Lessons from Rob Ford's City Hall
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Lessons from Rob Ford’s City Hall

Toronto would be remiss to forget the past four years. A reflection on where to find inspiration in the Ford era, and what we need to do next.

I was an unlikely attendee at my first city council meeting, in May 2011. I wasn’t a journalist at the time and didn’t have a particular stake in any of the issues being debated that day, but I found myself in the council chamber, feeling out of place, yet compelled to be there.

As I watched 44 councillors and the mayor debate obscure motions in front of a scant audience, part of what made my attendance so unlikely was how little stock I had placed, until then, in municipal government. Before the Rob Ford interregnum, I subscribed to the commonly held belief that City Hall doesn’t do much of anything, and is filled with uninspiring politicians mugging for seniors with nothing better to do than watch Rogers 10. In this view, councillors are unfit for higher levels of government, and relegated to debating items that either don’t matter or that we can afford to take for granted. They could scream and shout and pass silly motions, and we could safely ignore them.

Rob Ford’s election played on this cynicism about City Hall, and his administration used it to push his frequently destructive agenda forward. If municipal government itself was the problem, the solution was to shrink its scope as much as possible, to cut and to do less. But as I followed his administration more and more closely, I came to one incontrovertible conclusion: I was wrong. This place mattered.

Like any institution, there’s a bit of a hurdle you need to clear in order to understand how City Hall works and what it means: jargon and history, particularities of strategy and policy. But once you get past that hurdle, you gain the ability to see your city through fresh eyes, and it’s a gift. It’s a bit like science fiction: once you embrace the weird dimensions, you’re able to see something strange and wonderful in what you already knew.

It means that you can look at an intersection, one you pass by on your way to school or work, with a whole new layer of understanding. You can explain how and why it works the way it does—why the curbs are shaped the way they are, what the progress of a particular development application on the corner is, or how streetcars manage to bunch at the stop across the street. At its best, it feels like you have found a whole new place, because you’ve discovered new language and knowledge to understand its context and how you fit into it. You see dimensions that you never did before, and you want to keep on exploring them, because they give you a sense of agency and ownership of your city.

There’s a temptation to ascribe this newfound engagement to Rob Ford, but that would give him too much credit. The perspective on what our city means—its values and principles, and its resiliency in the face of a reprehensible mayor—comes not because of him, but in spite of him. Ford may have been causally responsible for getting me (and many other people) through the front door, but what I discovered when we got there, what made me appreciate this previously hidden value in the order of government I’d neglected, had nothing to do with him.

Take, for instance, the all-night budget deputations in July 2011—arguably the most inspiring night of civic engagement in modern Toronto political history. Over 350 people signed up to almost universally voice their opposition to the mayor’s proposed budget cuts. They came to say that child nutrition programs mattered, that they didn’t want their bus routes reduced, and they didn’t know what they would do without their local library.

The most memorable voice of the night was Anika Tabovaradan’s. She was a 14-year-old Scarborough resident whose palpable fear of public speaking was surpassed only by her passionate conviction that her local library made a difference to her well-being. It was 1:30 in the morning by the time she spoke, and her deputation—its force, authenticity, and insight—resonated throughout the room. Tears welled up, in part because people were tired and hadn’t eaten enough, but also because it was easy to see yourself in her. On that night, a lot of people felt like 14-year-olds: rejuvenated with a sense of possibility, but also anxious about what the future might hold. If the mayor and his allies could so easily dismiss such a compelling speech, what chance did the rest of us have to be heard in City Hall? Even if you figured out how to speak the language, what was the point if no one listened?

By the most narrow of margins, council did eventually listen. In a stunning rebuke to the mayor and his allies, council overturned most of the proposed cuts. Almost all the councillors who reached a consensus to do so went out for drinks afterwards; the room was electric, and filled with people who didn’t often find themselves on the same side of a debate (much less, I suspect, at the same parties). Along with Gloria Lindsay Luby (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre), James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre) had joined many progressive councillors to be one of the deciding votes. When he entered the room, it erupted in applause. If there was ever any doubt that City Hall could be a magical, transformative place, this was evidence: James Pasternak was, for a brief moment, cool.

What made that meeting and that budget special wasn’t that it was a case of people taking back City Hall in a clichéd but heartwarming way. What made it special was discovering, through the process, what made the city special to so many different people. For Anika, it was her local library and the community and support she found there. For others, it was affordable childcare, which meant they could work. For others still, it was the local swim program they participated in, or ensuring that there was adequate shelter space, because that’s a safety net worth preserving.

The value in this process was not derived from Rob Ford, but from the people who participated in it. In this case, they managed to define City Hall’s discourse. It did not always turn out this way.

As much as you’d like to hope that City Hall is too big and important an institution to be filtered through one man, that is not the case. Time and again, our public conversations have been distilled through Rob Ford’s ideology, preferences, and id. Rather than discussing important issues, like the funding crisis at Toronto’s social housing agency, we heard about the chief magistrate’s homophobia, racism, and misogyny. Would he apologize this time? What did he really mean, though? What would he say to Joe Warmington?

They were mostly stupid questions, because they focused on Ford, rather than what his toxicity said about and meant to Toronto. In the process, some of his supporters, perhaps emboldened by the mayor’s brazenness, tapped into their own latent bigotry. And so in this election councillors were called “fucking faggots,” visible minority candidates were told to “go back home,” and campaign volunteers were threatened.

John Tory is a politician whose appeal is largely derived from his innocuous personality. He is genial, friendly, and well-spoken. Coming out of the Ford era, these attributes of Tory’s are comforting. This will not be a mayor who will be the butt of late-night talk-show jokes, and even if you don’t agree with all of his policies, you can agree that his last name is not Ford.

These traits are a double-edged sword. There is the risk that, in much the same way as people did before Rob Ford became mayor, people grow complacent about their city and how it works. Equally troubling is the risk that Tory will do nothing to address the bigots who have been recently emboldened. In the absence of a Ford as mayor, that prejudice will be less vocal, but still there. Toronto deserves a civic conversation that is mature enough to acknowledge that its discourse is inadequate, its institutions vulnerable, and that it’s not enough to cruise on auto-pilot.

It deserves all of this continued attention, because these past four years have proven that City Hall, and how it shapes our civic conversation, matters. And having been through the past four years—a political ordeal by any measure—we should remember lessons from this time. We should remember that City Hall as an institution can do special things, or that it can fail the city as a whole. We should remember to prioritize meaningful conversations and policies over salacious melodrama, even when the latter is tempting and easy. And no matter what the next council looks like, we should dare to be a bit more like Anika, to describe our convictions about what the city should be more loudly, so that we can all grow up.