The Emptiness of Empty Protests

Those must have been heady political days in the late-60s, early-70s, here in Toronto. stopthespadinaA citizens group forms to stop the move to pave neighbourhoods and put up an expressway. It coalesces into a bunch of reform-minded politicians who take control of City Hall and run it for the next decade or so.

The dream of grassroots activists everywhere!

Faint echoes of such a movement occurred in 2003, with David Miller’s broom representative of sweeping out the cronyism and incompetence that had consumed the Mel Lastman administration. But truthfully, that really only resonated at the mayoral level. The make up of council did not change that much. Thirty incumbents were re-elected. Only four defeated. And of the two new faces entering City Hall, Mike Del Grande and Karen Stintz, would hardly be considered Millerites.

No. The real descendant of the David Crombie-John Sewell municipal populist movement would have to be – gulp! – fordnationRob Ford. Yes, Rob Ford, dammit. In 2010, not only did he handily win the office of mayor, thumping the outgoing Deputy Mayor in the process, but five incumbents are tossed including the speaker, Sandra Bussin, a couple more are scared into submission with squeaker victories in their respective wards and a majority of the nine other rookie councillors initially falling in line to support the new mayor’s mandate.

Ford Nation, folks. Brimming full of respect for the taxpayers and come to stop the gravy train at City Hall. It’s what a grassroots insurgency looks like in the 21st-century.

But it seems in the intervening 40 years or so between the Crombie-Ford eras the protest portion of populism’s DNA has subsumed the reformist urge. noWhile David Crombie’s CivicAction Party began as a protest against the proposal to bring the Spadina Expressway downtown, it grew into something that actually governed the city.

Now into its third year in power, the Ford Administration shows no similar ability or inclination even. Governing is what professional politicians do. One-note outraged howls of protest are for the self-proclaimed amateurs.

Take a gander at Councillor Doug (Imma Businessman Not A Politician Folks) Ford’s op-ed on proposed transit funding today here and here and here. Or just read one. It’s the same thing spread over three of the city’s four dailies. Go figure.

Or let me summarize for you if you’re pressed for time.

No. No, no, no. No, no, no, no. NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo. No. Uh-uh. Nope. No, no, no. Not on my watch. Over my dead body. NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo.

Not a word about alternatives. No other options offered up. johnnystrablerYou’d think with all that free press at his disposal, the councillor might use the opportunity to lay out a transit plan that has been lacking for the three years since his brother announced his intentions to run for mayor. A plan?! We don’t need no stinkin’ plan!!

We just say no.

Name an initiative Team Ford has put forth that hasn’t been about cutting or dismantling.

It’s never about building. Theirs is a protest of destruction not construction. The anti-tax foundation on which Ford Nation is built extends to anti-everything. They took the ‘pro’ out of protest. Let’s call it the antitest.

I thought about labelling this movement the Johnny Strablers after Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One. “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Mildred asks. “Whaddya got?” Johnny answers.

But there’s too much retro-cool in that. stubbornThe Ford brothers might take it as a compliment.

So I’ll go further back, into the 19th-century, and the nativist Know-Nothing political party. Ford Nation shares quite a bit in common with them but it’s not a perfect fit. So let’s dub them the No-Nothing party. You want new transit? No. Need to open additional shelter beds? No. Hey, Mayor Ford. You going to march in this year’s Pride Parade? No.

Don’t get me wrong. They’re all for brand new shiny stuff if you convince them it won’t cost the city a dime. A casino? You betcha. Jets flying into the island airport? Okey-dokey. But any talk of reaching into our pockets and contributing to the broader public commons? No.

This is the inevitable outcome of protest built on pure negativity. We voted for someone with a long list of what’s wrong but an empty column of how to fix it. Opposition with no solutions is just opposition. Nothing gets done. Everything grinds to a halt.

strutsandfretsIt’s a situation any parent will immediately recognize. We are living through a two year old’s temper tantrum.

feet stampingly submitted by Cityslikr

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

Toeing The Line

It has been eye-opening over the course of the past week, just how much difficulty I’ve encountered attempting to write something, anything about the circumstances surrounding the death of Toronto Police Sargeant, Ryan Russell. What’s that nagging voice, tub-thumbing from the depths of my frontal cortex? No, no, no, no! Don’t say that! You can’t say that! Is that… could it be… self-censorship? Really?

