlights different classes in our city. Were supposed to be working to bring down barriers, not reinforcing them, says Bah, who heads Torontos youth cabinet.

When theres no outlet for kids, theyre going to make an outlet, says city councillor David Miller. And when its not recreation or music or arts or other city services, which in the past have formed a very cohesive society in Toronto, then youre going to have problems.

The move to user fees is a short-sighted one. Its a key social service. For the money we as a city spend on good recreation services, the impact cannot be overstated. The money spent now saves money down the road on correctional services and so on, says Tam Goossen, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

When Kennedy first started working in the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood 18 years ago, the role models were the pimps and drug dealers. Returning to the neighbourhood after a stint at another centre, she saw first-hand the impact of recreation programs. The kids who grew up in the rec centre are now back as soccer and basketball coaches. Theyre delivering a service in their community. She says the centres also offer the chance of jobs in neighbourhoods where work is scarce. Its a huge step out of poverty.

Parents count on the before- and after-school programs at community centres to be able to survive, says Davidson. We enable parents to keep income coming in, and not have to worry about where their kids are. That really supports families in the community.

Torontos recreation programs are also facing creeping private sector intrusion. Kennedy says corporations are peddling their programs from centre to centre. In one case, privately-run Tae Kwan Do programs charge inflated testing fees and pressure participants to buy the companys clothing. She worries that funding pressure will force open the door to more corporate involvement.

Davidson says privatizing recreation will further marginalize the people who are having difficulty accessing the system. It will remove any community control over what programs get offered.

That local control is very important at a basic level. Right now anyone can walk into my community centre and suggest a specific cultural event for children after school, and wed work with them to develop itIf we were privatized, I imagine youd go to the private company and be told well, thats not part of our collection of services. If you cant take it off the shelf in pre-packaged form, it wont be offered.

City attempts to do more with less are slowly eroding public recreation services. Davidson and Kennedy are critical of a city move they say imposes that private sector cookie cutter model. They and others are working to continue tailoring programs to communities, working to meet neighbourhood needs.

Community activists will continue to fight to protect and expand good quality, equitable recreation services, because they are are key, not frivolous. Together with good child care, it ensures the next generation has a sense of belonging and of really developing themselves, and their friendships. Its priceless, says Goossen.