How the Mayor's "Sad, Desperate and Shameful" Scarborough Subway Op-ed Came to Be
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How the Mayor’s “Sad, Desperate and Shameful” Scarborough Subway Op-ed Came to Be

Remember when the mayor seemed to accuse Scarborough subway opponents of racism? We asked for records to learn how that happened.

John Tory's June op-ed didn't heal the divisions between Scarborough subway and LRT supporters.

The author of John Tory’s June op-ed didn’t seem to want to end the war between Scarborough subway and LRT supporters as much as to win it.

Remember last summer when the Scarborough subway was going through its seemingly bi-annual debate, and the mayor was on the defensive for the $3.2 billion one-stop extension? It was good times. As part of the public debate at the time, the Toronto Star published a fiery, combative op-ed in defence of the Scarborough subway last June under Mayor John Tory’s byline.

City Hall watchers might remember it as the op-ed that seemed to accuse LRT proponents of being downtown elitists who don’t care about immigrants in Scarborough.

But it wasn’t always like that. The original draft was a somewhat boring Tory-esque recitation of the merits of SmartTrack and the Scarborough subway extension. But, somewhere inside the mayor’s office, it changed.

Torontoist received a copy of that first draft of the op-ed and email correspondence about it in response to a Freedom of Information request, as part of the FOI Raccoon project. The email chain provides an interesting peek into the twin roles of the mayor’s office: to make policy decisions and to sell them to the councillors whose support must be obtained for anything to get done and voters in the next election.

(The records are included in full at the bottom of this post.)

The records don’t show why the mayor’s office went for a rhetorically charged attack on subway critics over a sober presentation of facts. They do show that the mayor’s staff was under time pressure to deliver the op-ed to the Star, and only managed to “put it in front of the mayor” an hour before it was sent to the newspaper—two-and-a-half hours after they’d promised to deliver it.

The email records also show that the Star’s editors, before seeing a word of the op-ed, had warned the mayor’s staff the paper wouldn’t publish a “warmed over press release” for the mayor, so the piece would have to add to the debate.

The op-ed the Star received and published was a remarkable piece of politics that managed to condemn the divisiveness of the subway debate, and then, 400 words later, implicitly accuse those who disagree with the mayor of bigotry.

It didn’t quite go so far as to say, “Please, let’s tamp down the rhetoric; it does us all a disservice, and, by the way, your sides hates immigrants,” but that’s how it was received by many of the subway critics who felt targeted.

“To bring up immigrants just saddens me,” Councillor Josh Matlow told CBC’s Metro Morning. “No one should suggest that one group of Torontonians care more or less about immigrants because of a transit plan.”

Here’s what the op-ed said:

“We are a city that likes to draw lines and take sides, especially when it comes to transit, and it’s easy to characterize people as either ‘for the subway’ or ‘against.’ But this does a disservice to me and to everyone who cares about our city and its long-term success.… But many of the subway’s loudest critics do not live or work in Scarborough, where more than half the population is born outside of Canada. When they say this is too much to spend on a subway, the inference seems to be that it’s too much to spend on this part of the city.”

In the original draft, “this part of the city” was italicized.

Here’s how it came together. Tory’s chief of staff, Chris Eby, emailed the original, rather mundane, draft about SmartTrack and the Scarborough subway—which bears almost no resemblance to the published product—to colleagues in the mayor’s office on Thursday, June 23, marked as a draft. The following Sunday, director of communications Amanda Galbraith contacted the Star to see if the paper would be interested in running an op-ed from the mayor on SmartTrack and the Scarborough subway. She agreed to send it in by 1 p.m. on Monday to run in the Tuesday morning paper.

By 3:30 Monday afternoon, the Star followed up to see where the op-ed was, while senior Tory advisor Siri Agrell emailed her colleagues the version that was eventually published and wrote that she’d received staff edits and “put it in front of the mayor.” It was no longer about SmartTrack, only the Scarborough subway, and the tone had dramatically changed. An hour later, the mayor’s staff sent it to the Star, and it was published online that evening and in the paper the next morning.

It’s not clear who wrote what or what role Tory himself played in the writing. The Freedom of Information request asked for records of all communication about the op-ed, but the mayor’s office turned over none that show any deliberation on what to write or any of the staff edits Agrell referred to.

The response to the op-ed was swift and wasn’t lost on the mayor’s office.

The next chain of emails about the op-ed dealt with the fallout. Communications advisor Keerthana Kamalavasan sent her communications colleagues notes from the scrums councillors Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) had with the media the next morning, when both were asked if the mayor had accused subway opponents of racism.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s office was also concerned about an op-ed former TTC chief general manager Michael Warren had written in the Star in response to Tory’s, which accused the mayor of being “less than honest on multiple fronts” and the Scarborough subway of being a vanity project with politics at its heart. Eby and Galbraith rounded up information to rebut Warren and wrote a letter to the editor in response.

It is not surprising that the mayor’s staff would vigorously defend his agenda. But the next time he scolds opponents for the divisiveness of the transit debate in Toronto, it’s worth remembering that it was he and his staff who chose to lob a rhetorical grenade at his enemies while calling for peace in the land.

To get a deeper understanding of the decision-making process at City Hall, Torontoist is seeking records of Slack conversations in the mayor’s office.

FOI request: Torontoist requests records of all Slack messages sent by or received by the mayor and/or the mayor’s staff, from June 1, 2016 to the present.


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