Some Toronto business owners in the LGBTQ community say they are worried that they’re being shut out of a provincial grant program because their businesses sometimes include sexual products or services, which are specifically banned in the program’s eligibility rules.

Toronto-Centre MPP Kristyn Wong-Tam, who is the NDP’s critic on 2SLGBTQ+ issues, is calling for those requirements to be changed.

“2SLGBTQI+ businesses are going to talk about queer sex — and this government must grow up and live with this reality,” Wong-Tam said in a letter to the province’s Minister of Citizenship and Multiculturalism Michael Ford.

“Queer businesses offer many 2LSGBTQI+ Ontarians some of their first experiences seeing who they are and what they desire represented and validated — experiences that heterosexual Ontarians take for granted.” 

The Racialized and Indigenous Supports for Entrepreneurs (RAISE) grant program was launched last year to give business owners who are Black, Indigenous and people of  colour a leg up, with cash “to start and grow their businesses by providing capital, training and mentorship,” according to a statement from Ford’s office.

“MPP Wong-Tam’s statement is highly misleading as they claim that the definition ‘unduly’ excludes many 2SLGBTQQIA+ businesses,” the statement continues.

“All businesses whose primary mandate is related to or fundamentally dependent on products, services or displays of a sexual nature are ineligible.” 

George Pratt, who chairs the Church Wellesley BIA, says the grant requirements are putting an unfair burden on law-abiding business owners.
George Pratt, who chairs the Church Wellesley BIA, says the grant requirements are putting an unfair burden on law-abiding business owners. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Exclusion criteria ‘discriminatory,’ says business owner

That statement concerns Michael Fanous, who runs a pharmacy and clinic called MedsEXPERT in the city’s Church-Wellesley neighbourhood and works primarily with the LGBTQ community.

“The exclusion criteria is discriminatory,” Fanous, who uses they/them pronouns told CBC Toronto. “Our business focuses on sexual health, and so we provide things like…condoms, and things to help us have safer sex and so we don’t shy away from the topic.

“We were founded in order to address the stigma that exists in sexual health so that we can help queer guys access the care that we need.”

Michael Fanous, a pharmacist and director of MedsEXPERT pharmacy and clinic, has applied for a RAISE grant, but is unsure whether the products he sells will disqualify him for the $10,000 grant.
Michael Fanous, a pharmacist and director of MedsEXPERT pharmacy and clinic, has applied for a RAISE grant, but says they are unsure whether the products they sell will disqualify their business for the $10,000 grant. (Mike Smee/CBC)

The program was launched last year, according to the ministry, with individual grants of $10,000 to 400 Indigenous, Black and other racialized entrepreneurs. The funding was extended this year for an additional three years, with a total investment of $5 million each year.

Speaking to CBC Toronto, Ford spokesperson Mark Pelayo, said the controversial eligibility requirement was included to fight “human trafficking,” and that there was no intention to exclude members of the LGBTQ community specifically.

But he said the restriction on selling “sexual products and sexual services, and displays of a sexual nature” remains.

Calls mount to change program requirements

George Pratt, chair of the Church-Wellesley Business Improvement Area, said there’s also a legal argument to be made against the restrictions.

“It seems really troublesome to me,” Pratt said.

“These are legally operating businesses in the City of Toronto and I think that they should be given the same opportunities.”

Wong-Tam, in their letter to Ford, said they want the minister to immediately loosen the restrictions, “so that all Ontario businesses can apply,” also calling on him to explain why the restriction was initially included in the program requirements.

Fanous said they have applied to the program, which is set to close for applications Friday, but they’re not sure how their application will be received.

“Do you have a crystal ball?” Fanous said.

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