WINDSOR — The hazel-eyed man in front of me leans toward the Mars bar-sized voice recorder I’m holding out, speaking slowly and clearly, like it isn’t really listening. “My name is Michael Gabriel Pontich.” He tells it he’s 54 years old and spells out his last name.
“I don’t work anymore. I’ve worked my time,” he says. “The last place I was at, I was in a unionized shop. I did 10 years there at Kautex Textron. We made gas tanks for the Big Three [automakers in North America]. We were a feeder plant. I drove a jitney.”
I’d met Pontich about two hours before, inside, at a community meal that’s hosted by Throne of Grace Church every Tuesday night. Wearing a bright-yellow industrial safety coat with reflective orange strips even in the warm air, he was standing with a few other people. He called out to me, asking about my height (I’m over six feet). I stood with the group for a few minutes, talking about my tall family, trying to make contacts, and then ducked into the kitchen.
Now we’re standing outside at the Soup Shack, a converted camper painted bright teal with yellow trim, and Pontich is standing up on the verge so we’re nearly the same height and can see eye to eye. He tells me that his bowed posture is the result of a slipped disc in his spine and that he’s missing another disc entirely, the legacy of childhood scoliosis.
He’s applied for ODSP “a couple times,” he says, but hasn’t qualified. “But now I physically appear like I’m ailing, so it shouldn’t be difficult at all.”
We talk about his situation, about food in Windsor (he recommends a local diner called A Dog’s Breakfast), about his family and his time working, about his situation now. I overhear a conversation between him and the volunteers running the Soup Shack about his trying to find a place to sleep for the night. They called the Salvation Army emergency shelter, one of the two in town available to single men, but it’s full, and I get the sense from talking to him that he’ll be sleeping outside tonight, in the windy weather.
“All I do some days is just walk around, and it’s such a waste of energy and a waste of time, you know, and a wear on my body,” he says. “I wish I had other things I could do.”
There’s a longstanding cultural perception in Ontario that Windsor sucks. Several people brought it up during my reporting. I had never visited before this assignment, so I’m sure I don’t have the full measure of the city, but I can tell you: in many ways, Windsor doesn’t suck. The city has a lot going for it, including a cosmopolitan air surprising in a municipality of fewer than 230,000 people. It has a rich Black present and past that includes the oldest active Black church in Canada; a French history reflected in the names of streets (Ouellette, Pelissier, Pierre, Drouillard), if not in their pronunciation; a food scene that punches well above its weight. It’s home to the busiest land border in North America in terms of trade volume (the one that was shut down for six days by far-right protesters earlier this year). And it’s surrounded by some of southern Ontario’s most strategically important farmland.
It’s also a crucial manufacturing region that’s receiving a lot of attention: earlier this year, the federal and provincial government collectively put more than a billion dollars into a plan to retool manufacturing in Windsor and Brampton for Stellantis, the world’s fifth-biggest automaker, and to make Windsor the home of a new electric-vehicle-battery plant. A new bridge to Detroit, named after Canadian hockey legend Gordie Howe, will further reshape the city.
“I think it’s at a real crossroads right now,” says Anneke Smit, a professor of law at the University of Windsor who directs the Windsor Law Centre for Cities.
I meet Smit at Cafe March 21, a downtown spot that serves coffee, snacks, and ramen from a converted bungalow, and she breaks down some of the issues for me. Residents are feeling the impact of high property and rent values, skyrocketing food costs, post-acute-pandemic instability in supply chains and prices, rising heating costs — and the list goes on. The difference in Windsor, Smit tells me, has to do with disparities that have shaped the city for decades.
Poverty, one of the things that creates hunger, has long been an issue in Windsor at levels higher than provincial and federal averages. Numbers improved somewhat in recent years, something credited in part to now-defunct COVID-19 supports, but the issue of poverty has been particularly sticky for children. More than one in five children in Windsor presently live in low-income households, which are disproportionately impacted by both inflation and interest-rate increases. Single-parent households, which are mostly headed by women in the region, are particularly likely to be low-income. Seniors’ poverty is also an issue. The most recent point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness, taken in 2021, found 251 unhoused people in Windsor, 25 per cent more than the previous count in 2018. The vast majority are single adults, like the men I met.
I ask Smit why poverty is such an issue in Windsor and she has a partial answer: political inaction. “It is hard to have the tough conversations here,” she says. “There’s an addiction to holding the line on taxes, for instance, which plays out in every election … We sort of see equity work as being about keeping taxes low, so people don’t suffer.”
