At the 35th annual meeting of AMES in Chatham-Kent in 2012, I was asked to say a few words to the conference participants about the beginnings of AMES, having been a founding Board member and serving twice as President, in a rotation with our founding President, Merve Sabey, a former Director rom the former Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carlton (RMOC). Merv, the Executive-Director of Causeway, a not-for-profit social enterprise centre, one of Ottawa’s two Work Activity Projects, had sat down with several of us municipal employment folk to talk about organizing municipal employment services staff across the Province. It was 1983 as I recall; I was Supervisor of Work Activity at Metro Toronto at the time and had only been with the City relatively briefly, having started the previous fall.
In addition to Merv and I, the team included Jim Boyle from the Regional Municipality of Hamilton Wentworth and Linda Edie LeClair and Barbara MacKinnon, all from the Municipality of Ottawa-Carlton. We didn’t need to build AMES from a void, rather we were building on the foundations of the organization to which all of us then belonged: COWAP- the Community of Ontario Work Activity Projects, which had been started some six years earlier, in 1977.
I had attended COWAP in my first year as a municipal staffer, and enjoyed the workshops and the network of program specialists I met at the conference, held annually on a Friday evening to Sunday afternoon schedule at the rustic and quite wonderful Leslie M. Frost Centre in Dorset (since closed). COWAP had been started as a volunteer organization with no Board, constitution or even agenda- just a chance to meet and talk about the Work Activity Programs that were being operated through municipal social services operations in various municipal centres. Work Activity Programs began in 1972; by the late ’80s, they were closed, in no small way due to challenges regarding unpaid employment, though circumstances varied from one municipality to another. Dick Stewart from Ottawa remembers when Work Activity clients cleared the canal for skaters! In Toronto, under Nellie Ancheta-Smith’s (now Nellie Santos) term as the head of the Work Activity Project, program clients performed various tasks through the Social Services Division-installing a new counter here, a door there and a workspace somewhere else.
Eventually, the Canada Assistance Plan changed and Work Activity funding provided under Part II of the Act was terminated. It was the end of a series of employment programs that had in an early and very effective way addressed issues around social inclusion as well as mental health, addictions, learning and employability. It was light-years ahead of its time. Not since have we seen an employment/social inclusion initiative, nationally and provincially funded, that allowed extremely broad latitude in both community and individual development. The only prescription was its purpose: to meet the employability needs of people who are unable to benefit from mainstream programs.
But I digress. Terry Cassidy from Hamilton was the spearhead for what became COWAP. He initiated a series of phone calls (the technology of choice in the pre-Internet era of the late seventies) asking about having a meeting among the Work Activity Programs, which were operated in Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Sudbury, Kingston, Waterloo, Windsor and London. Haliburton perhaps? The result was a loose ‘coalition’ of management and staff from the programs who got together. Terry was aided and abetted by Dick Stewart of RMOC, who was the first Chair, “if we had a Chair,” as Dick puts it. The late Fred Ryan from Toronto was also a stalwart. Fred is a legend among those who knew him, His car, usually a battered station wagon, was filled chock-a-block with any kind of information from case notes to construction materials he might need in his daily work! He said little at the first meeting, which was described by one original member as “Fast Eddie (Ed Ralph, from MCSS) telling stories.” At the second meeting, Fred Ryan attended again in his quiet, until he suddenly burst out loudly with “Bullshit!” Apparently he had a few issues to table. The conversation continued!
The decision at Dorset in 1983 was to move to the creation of an organization to be known as Association of Municipal Employment Services- AMES. The reasoning was that in those early years of proactive employment programming, Work Activity Programs were being joined by other employment programs initiated and well-funded by MCSS. The first among these, Employment Support Initiatives (ESI), was targeted to sole-support parents and included a comprehensive range of employment services: employment counselling, additional financial supports (ESI marked the beginning of Employment Related Expenses) and monies for informal or formal day care. That program would be expanded to included Youth Employment Initiatives (YEI) and really helped municipalities launch the locally-based employment supports approach that became enshrined in Ontario Works (albeit, the latter initially with polarizing “work-for-welfare” rhetoric attached). We formed a committee to spend the next few months crafting a constitution that would address our key mandate to provide a network for information on municipal employment services and promote professional development for front-line staff delivering those services.
