Our Place Initiative

February 27, 2015

Let me start this with as close an approximation to just-the-facts-ma’am as I can.

Our Place Initiative is a local, grassroots campaign built on the idea of developing and encouraging civic engagement in Etobicoke. ourplaceinitiative“We believe that it is important that decisions are made in the public interest and reflect the needs of the Etobicoke community,” from the group’s mission statement. “Choices that impact our health, our jobs, and our livelihood should be made with community input. But in order for it to happen, a community needs to be engaged on the issues and provided with the opportunity to learn more about them, if they choose.”

Begun in mid-2013, the group became active in 2014 and last night held its first public meeting. There was a surprisingly strong turnout, surprising because this is Etobicoke. (Oops, a little editorial spin snuck out there – more on that later.) Some 40 people filled a committee room at the Etobicoke Civic Centre on a, frankly, numbingly cold Thursday evening, suggesting that OPI just might be tapping into a potent if up until now latent local desire to get engaged.

If there’s a more appropriate symbol of what local engagement can achieve, it was the guest presenter at the meeting, Sabina Ali. sabinaaliChair of the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee, Ms. Ali’s been active locally pretty much from the moment she moved to Toronto in 2008. The list of quality of life improvements TPWC has worked as a force toward, sometimes in spite of the resistance shown by the city, is nothing short of amazing. She earned a Jane Jacobs Award for her work, work that shows no signs of ebbing. “I work with passion and really love doing that,” Ali told the group near the end of her talk.

A passionate engagement for community building.

The word ‘community’ came up a lot last night. After breaking the crowd up into some 5 working groups to brainstorm ideas on how to improve Etobicoke, something of a general thematic consensus emerged around that word. Community centres, community events, building a sense of community. One participant wanted not to have to always go downtown for entertainment, restaurants, culture, a sense of nightlife. No matter where people are in the city, it’s not just someplace they live or work. communityThey want to be part of it, part of a community.

There were certainly specific thoughts about how to improve Etobicoke from the group. Transit – surprise, surprise – figured prominently in the conversation. What was a surprise (that previous ‘surprise, surprise’ was sarcastic, in case that wasn’t clear), was that, here we were in the middle of the quintessential suburb and there was almost no talk of traffic or congestion. People wanted better public transit.

Residents also wanted more say about the kind of development that was happening in Etobicoke, especially in the southern portion from Bloor Street down to the lake. While I probably heard only one voice speak out against development as a thing, most were concerned that the condo boom was simply being imposed on them. That’s no way to build any sense of community.

If it hadn’t been clear to me before last night, it became obvious that when we talk about Etobicoke, it isn’t just one place, a solid hegemonic mass of sameness. getinvolvedCrudely, you could carve it up into 3 parts. There’s the traditional single-family home residential section where we were in central Etobicoke at the civic centre. Then there’s the booming development third in the south, a place with increasingly as much affinity to the downtown core as it has with the rest of Etobicoke. Then there’s the northern portion, industrial and largely working-class, as diverse an area as any in the city, that has largely been left to fend for itself, little or no official community building tools at its disposal.

Like I said, that’s a really, really rough outline. The lines of demarcation are hardly that stark. Still, there is no one size fix fits all for Etobicoke. Ideas, solutions, opportunities are as plentiful as the people who live there. Which is why residents should be more involved in the issues affecting their families and neighbourhoods. They need to be engaged.

Bringing me to the editorial aspect of this. The views and opinions expressed from here on in no way reflect those of Our Place Initiative. Just observations made by an outsider.robfordebay

Etobicoke suffers from a representation deficit. There is little evidence of wide-scale civic engagement because their local politicians haven’t really sought to engender such a thing. This is Ford country remember. The councillor (and former mayor) wants to hear from his residents only if they have a complaint to make or problem to be solved. It’s kind of a one-way relationship. While he claims this approach is just him looking out for the little guy in reality it has more to do with providing proof that government doesn’t really work.

Etobicoke is also the former fiefdom of Doug Holyday, the anti-tax/small government mentor of the Fords. There wasn’t a dollar of City Hall spending he didn’t suspect unnecessary. It’s not that engagement has to cost money but proactive involvement with residents and communities means staff time and, maybe, the odd pot of coffee. That smacked a little too much of waste.

