Over the last few days while out and about on my summer cavort, I’ve been asked by some folks who still think of me as someone avidly if not rigorously interested in municipal politics what I think of the election of Olivia Chow as mayor of Toronto. Am I happy with the turn of events? Is she as socialist scary as some of her opponents said? How she’s going to fare, do you think?
Sure. It’s well past time that Toronto elected someone into the mayor’s office who actually reflected the diversity the city has long since claimed to be all about.
So, there’s that.
Olivia Chow is only socialist if you hate bike lanes and property tax increases above the rate of inflation. Is she further left on the spectrum than either John Tory or Rob Ford? Well, yeah. But that hardly makes her Salvador Allende.
How are the next 3 years going to go for her and the city?
Well, that’s where the tempered expectations come in.
What’s that joke about women only landing the top job just when everything’s gone to shit?
Fiscally, the city’s in a deep, deep hole, to the tune of $1.5 billion or thereabouts by most accounts. Infrastructure, both soft and hard, is in tatters. More and more people have been forced to live out on the streets and parks. Food bank lineups continue to grow longer and longer. There is an actively hostile and ham-fisted interventionist government at Queen’s Parks, always ready and willing to throw up obstacles and circle hoops to be jumped through. Federally, the Liberal government, representing 24 of the 25 ridings that make up the 6, has an actuarial approach to providing funds for the city, the sweet spot being just the right amount to make it look like it’s actually doing something substantive especially for those residents who go to the opera and can vote.
Not to mention all the wounds self-inflicted by City Hall over the past dozen+ years. A steadfast refusal to raise revenue to appropriate levels and the corresponding cutting and shaving of services and programs. The slow siphoning of rainy day reserves. City staff rendered risk aversive to the point of being openly antagonistic to any sort of change or hostile to the concept of proaction (unless, of course, it comes to clearing encampments of the unhoused and denying refugees shelter space).
That’s all before we even get to the elephant in the room: the climate crisis.
So far, at least in 2023, Toronto’s avoided any direct, catastrophic hit through no doing on our part. But realistically, it’s only a matter of time. There’s no reason to think we’re in any way, shape or form prepared for the worst nature’s going to bring.
Ask again how I think Mayor Chow’s time in office is going to go.
She’ll have her work cut out for her. It’ll be an uphill battle. A tough slog. Why would anyone want this job at this time anyway?
You want to be optimistic and not that guy in the room, the old crank, predicting, feeding off, gloom and doom. To believe that every crisis presents an opportunity, an opportunity to rise to the occasion. Why not? If not now, when? All the alternatives are bleak.
Here are a couple possible upsides:
Starting mid-2024, both the province and feds will begin gearing up into election mode. That traditionally means the parties in power tend to open up their vaults and minds in order to try and sway the electorate in their direction. For the Trudeau government, they can ill-afford to lose many of their Toronto seats. That dynamic may compel them to be more open-fisted with requests from the city.
As for Doug Ford? His hold on power should be tenuous, enveloped as it continues to be in grift and sleaze. The premier’s chosen candidate in the mayoral by-election, former police chief, Mark Saunders, floundered badly. But he doesn’t really need Toronto votes to win. In fact, he could use his long-established grudge cudgel to bash the city as a way of energizing the rural and exurban base. That would open the door for the opposition parties to develop pro-city platforms enticing voters in the bigger population centres around the province, Toronto, the GTA suburbs, Ottawa, Hamilton, London, Windsor.
Mayor Chow’s already been setting that stage, introducing herself to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities even before being sworn into office. A collaborative approach with other cities to unify pressure on the senior levels of government, a tactic under-utilized by her predecessor who viewed himself as the Big City Mayor, the lone wolf comfortable in the corridors of power.
As detailed in Nicholas Hune-Brown’s pre-election profile of Chow in The Local, this points in the positive direction her mayoralty might take this city. During the near decade Chow was out of office, she essentially went back to school, to brush up on the ABCs of grassroots activism and community organizing. To learn how ‘to turn values into action’, using a syllabus phrase from a course taught by Marshall Ganz, an activist legend and Harvard professor Chow reached out to after the humbling defeat in the 2014 mayor’s race.
Let’s call it, Building a More Inclusive Democracy, pretty much the polar opposite of what happened in Toronto under John Tory’s leadership, his secret bid to install ‘strong mayor powers’ epitomizing his attempted corporatization of City Hall, hyper-boosted during Doug Ford’s time as premier, where he cut local representation in half during the 2018 municipal campaign. Just two guys calling the tune, between them, determining the city’s future. A future growing increasingly grim and unjust, heavy demarcation lines between the haves and have-nots.
Two guys touting two ideas (and I’m being generous with that with these two guys) will never come up with anything but simple-minded, slogan-friendly solutions, very, very exclusive solutions, beneficial to a very, very select few. The alternative is to look outward, toward more inclusion. More ideas. More diverse ideas. To attempt to ‘turn the values’ many of us claim to tout, fairness, equality of opportunity, a fucking roof over everyone’s head at the very least, into action.
Something done together, done by us not done to us or for us.
There’s certainly something to be optimistic about.