Where I seem to possess precious little hesitancy in hammering away at our politicians, when it comes to the police, I have proven to be a veritable pussycat. A sign of respect? Maybe. Worse, fear? I would hope not, after all, we’re not living in Russia. This isn’t Russia. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia. (A quiet shout-out to all you Caddyshack fans in the audience.)

Surely I don’t think that if I speak out in less than glowing terms about the police, their conduct, their budget demands, I will somehow be targeted. My name added to a list, my movements monitored, mysterious break-ins at the office. That’s ridiculous. I mean, look at former mayor John Sewell. A much more visible target, standing on a higher platform, making far more contentious comments. Yet, he continues to freely cycle around town, subject only to printed personal attacks (links h/t to Orwell’s Bastard) and not any unsolved hit-and-runs attempts. We don’t live in that kind of country.

No, my hesitancy in writing about police issues is much more internalized, bred into the bone with a steady diet of reverence and dutiful observance to the service performed by our men and women in blue. Selflessly putting their lives on the line each and every day, providing that Thin Blue Line between order and chaos. I’ve accepted the narrative and on most days even believe it. During the course of a lifetime, I’ve met a number of cops who, to a person, have been genuinely decent people.

I do not begrudge them their outpouring of grief for their fallen compatriot and the public spectacle that will be Sgt. Russell’s funeral tomorrow. A word will not be peeped about the traffic congestion created as police numbering in the thousands march down University Avenue in downtown Toronto. So it should be. (Here’s that self-censoring gnome, hammering away again.) Society must maintain a heightened shock at the death of a police officer in the line of duty. The graveness of such an act needs to be underscored. We cannot simply shrug off the murder of one who has sworn to protect citizens and uphold the laws of the land.

But… but… at the same time we seem to have become blithe in the face of the pain and suffering occurring amongst the weakest members of our society. No, Sgt. Russell’s accused killer, Richard Kachkar, did not die in the course of his arrest. He was just wounded. But over the last two decades, some 10 individuals suffering from mental illness have been killed at the hands of Toronto police.

While I’m certainly not blaming the police directly for such killings (or at least, my self-censoring self doesn’t), neither do I think we should simply shrug our shoulders and brush it off as just another crazy fuck snapping. It can hardly be a coincidence that over the course of those same last two decades, senior levels of government have cut deeply into mental health funding in their rush toward fiscal responsibility, opening wide the doors of psychiatric institutions and leaving the vulnerable to the vagaries of the streets, the kindness of strangers and the stretched-to-snapping resources of municipalities. We’ve delegated the police to be the last line of defense in our handling of those afflicted with mental illness, resulting in all too regular tragic turns of events like the death of Sgt. Russell.

It is not my intention to politicize all this but it can hardly be avoided, I guess. Witness Councillor Ford’s outburst at the budget committee meeting last week. However, it is worth noting and repeating that the Toronto Police Services budget, already comparable to what the city spends on all its social services, is not in line to be cut. Its requested increase decreased somewhat but not cut. In order to balance the city’s budget (while maintaining sacrosanct tax cuts and freezes), ‘inefficiencies’ and ‘re-allocations’ will have to be found elsewhere. With such a zero sum, dog-eat-dog scenario, it’s tough to believe that more confrontations between our police and already neglected sufferers of mental illness won’t be in the offing.

All this is not to say we shouldn’t mourn the death of Sgt. Ryan Russell. But perhaps afterwards, when all the solemn pageantry has finished, we can take a moment to consider those we’ve marginalized and left to their own devices. Initiate a discussion about this systemic neglect we’ve allowed to happen and whether there are more sensible and humane methods of dealing with those who’ve so sadly fallen through society’s cracks.

Nothing can be easier than celebrating and venerating our most powerful institutions especially when they suffer a loss. Our measure, though, should be taken by how we regard and tend to those left abandoned and neglected, with little voice to speak for their cause. Those who should be cared for not policed.

reluctantly submitted by Cityslikr