When trade union rep Ivan Dawns of Whitby, Ont. sees needy people begging for money on the streets of downtown Toronto, it grates on him for several reasons.
For one, he thinks, Canada is a wealthy country and it’s disappointing we can’t find a way to provide for them.
Secondly, 20 years ago, he was as down and out and he knows how they feel.
This Christmas, spurred by his own memories of a meagre holiday meal, Dawns fed 250 of his fellow Durham Region citizens, serving up a full holiday meal with all the trimmings at the Back Door Mission on Simcoe Street in Oshawa.
He teamed up with a squad of about 10 volunteers to serve the meal but he footed the bill himself. It was a trial run, he said, for what he hopes will be an annual event.
“It was really good,” said Dawns, a business agent with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. “I was surprised when I looked outside while we were doing the food, just doing the final touches, and I looked outside and there were so many people lined up.”
Dawns came to Canada from Jamaica in 1997 and found employment as a construction worker, learning the drywall finishing trade. But a few years later his marriage broke up and he decided to make a clean start, leaving his ex-wife with all of their resources.
Come December, Dawns found himself turning down his sister’s offer of a Christmas meal. That year he had rice and sardines for his holiday dinner.
“Ever since then, I always said, ‘you know what, I want to do something for people who need help.’
“We do have a prosperous society, but sometimes people have some situations that lead them to do things, sometimes it’s caused by chance.
“Not everybody is strong. Some people I talked to went through a nasty divorce just like myself.”
Dawns stops and talks to the homeless people he sees in Toronto and sometimes he encourages them to consider a job in the trades, as he did. He later got into other charitable efforts, notably contributing to building a school in his former homeland of Jamaica, but as a Canadian citizen now he feels the need to help out his fellow Canadians.
He was ready to undertake a Christmas dinner last year but COVID hit and shelved the idea. This year he enlisted a friend, Aubrey Arlette, to help locate a shelter that could accommodate a large-scale Christmas meal and eventually Back Door accepted their offer. The shelter regularly feeds 250 people from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day but it does not have the resources to hand out a full Christmas repast.
Retired chef Steve Taylor came on board to help prepare 300-plus dinners of turkey, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, corn, cookies, cheesecake and fruit juice.
“I was outside talking to a few of them,” Dawns said. “One guy, maybe middle-aged or early 50s, he said to me, ‘All I was looking forward to today was just a hug and a Merry Christmas. But today I got more than that.’ ”
The thrill of helping others was tempered by the reality of the situation, Dawns said.
“I was overjoyed but also a little bit disappointed to know that this thing is going on in my backyard and I didn’t know about it.”
Dawns financed the meal from some of his vacation pay this year but next year he is ready to accept more help, take donations and expand the effort.
“Thanks to my union I have a steady job, a good union job. I’m not a rich man by any means. But I’m in a position now where I’m comfortable.
“Next year I’m looking to get a bigger team. I know that the word is out.”
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.