This past Saturday was the first truly beautiful day of the season. The sun was out, the temperature was high, and up to 10,000 Torontonians decided to go for a walk from Yonge-Dundas Square to City Hall.
“Hey hey, ho ho, service cuts have got to go!” the crowd chanted down Yonge Street during the Rally for Respect held on Saturday afternoon. Flags and banners from a variety of community organizations—from workers unions to student groups, women’s support networks to environmental advocates—paraded along the route and spread out across Nathan Phillips Square, where John Cartwright of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council proclaimed “We’re here to take back the city for the people of Toronto!”
So far in his administration, Rob Ford has initiated moves towards privatization of waste management, TCHC buildings, and the building of the Sheppard subway, declared the TTC an essential service, and is reviewing the efficiency of public services and potential new user fees. Ford was elected with the promise to stop egregious City Hall spending and give Toronto taxpayers the respect they deserve, but the overwhelming sentiment at the rally was that he’s suddenly reneging on his end of the deal.
But it wasn’t an anti-Ford rally.
At least, not according to Winnie Ng, Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University, Co-Chair of the Good Jobs For All Coalition, and co-emcee of the event. She preferred the term “community day of action.”
“Yes, Ford is the mayor. But the council is still a democratic system. Each city councillor has a vote they can use according to their values and the wishes of their constituents,” Ng said. “We want to send a strong message to [the] whole city council, tell them we’re going to watch what you’re doing and take our city back. It’s time to stand up for a Toronto that’s for everyone.”
Sid Ryan (right) joins the march on behalf of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
Many of the ralliers had a sign, t-shirt, banner, or slogan that designated the particular affiliation they were representing⎯ACORN Canada, Ontario’s elementary school teachers, York Federation of Students, workers from Toronto Public Health and the TTC, and more⎯but above everything, the point of the Rally for Respect was to show solidarity and mutual support across causes.
“We don’t often see all the groups together,” said Debbie Douglas, the executive director of the Ontario Council for Agencies Serving Immigrants. “But it’s true, we are a city of neighbourhoods, and we do need to get together to speak in solidarity. It serves to bring people together to see there is a common vision.”
Unfortunately, that common goal is rooted in a common sense of fear surrounding the future of Toronto’s services, jobs, and state of democracy.
“He’s acting as a czar instead of an elected mayor. He’s not ready or willing to work with anyone,” said Sid Ryan of the Ontario Federation of Labour.
“In Canada, we’re so used to having such a great quality of life that we don’t think it will ever change. But the threat is real and the threat is there,” said Joanna Keddy, a gardener for the Parks, Forestry, and Recreation department of the City of Toronto for the past 26 years, as she held the hand of her six and a half year–old daughter, Jacqueline. “Under this government, all our jobs are under threat.”
“A core services review is taking place. They’ve already privatized the TTC, TCHC, and who knows what’s next? Water? The Toronto Public Library? The Toronto Police Service? Nothing is sacred anymore,” said Ng.
But as hands joined briefly across the square with the statement “I pledge to work with you to make this a better city,” and Cartwright led the crowd in a unifying chant decreeing “Yes!” they would be there the next time TTC workers, TCHC tenants, or environmental policies fell under attack, a sense of relief spread over the gathering, a diverse mix of ages, cultures, and experiences. One that escalated as Ng took to the podium, pointed out a patchwork banner hanging over the railing of the City Hall roof, made up of the handmade signs of individual organizations. “This tapestry represents our strength,” she told the crowd. “Are you pumped? Are you willing to do more? A lot more?”
Greer Brabazon, in the final year of her sociology and politics degree at Ryerson University, remarked on the number of people her age and young families who came out. “It’s exciting. People protest because it’s loud, we’re in the streets, and you can’t ignore us, but this is just the beginning. It’s a small example of what could happen if we’re not listened to.”
Ng admits a rally is not an “instant noodle” system to bring change, and that the real work will start when ralliers take the march from City Hall back to their own neighbourhoods, start knocking on doors, and try to encourage civil participation and contact their own councillors, an especially tough feat when so many are feeling cynical towards anything political. But she and Ryan admit that massing participants at the Rally for Respect is a good start at sending a clear, strong message to City Hall.
“It may not be anti-Ford, but it’s certainly a push back against the way the mayor is managing the city at the moment. Behind every person that’s here, there’s dozens, even hundreds of people behind them and what they have to say. It’s a massive demonstration of support,” Ryan said.
But for some, however, motivation comes in smaller packages.
“I want to keep our jobs for the future. We have to give the next generation the city we have now,” Keddy says with the blonde Jacqueline by her side. Looking down at her she says, “We’re not for sale, eh Jacqueline? We love our Toronto, how dare anybody threaten our world?”
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.