Missing In Action

Tomorrow, August 19, is the deadline for candidates to file nomination papers in order to run in the October 24th municipal election race. On Monday the 22nd, the city clerk will certify the nominations, making everything official. After the Labour Day weekend, the campaign will begin in earnest.

Barring any last minute, out-of-the-blue entries, I think it’s safe to say, Toronto is staring down at the most desultory civic election since, perhaps, 2000 when Mayor Mel Lastman rolled to re-election in the 2nd post-amalgamation campaign, handily defeating environmental activist Tooker Gomberg with nearly 80% of the popular vote.

The seeming lack of enthusiasm (factoring into that equation it being the waning days of summer, plus the lingering scent of a late spring provincial election that generated the lowest voter turnout in Ontario’s history) starts at the top of the ballot, as they say. Conventional wisdom has it that Mayor John Tory will glide effortlessly into a third term. No horse race there and general interest in the whole municipal campaign wanes. According to conventional wisdom.

This, despite the fact that there’s actually a more than credible and hugely intriguing candidate running against the incumbent mayor. Gil Peñalosa, an actual city builder not just a building builder (The Cranes! The Cranes! Oh My God! Look at the number of cranes in the sky!) Founder of the non-profit 8 80 Cities and, as Parks Commissioner, Peñalosa helped spearhead the transformation of the city of Bogotá into a more inclusive city for all its residents back in the late-1990s. He should pose a serious threat to Mayor Tory who, while respected in some important circles (none of which I run in), is beloved by no one. Ask the cornerstone question of those seeking to be returned to office: Is place x better than it was y years ago when you were first elected? Is Toronto a better city now than it was in 2018? 2014?

It’s hard to imagine another answer other than a resounding ‘No’.

Toronto’s bogged down in congestion. It’s dirtier. Both hard and soft infrastructure broken and decrepit. The city feels meaner and more Manhattanized. Bigger shows of wealth and privilege surrounded by growing manifestations of poverty and injustice. Heavy-handed clearances of homeless encampments while people are turned away from shelters nightly leading to more living rough on the streets.

This is John Tory’s Toronto. In a just world, he would be fighting for his political life. Instead, the man’s looking at another ho-hum coronation.

And a third term with nebulous new, enhanced powers of the office thanks to Doug Ford wading into yet another municipal campaign midstream to alter the rules of the game. Full details still to come – yeah, that’s right, with only 66 days left before we go to the polls – it seems the premier wants to give the next mayors of Toronto and Ottawa some form of strong mayor status for the titular purpose of getting more housing built. Just how exactly, well, that’s difficult to discern. Mostly what the proposed bill will do – and given Doug Ford’s well-established dim view of city governance it’s hard to imagine otherwise – is further diminish individual councillors’ actual impact on what happens at City Hall. Your vote for mayor will be the only one that matters and even that might not matter much as it seems what ‘strong’ powers Doug Ford is granting to the mayor will be contingent on the city aligning objectives with ‘provincial priorities’. A strong mayor serving as a proxy for actual rule from Queen’s Park.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been an uncharacteristic exodus of incumbent city councillors heading into this campaign. Seven of twenty-five as of this writing. Two were elected provincially in June, five just calling it a day. Two, good riddance. Another two, m’eh. Three, a legitimate loss of positive local representation.

Now, you might think this would make things exciting. Open seats up for grabs. No overwhelming incumbent advantage. A generational opportunity to transform the council make-up at City Hall.

You might think.

Yet, again as of this writing, the number of candidates signed up for city council races is alarmingly low, more than half as few as in 2018.

What’s happening?

After the spike in civic action to counter the maelstrom of the Rob Ford years, we seemed to have taken a long pause of a deep breath to recover, believing, I guess, the worst to be over. At least until the late-mayor’s brother, a one-term city councillor, was elected premier of the province in 2018 and immediately began his assault on local governance in Toronto by slashing the number of city councillors in half in the middle of that municipal campaign. And now, this time around with his ‘strong’ mayor gambit, further undermining city council’s role. There’s been John Tory’s furious two-term façade of competency, delivering up the p.r. massaged impression to those not paying much attention that everything’s fine, everything’s roses, property taxes at-or-below the rate of inflation, while the frayed edges of livability for many residents unravel to the core. And, of course, COVID. Everyone’s struggling to get back to some sense of normal, as it was before.

Steady as she goes, goes the thinking, regardless of just how unsteady everything really is.

Is it a case of needing a warm hug of the familiar in troubling times? Everything’s changing. Everything’s terrible. Hold me tight. Maybe it’s all only a bad dream.

The early days of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, we all witnessed in real time the unfairness and disparities in both health and economic outcomes that were built into the system. “Things can’t go back to the way they were!” we declared. Two+ years on, we’ve backslid past the way things were a few years ago into an arena of exacerbated inequities and deepened social divisions we haven’t seen in nearly 100 years. There’s been change alright, just not for the better.

Rather than the muted, almost resigned electoral vibe we’re experiencing right now, as happened during the provincial campaign in June, there are plenty of reasons for an outraged, indignant clamoring of candidacies demanding fundamental alterations to the ways in which we go about the business of our collective lives. But the loudest, blaring noise we’re hearing is out of the bullhorn of unhinged sociopathy. Social media propelled conspiracies, anti-anything and everything cooperative and collective, overt racism and misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, the reactionary greatest hits are top of the pops on the radio dial of public discourse. Putting all the clicks into clickbaiting.

Progressive voices, it seems, at least the institutional ones operating within political parties and city council chambers, are responding with the operational directive not to ruffle too many feathers.

How else to explain a provincial government able to essentially Marcel Morceau its way to an increased majority on the cusp of yet another wave of a pandemic that had already killed about 13,000 thousand Ontarians, all public mandates and measures tossed, testing suppressed, vaccinations programs on the back burner, its alternatingly hesitant and ham-fisted handling of the outbreak championed as: It Could’ve Been Worse, Folks! A government on constant war footing with its public sector employees including the depleted and exhausted health care workers. A government determined to smash up local democracy. A government building highways as the earth catches on fire.

It’s as if the opposition NDP figured, incorrectly, for a second time in as many election cycles, that voters would figure it out all on their own and rise up to throw the bums out. When the Ford government went quiet on the campaign trail, the NDP were at a loss at how to proceed. Yet again.

In Toronto, Mayor Tory’s most vocal critics from the left all fell into line when Covid came, refusing to break ranks when it seemed some public health measures emerged more from the mayor’s office than the CMOH. Expert advice could not be challenged, at least not in public, ironically, for fear of undermining expert credibility. There’s no ‘i’ in team, as they say. Unlike ‘informed debate’. Things settled into the mayor’s favourite incrementalism mode.

Any sort of progressive movement in reaction to recent political turmoil has been left out to dry by our elected progressive officials. In some cases, for very good reasons. There’s simply too much to do for any one individual who also wants a healthy work-life balance. In other cases, who knows? Everybody’s tired, working to contribute what they can in their little corner of the world, to make life better for as many people as possible with nothing left to spare to kick up much of a fuss.

And maybe they’re right. Maybe in their well-earned and heavily polled political wisdom, they’ve concluded that a majority of us simply don’t want a big hubbub. We think this is just a phase, a downturn in fortunes that will inevitably bounce back all in good time. Let’s not make any sudden moves and startle the expected revival. Nothing radical. The unpleasant din will die down. Order will be restored, and what we had going on before will just have to be good enough.

Leave the anger and foment to those others, that mob.

All the dead, the dispossessed and the displaced be damned.


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