"We are currently less than four weeks into this new four-year mandate,” City of Windsor spokesperson Andrew Teliszewsky wrote in an email to TVO.org on December 14. “Mayor [Drew] Dilkens is committed to working with all members of Windsor City Council to move forward on his positive agenda for building our City up, creating jobs, investing in infrastructure and improving community safety.” When contacted by TVO.org, the mayor’s office noted that Dilkens is presently on a trade mission to South Korea.
Windsor residents are doing political work on behalf of equity-seeking groups — look at the Black Council of Windsor-Essex, for example, or the Windsor-Essex Food Policy Council or Activate Transit Windsor-Essex — but, in general, Smit says, the culture of advocacy in the city “isn’t terribly rich.” Part of that, she says, is just the fact that Windsor is a small city: “There are always too few people to do work on issues.”
Poverty isn’t the only direct contributor to the issue of food insecurity. A 2018 food-system assessment conducted by the city’s health unit found that as many as one in 10 households and one in four low-income households are experiencing food insecurity.
Recent work has demonstrated that Windsor has some specific features that make it hard to access food. The city has several food deserts, Smit notes — places where there are no grocery stores within comfortable walking distance. It also has very limited transit and almost no protected cycling infrastructure, she says, which makes reaching farther-flung grocery stores difficult for people without a vehicle. Windsor recently ranked lowest on a Statistics Canada list of 41 Canadian cities in terms of the share of its commuters who use bicycles, their feet, or public transit to get to work or school.
Transit was the first issue on the docket when the new city council met in November, Teliszewsky wrote, noting the historic $100-million investment in transit made at that meeting. Approved projects focus on replacing fleet equipment, installing automated fare collectors, and improving existing infrastructure, including buildings and bus shelters. “These are going to be system improvements that have a material impact on the user experience,” he wrote. (Missing from the list is a new bus garage that, advocates told CBC, would pave the way for expanding services and transitioning to an all-electric bus fleet.)
But there’s good news, too. In Windsor, Smit sees the potential for much more rapid positive innovation than in a big city like Toronto. The city’s budget is just a billion dollars, she says, but you can do a lot for 230,000 people with that kind of money: “The ability to innovate is endless if you’re willing to do it.”
I’m doing the speed limit down Riverside Drive, passing on my left views of the Detroit skyline. On my right, I pass the casino, the Chrysler Theatre and the headquarters of FCA Canada Inc., the Canadian subsidiary of Stellantis. A few minutes later, I’m turning into the spacious parking lot of New Song Church, the headquarters of Feeding Windsor-Essex. The registered charity, which has been operational since 2014, makes more than 185,000 meals annually out of its small kitchen. Some of them go to the community meal where I met Pontich, and the organization is also providing financial and organizational backup for the Soup Shack.
While I’m there, I sit down at the table in the big main room off the kitchen with Rodger Fordham, the organization’s founder and director. Fordham grew up in the Windsor area. His family is in the restaurant industry, where he also spent a portion of career and learned to cook. For Feeding Windsor-Essex, he says, the food inflation eating away at the budgets of the public is plain to see: “I spend about $6,000 to $6,500 per week on groceries.” Unlike many people, he has an industrial kitchen and makes thousands of meals per month, which means watching for sales and buying as much food as he can fit into the freezers. “We’re trying to make basic food and nutritious food, but literally for a couple of dollars a plate.”
He takes me through to his office, where I see the big board: a hand-drawn table of all the things his organization is involved with. He starts listing them off. As I watch, I’m recalling what he said when I asked him what the people he serves, in his estimation, need. “They need the system to change,” he said.
Windsorites consider themselves a generous people. Many I spoke with pointed to the June 27th Miracle, a food-bank-driven campaign during the pandemic that involved residents leaving cans and toiletries on their porch for pickup or taking them to donation centres. In 2020, Windsor-Essex provided 2 million pounds of donations — enough to fill a local hockey arena.
“We went to the warehouse and loaded cars and vans, as many as we could load,” says Abiola Afolabi, the executive director of Nigerian Canadians for Cultural, Educational and Economic Progress, a Windsor-based organization that does food banking and other support within some of Windsor’s Black communities, including for members of West African and Caribbean diasporas.
Afolabi stresses that NCCEEP isn’t looking to duplicate the services provided by others in the food-bank sector. It’s trying to fill a complementary niche. Because of its community connections, the organization has recently found itself primarily serving a mix of international students, mostly from Nigeria, and seniors — people, she says, who would be hard to reach if you were outside the community: “Unless somebody is connected to the Black international students, they wouldn’t know their plight. They’re going through a lot.”