The 3 incumbent Etobicoke councillors returned to office last October wouldn’t jump to the top of the list of community engagers. Aside from Rob Ford in Ward 2, Mark Grimes in Ward 6 spends time appearing in promotional videos for developers in his ward. Vince Crisanti in Ward 1, he… well, he…I don’t know what he does, actually.

Councillor Vincent Crisanti

Councillor Vincent Crisanti

While I’ll withhold judgement on the 3 new councillors, I’m not holding my breath in anticipation of a new type of representative at City Hall.

Stephen Holyday is the son of aforementioned Doug Holyday and he hasn’t shown any signs of having fallen far from the tree. In fact, last night’s meeting was in his ward and there was no sign of him or his staff. Ward 4’s John Campbell and Ward 5’s Justin DiCiano put in woeful performances last week at the Budget Committee although I will cut Councillor Campbell some slack as an assistant from his office did attend last night’s meeting and participated very enthusiastically.

With such a paucity of leadership (again, in my opinion), it’s going to take a concerted effort from the grassroots up to create an environment of engagement. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen. You can’t wish it into existence.

Based on last night’s meeting, Our Place Initiative has ably accepted the challenge of leading the charge. You don’t have to live in Etobicoke to be excited by that prospect. You should, however, follow along and take notes. It looks to be the start of something truly… ahem, ahem…engaging.

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Challengers To Watch XVI

September 16, 2014

Sitting in a small coffee shop on Kingston Road chatting with Ward 36 Scarborough Southwest city council candidate Robert Spencer about the city’s alarming rate of child poverty, gabbingI was struck by the fact that, wow, we were talking about child poverty. Here we were, as our municipal campaign hit its home stretch, and we’ve heard precious little about this ‘epidemic’ level of child poverty in Toronto. Talk about all the transit and infrastructure needs you want but a city that tolerates nearly 150,000 of its kids living under the poverty line isn’t really a place you should be proud to call home.

This seems to be the issue that has Spencer back knocking on doors after having lost in 2010 by just over 400 votes. Questions of fairness, equality of opportunity, justice have been lifelong pursuits of his during a career spent as a community activist. A former chair of the Toronto Board of Education, Executive Director of Ontario Association of Food Banks and co-founder of the Bluffs Advocate local newspaper, Spencer is well versed with the needs of the community as well as the bureaucracy that sees to them.

“The reality is the city is only great because its people are great,” Spencer told David Hains of the Torontoist last week. “The city only works well because we all get together and work together. I think there’s a whole slew of issues that are missed — if you only look at the hard services in a city, you miss what makes a city useful: art, culture, community education, good health programs, and good nutrition programs for kids. Those are all within the mandate of the City. They’re all much more interesting than arguing about whether eight years from now an environmental assessment is going to be put on this alignment or that alignment, this number of stations or that number of stations.”

Politics is about people not things. “Repaving the roads is not enough,” Spencer told me, although trying to “resolve as many of the practicalities as possible” is a city councillor’s job, filling potholes doesn’t make a city liveable, filling hungry kids’ bellies does.activism

It’s impossible for me to demonstrate the gulf of difference between Robert Spencer’s approach to governance and that of the man he’s trying to remove from office, Councillor Gary Crawford whose signature items during his first term were painting Mayor Ford’s portrait and drumming in the band that played Ford Fest. Oh, and his 76% pro-Ford voting record during the term, including eliminating water efficiency rebate programs, closing library branches, defunding the Tenant Defence Fund, eliminating community environment days, the Christmas bureau, the hardship fund.

And that was just in year one!texaschainsawmassacre

All this while one of the poorest areas of the city sits smack dab in the middle of Ward 36.

According to Spencer, he’s not hearing much of the Ford agenda banter as he’s talking to residents of the ward. Keeping taxes low doesn’t come up that often. As for the Scarborough subway plan, he’s says it’s about evenly split in terms of support. He doesn’t think much of it. It doesn’t do anything in terms of transit for the ward. He’d rather see express bus service brought back that was lost way back with amalgamation.

Again, politics is about people not about things.