Pauline Daling (nee Carter), OMSSA’s first Policy Director and later its longest-serving Executive Director, recalls those days. “When AMES started, John Anderson was our [OMSSA’s] second E.D.,” she states. I remember calling upon John, who could be a little intimidating, to do AMES favours, like ship our newsletter or conference invitation out with OMSSA’s mail. He always accommodated, though I usually received some kind of reprimand for asking too late, asking too much or just asking! I must have made an impression: at the next OMSSA Conference, I was walking up to say hello to him, when he turned to his wife as I arrived, pointed his forefinger in my immediate direction and said, “This is him!” No other words of introduction were required, apparently, for Mrs. Anderson to figure out who was this shaggy haired guy wearing a tweed sport jacket with leather patches on the elbows. John was killed, tragically, in an auto accident in March, 1988. It was a shock to us then and remains so now. I still think of him, with admiration for the vision he supported and the long-term results he achieved.
But I am ahead of myself; none of this has occurred yet in the telling of this tale. The camaraderie, such as it was, came later. Our beginning was not as auspicious.
Once we had a draft AMES constitution that we were ready to put before the COWAP membership and others who had come along to the 1983 conference to see what the network was all about, our efforts came to the attention of the OMSSA Board of Directors, and at least two senior managers, one each in Toronto and Ottawa. The Toronto manager was my boss’s boss’s boss, Ray Lazanik, who was General Manager of Metro Toronto Social Services. I was called onto the carpet to report to him about what the hell I had been up to! It would be my first (though by no means last) foray into Head Office at the lOth Floor, East Tower of Toronto City Hall. It was heady and scary stuff!! The Ottawa manager, a person of less stature than Social Services Commissioner Art Pope, who was equally curious as to Merv’s doings and demanded an explanation. Before either of us had a chance to digest the perils of our forthcoming visits to see the Head Honchos, Merv called me to tell me that he and I and Barb MacKinnon were being called before the OMSSA Board to explain ourselves! Alan Wells was the OMSSA President and he revised the Board’s agenda to include a review of the AMES executive’s actions and rationale. We were into it now, for sure.
As Ricky Ricardo would say, we had “some ‘splaining to do!” But we acquitted ourselves well. Our explanation was that AMES was created to meet the information needs of front-line employment services staff, and that the AMES constitution (if memory serves) provides that all policy matters be dealt with through OMSSA. The outcome was that AMES was not only given a lease on life with the blessing of OMSSA, it was agreed that AMES would have a representative on the OMSSA Policy
Committee. AMES was also recognized as an “Associate Organization” of OMSSA. It would be two more years until OMSAA created the Employment Services Committee, on which a number of AMES alumni served as chairs, included Merv and me.
Our first AMES meetings were held in Trent University, which provided everything a fledgling organization could ever need to host a conference, and set about to achieve our mandate. A couple of Keynote speakers at our annual weekend retreat stand out in memory; one was Phil Patsula, a noted researcher, writer and labour market analyst for Canada Employment. I was thrilled to meet him; as a former fed and apostle of all things employment, to me he was a star figure. He started his workshop on being an effective employment counsellor by drawing on a flip chart first a sad face then a happy one. Our job, he said, is to achieve this. Or at least this, he said, as he drew a face with just a straight line for a mouth. Insightful!
One of the most remarkable speakers at AMES or anywhere else was Frank Feather, the futurist. I was taking a graduate course on the subject at University of Toronto at the time and learned of Dr. Feather’s amazing prognostications and processes in class. When I approached him to speak at our humble conference and he told his fee, I was embarrassed to admit we were a poor lot, with funds that failed to match our ambition. “What the hell,” he said. “I’ll do it for 500 bucks.” He was sensational. He started with a map drawn ‘upside-down’ and east to west, the opposite of the normal map presentation North Americans see. “Manufacturing,” he began with ominously, “is moving from the north to the south and it isn’t coming back.” It was circa 1985. We squirmed. “Production,” he said, “is moving from the west to the east and it isn’t coming back.” Before he was done, we saw him as the scientific seer that he really is, and benefitted from a lesson in emerging socio-economics concerning the labour market. It was one among many AMES events that left us feeling vital, inspired, capable and partnered. That job never ends.
This story doesn’t have an ending. AMES has prospered and contributed much to the social discourse and applied skills of addressing employment and related issues. I am grateful for the fabulous people who helped launch AMES and COWAP, for setting the stage and developing the capacity for municipalities to deliver employment services. It was a critical undertaking then and remains as much if not more so now. Thanks also to the dedicated and talented people who have kept AMES alive and continue its important work. Thank you, AMES. You have been an important part of my career and that of many colleagues. Doubtlessly, the many thousands of people who turn to social services for employment assistance have been the beneficiaries.