Afolabi says she’s always stocking up on chicken and rice — affordable starch and protein that is eaten cross-culturally — and fresh fruits and vegetables are in high demand. But she’s also always working to acquire ingredients that are essential to the cuisines of the communities her organization serves: gari, pounded yam, stockfish, egusi, and red palm oil for the Nigerians; pobola for Cameroonians; lentils, jasmine rice, and cornmeal for Sudanese cooking; cassava leaves, ginger, and plantain for many Caribbean cuisines. Her shopping list is shaped by feedback from people accessing NCCEEP’s services, she says.
“Some people may wonder, why are you spending this money, because these things are not cheap,” she says. “The simple answer is mental health.”
On June 27, 2022, the organizers of the Miracle campaign, citing a lack of volunteers for porch pickups, directed donors to drop off at 12 Windsor-Essex food banks and asked the community to “keep this day alive.”
Absent pandemic supports and in a turbulent new economy, food insecurity is a more pressing problem than ever for Windsor and the surrounding region. Food-bank shelves are emptying rapidly — NCCEEP ran out of food entirely in November and was able to restock in December only thanks to a small Red Cross grant — and people who work to provide food are spread thin.
The Windsor Islamic Association hosts a food bank and monthly sponsorship program, as well as a regular drive-thru service at the Windsor Mosque providing donated fresh fruit and vegetables. The need among Windsor’s Muslim communities has also grown, says association representative Zaid Khan — the sponsorship program has ballooned by 80 families in the past year, and the demand is still growing.
“Every few months, we’re having more and more families come and request assistance,” he says. The Windsor Islamic Association hosted a networking event for the city’s service providers on Giving Tuesday and distributed cold-weather kits to other providers. Khan heard the same story from those who came: “Everyone is full.”
The growing demand has left service providers trying to find new money, new resources, and new approaches. “We just keep learning, because the demand keeps growing,” says Afolabi.
Then there’s the Soup Shack, where I met Pontich, which was recently launched as a bridging service for the evening hours before people find shelter. Organizer Merissa Mills, whose charity, Street Angels, is running the service, tells me that Tim Hortons is donating all the coffee and hot chocolate. She and Fordham have “the same heart,” she says, which is why Street Angels signed on with Feeding Windsor-Essex. It was an innovation, too.
When I show up for lunch at Spago Trattoria, it feels like I’m walking into a movie. Dave Cassidy, the longtime president of Unifor Local 444, which represents about 30 unionized workplaces, smiles through a Movember beard and offers me a glass of wine. He orders off-menu. He knows a bunch of people coming in and out. During our nearly two-hour lunch, which is also attended by PR person Jeremy Glajch, people wave to him, stop to chat. “It’s a big city, but everybody knows everybody,” he says. In Spago’s, it seems, everybody knows Dave Cassidy. Part of me wonders how much of the show of bonhomie is for my benefit, but it’s true that most places I go in Windsor, people seem to know one another to a degree I wouldn’t have expected.
He tells me about the impacts of the parts shortage on the autoworkers that his union represents and the casino’s bumpy COVID-19 recovery. “When people aren’t working, this city really is a ghost town,” he says. Earlier this year, Cassidy negotiated the future return of a third shift at Windsor Assembly Plant. As of the third week of November, he tells me, everybody laid off when the third shift closed has a job on one of the two remaining shifts — the other will come later.
The past few years have hit his membership hard, he acknowledges. I ask him what that’s meant for how they eat: he and Glajch reminisce about a cooked turkey dinner event they held in 2020 (it was a drive-thru, like many such events in the car town). “Was it 1,500 turkeys, roast turkey, potatoes?” Cassidy asks. “That was just that was something we needed to do. And it was snowing. It was a snowstorm.”
And Cassidy anticipates those struggles will go on for the next few years. “We know we’re going to have some downtime because of retooling,” he says — nine or 10 weeks where the plant is closed — and ongoing supply-chain issues will affect the auto sector. Unifor’s local members in hospitality and other sectors will be affected by continuing pandemic shocks and any downturns in the local economy, he says: “People will feel the crunch.”
But Cassidy also feels a breath of fresh air coming along with the bridge and the batteries and a controversial new hospital development: “New investment, new product, lots of work for people, lots of opportunities in all our industries.” For him, the presence of so much outside investment and so much attention from other levels of government mean the town is still on the rise.
Lunch takes nearly two hours, ending with coffee. It is delicious. It is also expensive — after some banter (“Nobody’s ever gonna know”; “My boss, I swear to God, has me, like, chipped or something”), I pay for myself.
Near the end of the meal, I tell Cassidy I need to ask him a sensitive question: What does he think about the fact that he is a regular at this beautiful, expensive restaurant while also leading a union with members who are facing so much hardship? How does he do that math for himself?