I wound up my hour+ interview with Spencer with barely half a page of notes taken, not because he had little to say or out of sheer laziness on my part. communityinvestmentWe simply talked about the state of the city we both loved and what was needed to help try and fix it and I forgot to write stuff down. But his passion for Toronto and Ward 36, and his focus on how to create a fairer place to live with increased opportunities for everyone was obvious.

Whatever the outcome of this election on October 27th, if Robert Spencer is elected councillor of Ward 36 Scarborough Southwest, City Hall will be a better place. He is truly one of the good guys.

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Challengers To Watch XIII

August 28, 2014

Talking to Paul Bocking about Ward 35 Scarborough Southwest, it’s difficult to imagine how it sent the current councillor to City Hall to represent it. oneofthesethingsAs seen through Mr. Bocking’s lens, Ward 35 has the second lowest average family income in the city, the residents depend heavily on bus travel to get around, there is a prevalence of aging apartment towers.

And yet when you think of the incumbent, Michelle Berardinetti, what immediately springs to mind about her work in her first term is the Scarborough subway, bike lane removal and elephants.

Paul Bocking sees this election as one about inequality. (Yesterday’s news about the alarming rate of children living in poverty in Toronto certainly emphasizes that point.) Ward 35 is full of working class neighbourhoods hit hard by the collapse of the local manufacturing base. Former good paying jobs now replaced by minimum wage, temporary employment. Small businesses unsuccessfully competing with nearby big box stores.ward35 A car dependent area of the city under-serviced by public transit. A destination for new Canadians looking to put down community roots.

Many of the solutions to the problems ailing places like Ward 35 are at the macro level, beyond the reach of local politicians. But the answer to that is not simply ignoring the problems, hoping another level of government will sort everything out. It’s the job of a city councillor to highlight those problems and to use what tools are available to alleviate them, to create a dynamic where positive change is possible.

This goes beyond simply keeping taxes low. It’s about investing in communities. Creating opportunities for everyone to better their lives. goldenmileThis is something’s that’s done door-to-door, street-by-street.

Bocking is no stranger to that kind of community activism. He has been part of the fight against TTC fare hikes and cuts to service, delivering a deputation on that topic during the 2012 budget fight. He is a big proponent of the community benefits program, fighting to ensure that when major public infrastructure projects like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT are built, jobs and training are made available to local residents. As a high school teacher, Bocking is well aware of the disconnect between school boards and city council. He’d like to see more integrated programs between the two and a reassessment of the fees charged by schools to use their facilities which, currently, are priced far beyond the reach of many local groups.

It is an approach most notable for its ground up activism rather than a top down, edict like proclamation style. communityIf elected city councillor, Bocking vows a much more inclusionary engagement with residents. There were few community consultations on very important issues that arose over the course of the past 4 years, including the subway-LRT debates, a waterfront casino, budgets. As a fan of movements like Participatory Budgeting, Bocking would change that, endeavouring to seek resident input before big decisions are made.

He admits that the Scarborough subway is an issue when he goes knocking at the door but he senses people aren’t as committed to the idea as subway advocates claim. When the merits of the LRT get pointed out – serving more people and more communities – many don’t seem as vehemently opposed. Again, it’s all about better community engagement.

For Bocking, the subway debate is more of an abstract issue. Something that, even if it comes to pass, is a decade away at best. communitymeetingIt won’t help anyone in Ward 35 now. Certainly not as much as improving the current TTC service will. Certainly not like ensuring tenants’ needs are addressed. Certainly not the way increasing the accessibility and affordability of children’s programs would.

The best city councillors don’t simply represent their community. They build their community. That isn’t accomplished fighting ideological battles or stirring up resentment toward other wards or areas of the city. Community isn’t built from above. It’s created through engagement and listening to the concerns and ideas expressed by each and every member of it.

Paul Bocking seems to have a knack and predisposition for that kind of work. If we’re to bridge the so-called urban-suburban divide that currently afflicts municipal politics here in Toronto, communityengagementwe have to hope places like Ward 35 elect candidates like Bocking as their city councillor in order that they actually join in on our collective conversation instead of being relegated to shouting from the sidelines. We need to start hearing from them not about them.

As a city councillor, Paul Bocking seems determined to give residents of Ward 35 a voice rather than be the voice for them. Real civic engagement starts right there.

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