Toronto non-profit shutters music program to avoid union

10376297_1429389287346608_1967759796152361669_nBy Ryan Lum

When the Palisades Media Arts Academy (PMAA), a non-profit in the San Romanoway buildings of the Jane-Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, closed its doors in April, aspiring producer Joel Kamalando felt like he’d had a stick thrown in his spokes. “I was going into the studio every day, working on my beats, really applying myself and making progress. People were starting to pay me for my work.”

But without free access to PMAA’s state of the art recording software, instruments, tools and expertise, Kamalando had to make beats from home.

“I can’t afford all the high-end equipment, so I just have the basics. It’s been a real speed-bump to me making music,” says Kamalando.

Kamalando is now involved with SAVE PMAA, a group of former participants and concerned community members who want to see the program restored. SAVE PMAA has been holding rallies and asking people to sign a petition to re-open the PMAA studio since this past spring.

“We just want the administration to give us a straight answer about why they closed the doors. We’ve sent so many emails, we’ve tried to arrange so many meetings, but they keep on evading us,” says Kamalando.

While management at the San Romanoway Revitalization Association (SRRA), the community group which administered PMAA, claims that it had to discontinue operations due to lack of funding, a case brought to the Ontario Labour Relations Board by former PMAA staff alleges that the program was shut down in retaliation for union activity.

“They haven’t given us a good reason for why there’s no money. For me, PMAA was a home, a place to feel free, to go when you were surrounded by negativity. That’s been taken away.”

A large majority of the SRRA staff, including some of the PMAA staff, voted to join CUPE local 4772 in September 2013. Former PMAA staff Ruben Esguerra says that in the year and a half following his decision to form a union, he was given extra work assignments that he, as a trained musicologist, was not professionally equipped to carry out. He also says he saw adjustments made to PMAA that affected the quality of the programming.

“I was stretched in my capacities, performing duties that should have been left to a social worker. Little things that we used to get, like food and bus tokens for the participants, were taken away,” says Esguerra.

In April of this year, Esguerra and his colleague were informed that PMAA lacked funds to continue operations and that they were being laid off, even though the Trillium grant that floated the program was slated to last until the end of 2014.

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Sign posted at the PMAA announcing to workers and community members that the PMAA is closed.

“I came in one day after school and the doors were locked, and a sign on the door said ‘PMAA Closed,’” recalls Kamalando. “I left and came back the next day and the sign was still there. About a week later, they were taking away the studio equipment. I thought it was just a temporary thing.”

Within a month, new programming and staff were operating out of the former PMAA space. Esguerra’s case is ongoing, and he hopes the lengthy procedures don’t make workers and supporters complacent.

“These things can drag on for a long time and make people forget why they were struggling in the first place,” notes Esguerra.

Esguerra says he misses collaborating with youth and helping to make musical visions come to life. “I want to return to PMAA, but under better working conditions,” says Esguerra.

SAVE PMAA is planning to hold more rallies, and continues to seek disclosure from SRRA. Steven Rafael Gomez Salguero, aka Heavy Steve, a rapper, program graduate and organizer with SAVE PMAA, thinks the loss of was an avoidable tragedy. “They haven’t given us a good reason for why there’s no money. For me, PMAA was a home, a place to feel free, to go when you were surrounded by negativity. That’s been taken away.”

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