He pauses for a very short second and then gives me a long answer. Here’s part of it: “I know that I have members who are struggling. But I don’t apologize for this. The hours that I put in, I deserve to have breaks or vacations or a meal.”
Rino Bortolin is pissed off. I meet the former downtown Windsor city councillor at March 21 just after
interviewing Anneke Smit. His son is working behind the counter, I find out: Windsor, again, this small-big town. The chef, who ran Rino’s Kitchen and Ale House before running for office, declined to run in the recent municipal elections after serving two terms as the councillor for Ward 3. After chairing the campaign of runner-up mayoral candidate Chris Holt in this fall’s race, he’s taking a step back. He’s mad, and he’s tired, and he acknowledges he’s being more unfiltered and cynical than he would normally be.
“Windsor has a huge problem with the divide between the haves and the have-nots,” he says, noting that you can see that divide in food: an unusually mature restaurant scene for such a small city — and the documented preponderance of hunger. In his estimation, that divide is widening all the time, and things will only get worse in the next decade.
“It’s going to be harder and harder for people to rise out of poverty when they can’t buy a house, when they don’t have transportation, they don’t have access to the jobs that are coming here,” he says. “In that sense, they will always be experiencing food insecurity.”
When I mention the June 27 Miracle, he practically rolls his eyes and then cuts me off. “We love the Band-Aids, and we love to feel better about the Band-Aids,” he says. Putting 10 cans in a bag outside your door is a lot easier than voting for someone who wants to raise property taxes. It’s a lot easier than working for a more equitable city. It’s a lot less demanding than changing the way you think about politics and about people. “If we put that much effort into solving the problem and raising people out of poverty, we wouldn’t need a food drive,” he says. “We wouldn’t need a miracle.”
Charity has long been a big part of the status quo in Windsor. And it’s true that all the work and all the innovation of the people I met who work in that sector is feeding people. It is meeting a need that exists. But, as the people I spoke with acknowledged, there’s no way the charitable sector could meet all the need.
I’m also thinking about some of what Cassidy said to me, about Windsor and work. When people aren’t working in Windsor, the city becomes a ghost town — but what about people who can’t work, like Pontich? What about people who are too old or too young, like seniors or kids? What about the fact that working often doesn’t pay the bills anymore?
The city just re-elected Dilkens, who has been mayor since 2014. He promised to keep property-tax increases minimal and increase policing downtown in the name of community safety. It’s a standard small-c conservative political line, and it found traction with the 32 per cent of Windsor voters who showed up to the polls. More than 31,000 people voted for him.
Under Dilkens’s administration, Teliszewsky notes, the city has committed $39 million in funds to a new affordable-housing development with 145 units, slated to be completed in 2023. Earlier this year, it also committed $76.4 million to a $170 million project with the federal government to improve and repair existing community housing in the Windsor-Essex region. And Dilkens secured federal funding for a new shelter for women and families that opened earlier this year.
In late 2021, Dilkens voted against a plan to add a new express bus route. “The reason white-collar riders don’t take the bus in Windsor is not because it’s not a good service and the drivers aren’t nice and everything else,” he said during a heated city-council debate in response to criticism from Bortolin. “The reason they don’t take it is because they can own a car and get, in rush hour, from one end of the city to the next in 15 minutes. So they prefer to drive because they can.” (His office did not directly address a TVO.org question about these remarks.)
When we talk months later, it’s clear Bortolin is still stewing about this conversation and all it represents. “If you don’t have a car, fuck you,” he says. “That’s what that means.”
On my last night in Windsor, I leave the hotel for a drink. I just need to be around people, and I sit at the bar, one stool away from a man of approximately my own age who politely inches his stool a tiny bit farther away when I sit down and then does not acknowledge my presence again. I try to order a Miller High Life, which is hard to get in Canada, and the bartender tells me they used to have it on tap but don’t stock it anymore.
As I sit in silence with my new friend, watching American Thanksgiving ads and the single overworked server, I hear locals and visitors enjoying a night out. Things seem pretty simple in here (except for that one server). Outside this bar, though, the picture of Windsor is more complicated. And it’s clear that change is coming for this place, ready or not.
In the past 40 years, hunger has become a depoliticized issue in Canada, the work of addressing it shunted to the charitable sector and to food banks that — many would be shocked to learn — simply weren’t part of the Canadian experience before the recession of the early 1980s. Here in Windsor, it’s clear that solution, such as it was, hasn’t worked. “Everything we do is a Band-Aid,” Fordham told me, sitting in his HQ. “That’s the sad part.”
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust and Goldie Feldman in Memoriam.