Civic engagement at the local level is growing and much of it is thanks to controversy
A familiar scene played out the morning council was set to vote on the most controversial budget in years.
Outside in the rain, dozens of parents, kids in tow, marched in a circle, chanting in a last-ditch effort to save their neighbourhood pools from funding cuts.
It wouldn’t be the only protest outside city hall that day.
Hours later, as budget talks continued to unfold, a massive group of protesters mobilized outside. Larger in scale, this group was also intent on being heard.
It’s demonstrations like these that have played out in neighbourhoods across Toronto in recent months — a signal to some that Toronto is taking on a new level of civic interest.
Mayor Rob Ford and his decidedly right-wing administration have successfully galvanized an entire city into the wonderful world of local politics, residents, pundits and politicians say sardonically. But whether that momentum will sustain itself remains to be seen.
The interest has been growing for some time now, says political gadfly Jonathan Goldsbie. The municipal issues journalist traces the citizenry’s political awakenings in the era of Ford to the spring of 2011, when a firestorm erupted at city hall following an audit report of inappropriate employee spending at Toronto Community Housing Corporation. Residents, news outlets and bloggers tuned in to a March council meeting that ultimately resulted in the replacement of the entire board by a Ford-appointed managing director.
That spirit of civic engagement remained, Goldsbie says, adding much of it has been fostered by the addition of non-mainstream media that disseminates info from inside the Queen Street Clamshell.
“There’s just a much more general day-to-day interest on the things that go on at city hall, partly because it’s such an ongoing shitshow,” he said.
A July meeting of executive committee also marked a turning point, Goldsbie says.
On July 28, hundreds of citizens descended on city hall to weigh in on the city’s core services at a public meeting that lasted through the night.
“That was exhilarating, that was unlike anything I’d seen or experienced at city hall or around municipal politics,” Goldsbie says. “Suddenly, we’re seeing a mass of people, who all find this not just as important and vital but also as entertaining and fun and crazy.”
This scenario repeated itself in September, when the matter of core services returned to committee, and then again in December, after budget’s launch.
Given opportunity to speak directly to politicians, a broad spectrum of people came out to register their voice, says Goldsbie, who refutes the claim by some that the onslaught of public attention was merely coming from union hacks or special interest groups.
“I am pretty confident in saying people were there of their own volition, and many took the time out to specifically state that,” he said.
One such person was Hillcrest father of two Andrew Brenton, who took time out from running his investment firm to speak at December budget consultations.
Brenton urged councillors to reconsider cost-sharing program cuts at Hillcrest Community School, where his daughter attends class.
“This is something that I knew about,” he said in an interview with Toronto Today. “I don’t know all the issues the city had to deal with in terms of budget cuts.”
Brenton admits he doesn’t follow municipal politics all that closely, and his decision to speak out came from one influencer: his daughter.
“I think because I work downtown and I have an investment firm, I think (my kids) just assume that I would vote for Rob Ford, so it became an issue when all of this was happening, (my daughter) just looked at me and said ‘can you do anything?’ So I put my name in to make a deputation,” he said. “I’d never done one before.”
It wasn’t surprising to see the mobilization of a wide cross-section of citizens, given the breadth of budget cuts proposed, says David Wolfe, a political science professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
“If (Mayor Ford) had said ‘I’m going to cut $90 million out of one program, you might not have got the same reaction.”
That being said, Toronto has a well-documented history of grassroots activism, Wolfe says. He points to the Stop Spadina movement in the ’60s and reaction to amalgamation in 1997.
“Toronto does have a culture and tradition of fairly active citizen involvement and engagement — it tends to be much stronger on a neighbourhood basis,” he said.
It also tends to ebb and flow in Toronto, Wolfe says, depending on the news of the day.
In contrast, Vancouver has a sustained culture of electoral engagement, Wolfe says, while Montreal tends to have a high level of civic participation because it’s a built-in component of local institutions.
But it’s also important to note what wasn’t captured on camera or in the paper during the budget and core service review demonstrations, Wolfe says, as the public tends to get a skewed view of dissent or support.
“You never see the full range of political positions and opinions represented through lobbying efforts,” Wolfe says. “Lobbying only brings out a selected group of more active, engaged citizens.”
The attention on local politics is not likely to diminish any time soon, thanks in part to a rogue mayor who seems hell-bent on shaking things up.
Ford is just 14 months into a four-year term, and prior to budget’s launch, council was already knee-deep in ongoing controversial issues, including a likely labour stoppage, and the death and possible resurrection of Transit City.