Truth and Fiction in Toronto Politics
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Truth and Fiction in Toronto Politics

The Fords are trying to divide Toronto against itself. But the downtown vs. suburbs rhetoric is both wrong and irresponsible.

Doug Ford during a city council meeting this week.

When Rob Ford ran for mayor, his campaign was based, in ways both implicit and explicit, on a sense of suburban alienation. We were, he told us, not giving a fair shake to people across Toronto; years of urbanist development had come at the expense of parts north, east, and west of downtown. We saw it in his rhetoric around subways, in his conception that the “little guy” meant someone who was frustrated by gridlock while driving an hour home from work, and wanted a back-to-basics approach to governance that didn’t get too ambitious, didn’t demand taxes for fancy projects that only benefited some areas of the city.

Toronto voters are diverse, but when Ford pictures them he describes very specifically, classically suburban residents—and their needs are the ones he thinks he was elected to meet.

Regional alienation is an age-old trope in politics; campaigns are often born out of this sense of neglect and candidates elected on a promise of righting the imbalance. Politics, as the cliché goes, is always local. The problem, of course, is that once you are elected, you need to govern not just the region that elected you, but a broader constituency, and the peril of pitting your constituents against one another is that everyone will end up feeling even more frustrated than before. Alienation may get you elected, in short, but your job once in office is to overcome it.

In this, Rob Ford has failed spectacularly. And his ongoing campaign of alienation has done the residents of Toronto—not just the ones who live downtown, but all of us—a tremendous disservice.

Deputy mayor Doug Holyday

Rhetoric reinforcing this notion of a rift between the suburbs and downtown has grown stronger and more explicit over Ford’s first year as mayor; during this week’s transit debate, it broke completely out into the open. Giorgio Mammoliti, Doug Ford, Rob Ford—they all lined up to tell us how Scarborough was getting screwed by selfish downtowners, that suburbanites were being turned into second class citizens forced to settle for second class amenities.

Don’t believe them.

The claim that council’s vote on transit was just the most recent case of longstanding downtown entitlement run amok is false for numerous reasons, but here are some of the most important:

Subways are not co-extensive with downtown Toronto. There is a subway stop at Yonge and Finch; there is none at Bathurst and Queen. It is an act of gross geographic misrepresentation to say that subways run downtown and not elsewhere. In fact, they run a lot of other places, and don’t exist in most of downtown.

The subways we’ve built most recently are furthest from downtown. For a variety of reasons, some of which have more to do with political jockeying than principled planning, transit development in the last three decades has been concentrated in the outer portions of Toronto. Downtown has not seen any new major infrastructure go in since well before amalgamation and the constitution of our current municipal governance structure.

Downtown councillors don’t hold a majority in council. Toronto city council breaks up into four community councils, each of which deals with a different part of the city: Toronto and East York, Scarborough, North York, and Etobicoke York. There is no universally agreed-upon understanding of what exactly counts as “downtown,” but for political purposes, these community councils provide as good a set of boundaries as we are likely to get. Of the 44 councillors in Toronto, 12 are included in the Toronto and East York group—27% of the votes on council.

If and when the LRT lines are built, the suburbs will have better transit infrastructure than much of downtown. Most of downtown relies on streetcar service running in mixed traffic. It is slow and frustrating, but fantasies of the Downtown Relief Line aside, it is the best we can do on narrow, busy streets. Should, say, Finch actually get the LRT it has just been (re)promised, area residents will benefit from higher capacity vehicles running at higher speeds in dedicated lanes. Finch will have better transit than Queen or Dundas or College. That’s not a complaint—with the busiest bus route in the system, Finch certainly needs it as fast as we can possibly lay the track—but it does put the lie to the notion that the best infrastructure is a downtown perk.

But here, politically, is the most important point: this week’s transit vote was won by North York. Support for the light rail transit plan came from all parts of the city, including several councillors from Scarborough, which purportedly is getting the short end of the stick in the whole deal. But the scales were tipped, decisively, by representatives from North York. Of the 11 councillors on the North York community council, nine voted for the light rail option. This included Ford allies John Parker and Jaye Robinson. This included councillors whose wards stand to gain directly from the light rail deal (via construction on Finch) such as James Pasternak, and councillors who are taking great political risks in supporting the proposal, like TTC Chair Karen Stintz.

An overwhelming majority of North York representatives proved they know what Rob Ford doesn’t: that Toronto works best when representatives of all parts of the city work together to solve problems that affect residents who live in all parts of the city, rather than demonizing each other in the hopes of scoring political points.

North York councillor Maria Augimeri

Rob Ford did not invent the suburban sense of alienation in Toronto—it is real, and it is a problem. We remain a city that is amalgamated but not integrated. (This is arguably the biggest failure of David Miller’s administration.) But our current problem is that, for Ford, this is not a problem to overcome, but a political opportunity to exploit.

The role of our leadership must be to try to bridge the gaps that do divide us rather than to work actively at widening them. The politics of alienation can all too quickly become the politics of resentment and, eventually, the politics of revenge—and then we have a mayor telling us councillors are irrelevant and that only some views and some parts of the city matter. Even if it were true that downtown amenities came at the expense of suburban development—and it’s false, since most of those amenities were built long before amalgamation, and we were one city at all—punishment is not the guiding principle of a responsible government.

Rob Ford would have us believe that Toronto is a city riven by conflict, that our neighbourhoods are doing battle with each other. Except it isn’t true at all. The people and the councillors of North York just proved that. A light rail plan was passed by a real coalition of people who live north of the 401 and south of Bloor, and all points in between.

There is still a great way to go in bringing Toronto fully together. But that way is to keep working together, not trying to instigate a civil war.