John Sewell: Yesterday’s Man

Maybe it’s the holiday spirit slowly seeping into this empty, cold soul of mine but I gotta say, goofybastardsI love this big sprawling mess of a megacity and each and every one of its goofy bastard inhabitants. Except maybe one right now. John Sewell. In fact, I’m going to say something that very few people outside of maybe the Toronto Police Services have said before.

Fuck John Sewell. Fuck him and his rethinking the Toronto megacity article last week in the Globe and Mail. He couldn’t be more wrong-headed, and his attitude reflects the worst of our elitist downtown-ccentric thinking. As if everything was fine and dandy before the Mike Harris government unceremoniously ignored our collective municipal wishes and lumped us together with our suburban bumpkin cousins.

Here’s a fact that Mr. Sewell seems to conveniently overlook.

In a few weeks’ at the end of this year, amalgamation will be fifteen years old. During that time, we will have had a mayor from the former inner suburbs eight years and a mayor from the old downtown city seven. David Miller, at least until the outside workers strike in 2009, proved that issues could resonate beyond the 416 core. Mel Lastman was not without a base in downtown Toronto. megacityWhile perhaps representing the most extreme of the supposed divide, Rob Ford voters weren’t scarce in some old Toronto wards.

As easy as it is to write up the narrative of Rob Ford’s rise to power as nothing more than the face of inchoate suburban rage, looking to extract some sort of populist revenge upon the highfalutin elites, the truth is much more complicated. Rob Ford was a phenomenon of 2010, surfing a wave that broke perfectly for him

An unnerved population still reeling from a global economic freefall and looking for someone to blame for their uncertainty. Palpable anger in the air at municipal workers who were portrayed as lazy, shiftless fat cats always demanding a bigger chunk of the public purse. Outgoing politicians giving themselves a gold plated send off. Terrible candidates who either ran similar but much less effective anti-incumbent campaigns or who just couldn’t convey the good the Miller administration had undertaken or connect viscerally with voters.

Lightning in a bottle in other words. Something that will be much more difficult to pull off a second time. Recent polls certainly indicate as much.

There’s no question there are different attitudes between former municipalities that linger on. “Everyone recognizes that human behaviour is very much influenced by built form,” Sewell writes, “and that’s where the two cultures come in.” headinsandYes, Etobicoke, Scarborough, North York and York are still more car dependent, say, than parts of Toronto and East York. At least the areas that remain under-serviced by public transit are. But that would be less to do with built form than adaptation to new realities, wouldn’t it?

Mr. Sewell seems to believe that the die is cast. Something built sixty-years ago cannot ever change. Let’s just all accept that and stop pretending otherwise.

You know who else thinks along those lines? Mayor Rob Ford. Somehow he’s the backward thinking, knuckle-dragging stick in the mud but John Sewell’s the enlightened voice of downtowners everywhere who just doesn’t want to get his hands dirty making this shit work.

Look, amalgamation was poorly implemented, perhaps deliberately so. But the concept isn’t inherently bad. A few specifics were.

For starters, the savings from efficiencies that Queen’s Park promised would happen just didn’t materialize. Creating one big institute of some 2.5 million people from six smaller ones detonated a critical mass instead of generating economies of scale that would heap savings upon us. squarepeg1Streamlining never proved to be as easy as all that as we now know a decade and a half on.

And I seem to remember something about amalgamation being revenue neutral. The province would download some services and programs and upload others, specifically our educational system. We wouldn’t notice a thing.

That too didn’t quite turn out to be true. As Matt Elliott points out in his 2013 budget analysis, the megacity is still waiting for the province to reclaim some $400 million in costs the Harris government placed on Toronto’s ledger. This year we’re being relieved of about $14 million of that. A rate which, if continued as is, should eliminate the imbalance in just another 30 years. Combine that with the fact two successive provincial governments have shirked their duty to pay half of the TTC’s annual operating costs and you might conclude that this whole amalgamation could’ve gone a whole smoother if the city hadn’t been left fighting over the crumbs left on the table by Queen’s Park.

I will, however, agree with John Sewell that the yoinking of the Metro level of government in the amalgamation process also has contributed mightily to our currents woes. Having only one elected official representing the entire city can lead to some sort of binary dynamic. If a mayor doesn’t possess something of a broader view of things, then it’s simply about pitting councillors’ interests against each other and herding until you get 22 of them on side. It’s not about reaching a consensus as much as it is pounding square pegs into round holes until they sort of fit.

A wider, broader and longer perspective is needed. That’s not going to be accomplished by de-amalgamating. turtleinshellThe city needs to recreate a metro like body with more councillors elected on a city-wide basis, free from simply ward-by-ward interests. Exactly what that make-up would be is for another post entirely. Suffice to say, there are better ways to build bridges in this city then re-fracturing in a vain attempt to recapture past magic.

The reality we need to accept right now is that amalgamation signalled the province no longer wanted to work as anything resembling equal partners with this city. They wanted a pliable entity that would fight amongst itself, fight with the wider region and not cause too much trouble politically. How else to explain Ontario Liberal leadership hopeful Sandra Pupatello’s ‘too Toronto’ Canadian Club comment?

In one fell swoop, she took a pot shot at the entire GTA and threw Niagra into the mix. I mean, who else aside from Sandra Pupatello sees PC leader Tim Hudak as ‘too Toronto’? “… there’s a whole big province out there,” she said, almost as if it were a threat.

Such obstreperousness from the province will not effectively be countered by reverting back to smaller, pre-amalgamated entities. onecityIn fact, we need to be looking much broader in order to defend our interests. This is no longer simply about East York versus North York. No, no, no, no. It’s not even urban versus suburban now.

This is about city building on a regional level. That can’t be done by popping our heads back into our shells, hoping this has all been some horrible fifteen year nightmare, a socio-political experiment gone wrong. It’s the future, baby. Let’s embrace it and figure out a way to make it work to our collective advantage.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr

4 Responses to John Sewell: Yesterday’s Man

  1. Simon Says says:

    Scalability is always an issue. You can’t build a bigger, better city by cobbling together several disparate areas and think everything will work out for the best.

    Amalgamation was a pipe dream.

  2. Nick says:

    I agree totatally with you Daren. I was involved in group he led in 2005-2006 called Direct City Action, which was attempting to get some of the excess tax money that Toronto residents were paying to the feds returned to the City (in the days the feds were running a surplus). But I gave up on this group when I realized it was about deamalgamation…so he’s been thumping this drum for years to little avail. Tweak the structures, yes, but don’t rent it asunder just because of a crappy mayoral abberation.

  3. Sonny says:

    Isn’t Mike Harris a Con?

    • Sonny says:

      So I missed getting to do a Budget deputation because of a motion to limit speakers and the time has dropped from 5 to 3 mins!
      What I noticed is that some Yesterday’s Men are on the ALL male budget committee that are not really listening OR asking questions…

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