Real City Matters: Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Toronto's motto is "Diversity Our Strength." And in many ways, it is—but, all too often, we shy away from honest conversations about the racial, geographic, and economic inequities that divide us. Join us tonight as we try to start a better discussion.
Nearly four years ago, in the early days of the most recent term of city council, we interviewed a Torontonian named Ian who was frustrated by the lack of public transit along Finch Avenue West. Ian, who is black, explained that he spent too much time on transit instead of with his then-11-year-old son. His conclusion regarding years of gridlock and a lack of new transit investment in the area: “My family, friends, and problems don’t count.”
As a person of colour living and working in Toronto’s inner suburbs, and relying on public transit to get around, Ian represents a cohort of Toronto residents who are increasingly being left behind. The striking—and growing—social and economic disparities first revealed in professor David Hulchanski’s “Three Cities” report [PDF] could easily be the major focus of Toronto’s ongoing mayoral debate. Instead, most major candidates have downplayed city-wide divisions based on race, class, and geography. Even if these inequities shame us—and they should—the only way forward is to engage them with curiousity, candour, and determination.
Tuesday night, Torontoist will be hosting the third installment of Real City Matters, a speaking series we’ve co-organized with former urban affairs writer Siri Agrell. Our goal is both to celebrate the real good in this city—good we downplay all too often—and to speak more honestly about the real challenges we face. Tonight, in particular, we will explore the challenges of talking openly about geographic, class-based, and racial divisions in Toronto, and the way in which these divisions overlap and intersect.
Racialized people in this city and across Canada are faring worse than white residents by every relevant socio-economic measure, including employment and income, education, and health. Hulchanski’s initial study revealed that 82 per cent of Torontonians living in the most affluent areas are white—in a city where nearly half of all residents are people of colour, this kind of racial divide, and the relative silence that accompanies it, is preposterous.
Our police have engaged in shameful and destructive profiling of black and brown residents; even as the total number of questionable police stops, also known as police carding, decreased in 2013, the proportion of racialized people who were stopped actually increased. The impact of carding will be felt for a generation. Election debates feature questions about curbing or ending the practice, but not about the lasting impacts on today’s racialized youth.
Racism of a most overt kind has marred this year’s municipal election. Olivia Chow has been particularly singled out for her Chinese heritage by angry residents at debates and anonymous haters on social media. After Chow defended herself against such an attack at the Corso Italia debate, the moderator asked her three opponents, all white men, if they wanted to chime in. Doug Ford, John Tory, and Ari Goldkind all declined to comment. If diversity is our strength, why do political candidates believe they will lose ground for publicly condemning racism?
Chow’s not the only one facing racist attacks: Ward 2 council candidate Munira Abukar has had campaign signs defaced with the words “go back home”; school board trustee candidate Ausma Malik has been referred to as a “radical Muslim terrorist sympathizer” in the press; and Ward 17 candidate Saeed Selvam has been accused of engaging in “Moslem jihad” on social media.
We must equally acknowledge the class divisions that shape life in Toronto. According to a recent survey, 40 per cent of us say we’re thinking of leaving the city entirely because it’s too expensive to live here. I bet we won’t, at least not yet—for all its challenges, Toronto’s economic opportunity and vibrancy is still a huge draw. But we risk losing that if we can’t be honest about our divisions, and about the political tall tales designed to divide us.
A presumed cultural divide between “the suburbs” and “downtown” finds its way into many of our collective conversations as well—and though some, like Rob Ford, have exploited this for political ends, we cannot forget that there are real experiences that underlie this discourse. Our amalgamated city is so large that we live in physical isolation from one another, and often in very different physical conditions. The lack of good public transit means that when people aren’t working, they can’t easily visit other parts of the city, even if they want to. And, in many parts of Toronto, residents who don’t own cars must walk great distances just to buy groceries.
Recurring fantasies of de-amalgamation illustrate that many of us would rather run from our big city reality than confront it. But amalgamation cannot be undone, nor should it: we need to confront these divides and build a more coherent, stronger city, rather than run away out of frustration.
These issues do not exist in isolation: each of these factors intersects with the others. Those who travel long distances for work are often those least able to afford a car or Metropass. Racial profiling occurs across the city, but is most prevalent in affluent white neighbourhoods. In downtown restaurants, white faces greet and serve, while black and brown hands prepare the food out of sight. This is our city, whether we care to admit it or not.
If we’re going to succeed, we need to get better at talking about all this. Torontoist‘s Real City Matters discussions aren’t the answer, but they are an invitation to delve into the tough subjects too many of us are currently neglecting. We hope you’ll join us Tuesday evening.