Searching for the Soul of John Tory's Toronto
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Searching for the Soul of John Tory’s Toronto

One year later, it's difficult to discern the mayor's vision for the city's future.

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When John Tory was elected one year ago today, there was a simple promise for his mayoralty: he would not be Rob Ford.

By that standard, he has succeeded. He has not embarrassed the city internationally, nor has he presided over historically significant incompetence. He goes to city events and announcements where attendees take him seriously, and acts as the city’s cheerleader-in-chief whether it’s the Pan Am Games or the Blue Jays playoff run.

Tory, with his background as a professional board member, is particularly well-suited for this part of the job. But there is another aspect of being mayor that should not be overshadowed by Rob Ford’s bad behaviour: the search for Toronto’s soul.

That is, what is the vision for the city, and what are the underlying principles and sensibilities that make that possible? One year later, how is John Tory doing at that more challenging job, the real standard to which we should hold the mayor?

Whatever one may think of David Miller, he brought a clear set of principles to his office. He made clear that he subscribed to urbanist priorities, and argued that a more livable and just city was worth fighting and paying for. From this philosophical centre sprung policies meant to address the developing needs of the city. There was Transit City, whose map remains only as a palimpsest in the city’s ongoing transit planning, and there was suburban tower renewal, and public accountability offices, and TTC ridership growth, and 311, and the Streets to Homes program, and waterfront development, and new arts festivals. Whether you want to call it Torontopia or something else, there was a sense that Toronto was moving towards something larger, even if certain councillors reduced the principles to simplistic slogans about wars on cars, taxpayers, and suburbs.

Rob Ford didn’t have much of a vision beyond opposing the policies of his predecessor. He immediately “cancelled” Transit City, quickly cancelled the Vehicle Registration Tax, contracted out garbage in 25 per cent of the city, and moved to take away the TTC’s right to strike. He and his brother tried to undo plans for the Port Lands and failed, but they succeeded in slashing many of the services behind the TTC’s ridership growth strategy. If Rob Ford had a vision for being mayor of Toronto, it was to not be like the previous guy. In so doing, he pursued a personal set of preferences rather than broader principles, and consequently Toronto stood still for four years.

Which brings us to John Tory. Like Ford, Tory largely ran against his predecessor. While that strategy brought electoral success, it is difficult to discern the mayor’s larger principles that will make for a better city.

Nowhere was the absence of principles more glaring—and galling—than on the issue of police carding. In the face of an intransigent police chief and longstanding community concerns about police disproportionately stopping, questioning, and detailing the information of innocent people of colour, the mayor backed the police chief. Deputants at the police board (on which the mayor sits) cried when describing the impact the policy had on their communities, and Toronto Life published a noteworthy cover story (by Torontoist contributor Desmond Cole) on the subject. But it wasn’t until there was sufficient pressure from notable and powerful Torontonians—ostensibly the mayor’s peers—that Tory changed his position. Doing so was the right decision, but the journey to get there revealed a mayor who was out-of-touch and more content to follow than lead.

There was also the acrimonious east Gardiner debate, in which Tory instantly sided with the so-called hybrid option. Forget that the original hybrid option was no longer feasible, because the engineering was impossible. The argument here was that a couple thousand cars would be inconvenienced by two to three minutes a day, and in his view, this was worth spending at least $450 million more over a boulevard plan that would build a new neighbourhood. With disingenuous rhetoric and sweeteners to appease the likes of Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) and Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt), the mayor won a victory so narrow that it only diminished him.

He also stands by the Scarborough subway extension despite growing concerns about its cost and viability. He touts his signature campaign promise SmartTrack whenever he can, despite the fact that 18 months after it was first proposed, no one can really define what it is. Far from building the consensus he campaigned on, he shut out left-wing and old City of Toronto councillors from chairing any committees. For someone who ran for mayor twice, and had a talk radio show for years, Tory has also shown a concerning lack of knowledge on council policy history and city hall procedure.

It is not all bad news. Tory supported expanded shelter funding during the last budget cycle, has put some political capital behind the poverty reduction strategy, and he rightly broke a campaign promise to freeze TTC fares in order to improve service. The latter was a difficult decision, but he listened to City staff to address the needs of the city before his political optics. It was an encouraging decision.

Taken together, we still don’t have a clear picture of what John Tory’s vision for Toronto looks like. During his campaign he often said it was more “livable, affordable, and functional”—words that everyone can agree on, in part because they lack a position from which to disagree.

But maybe, one year later, the lesson is that looking to John Tory to discern Toronto’s meaning and future is the wrong approach. After all, David Miller did not create “Torontopia”—that was made possible by the thousands of Torontonians who brought their own experiences and perspectives to individual projects and ideas. And Rob Ford accidentally taught the city that we shouldn’t rely on the mayor’s office to build a larger sense of purpose.

It would be nice if one year into his mandate we got that from the mayor, and had something more to believe in than “he’s not Rob Ford.” But with the mayor still running in the shadow of his predecessor, it appears that for now Torontonians will have to work out those more important principles for themselves, and maybe that’s okay.