Who Will Reunite Toronto?

Mayor Rob Ford’s term began with a blowhard’s populist address at the inaugural City Council meeting.  An invited guest, Don Cherry, played to his sports jock patron with references to “left-wing pinkos” and “kooks”.  Clearly from Day 1 bellicose ignorance was to be the hallmark of the Ford administration.

Many of us thought, oh well, it’s just Rob Ford being Rob, although his brother Councillor Doug Ford quickly emerged as even more hot-headed, badly-informed fool.  If only he were just one more Councillor, out in the cold as Rob once was, it wouldn’t matter.  Still, there was hope that Council as a whole would prevail.

That was too much to ask.

The Ford style is to embrace your friends and destroy your enemies, preferably with open contempt.  It is not enough to win, but you must leave your opponents face down in the mud, demoralized, with the sure knowledge that the same or worse will follow in any rematch.

The “pinko kooks” found themselves outside the doors of City Hall, but so did many others, any who dared to disagree with the political aims of the Ford Brothers and their supporters.

Many Councillors must share blame for this.  Moderates who might be expected to take a stance mediating between the factions gave the new Mayor the benefit of the doubt.  Some eventually tired of his follies and embraced a truly independent moderate stance, while others sought favour at court and threw in their lots with the administration.  The vitriol of the Fords began to infect the language of many others who felt emboldened.  Insulting someone is easy when you’ve got two big brothers standing behind you.

To many, the words “pinko kooks” meant “downtown”, the “latte sipping elites” whose influence under former Mayor David Miller would not just be destroyed, but vilified at any opportunity.  Miller enjoyed broad support until the garbage shutdown provided the issue to turn the city against him and all of his policies.  He was portrayed as a downtowner, an enemy of right-thinking people all through “Ford Nation”.  The politics are far more complicated than that, but sound bites rule elections.

Three years in, after an on-again, off-again, on-again flirtation among transit technologies, we come to the Scarborough Subway debate that goes back to Ford’s campaign promise to build subways, not LRT.  True to his word, he killed Transit City on the day he took office, even though he had no authority to do so, and Council meekly stood aside.

Ford’s influence waned for a time, and a faction led by Councillor Karen Stintz engineered a coup to wrest the transit file back to Council’s control re-affirming support for the LRT network.  A year later, the same Councillors claimed that subways were the answer, and one could be built in Scarborough for only a small amount more than the LRT.  Some of that claim was creative accounting, but it set the stage for what would follow.

The recent by-election in Scarborough saw the subway issue turned into blatant pandering, a litmus test of how dedicated a candidate or party might be to Scarborough’s sense of being downtrodden, ignored, short-changed in the municipal parternership.  Scarborough’s mortal enemy, voters were told, lies downtown with those folks who already have their subways.  They want to foist second-class rattle-trap streetcars on the burbs, just like the Scarborough RT, the great-grand-daddy of rattle-traps, was so many years ago.

That’s hogwash, but it shaped the election.  By implication, someone who was pro-subway would be pro lots more to make Scarborough great.

Now we are back to a subway plan with the endorsement of Council by a 24-20 vote.  I could pick a few Councillors whose support might have helped keep the LRT plans alive, but it would have been a close vote either way.  Whoever lost, they would claim that “but for a few” their scheme would have prevailed.  Refighting that vote, if it happens at all, is a battle for another day under a new administration.

Possibly there will be less favourable projections of the subway’s cost that forces a rethink of this project and others in the transit network.  I am not counting on that outcome, and indeed, any decision to shift away from a subway and back to LRT must be based on more than the swing of a few votes on Council.  This cannot be a battle where two armies spend years fighting over a few hundred yards with the front lines never really moving.

The real tragedy in the subway debate was the outright hatred spewed by some members of Council for “downtown”, a block seen as working to undermine the suburban dreams of a Scarborough that would rise to its true place in the GTA.  If a Councillor wants to pitch a subway as an “investment in the future”, that at least is a positive outlook whether it fits with the likely outcome or not.

There is a good argument that “the future” won’t arrive if we do not prepare the ground with municipal investment.  After all, isn’t that what we are doing on the waterfront, that most “downtown” of projects.  There, ironically, all we want is an LRT line but nobody will front the money, less than a fifth the cost of the Scarborough Subway, to build it.

Land use planning is a tricky business.  Sometimes it is a function of who owns property and where, who stands to benefit from a swampland-into-goldmine transformation that generous zoning and heavy public infrastructure investments can bring.  Sometimes it is a statement of civic pride, the idea that former suburbs that were farmland in living memory can become centres in their own right.  They have been waiting a long time.

We need only look to North York Centre, Etobicoke’s Six Points or to Scarborough Town Centre where development, if any, is far less than original hopes.  Meanwhile, “downtown” thrives not because of an evil plot, but because that’s where developers found a market.  Indeed, much of the thriving was under conservative pro-development regimes.  The suburban centres, once the focus of regional planning, may come into their own, but not necessarily in the form expected — symbiotic office and residential clusters with local rather than regional travel demand.

I sat in Council Chamber listening to the debate, and as a “downtowner” heard myself and hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens derided for being fat and happy and feeding off the contributions of suburban taxpayers who weren’t getting their fair share of the spoils.  The debate included disinformation and outright lies, but the worst was that these were directed at “downtown” as a class, not at advocates of a specific position on the issues.

There were moments when I could happily have sold Scarborough to Durham just to get rid of their politicians, but that would only perpetuate the rift.  There are good people in Scarborough both as voters and as politicians, but on this issue the argument turned very nasty indeed.  Was it really necessary to resort to such tactics?  To invent a polarized city with downtowners hating suburbanites?  That’s not what Toronto is really about, but will this be the 2014 election campaign theme?

Is tearing apart the city for real or invented inequities to be the badge of every politician?  Are a few subway lines the issue which should pit neighbourhoods against each other?  Whatever happened to social issues and services, severe problems all over Toronto, not just in Scarborough or Rexdale or Downsview or downtown?  Will the politicians so eager to promise subways in the future do anything about the quality of bus service today?

The Ford brothers are all about divisions, about heavy-handed, take-no-prisoners politics where winning is all that matters and whatever happens along the way, happens.  I don’t want my city to be collateral damage in the Ford wars.

Where is the will to talk about a united vision of anything more than tax breaks that favour well-off landowners far more than poorer tenants?  Where is the will to unite Toronto in a common purpose beyond hating those who live south of St. Clair?

I want leaders who can win my support with strong, positive arguments, not thugs and demagogues.

I want politicians who can lead all of the city, not just the cherry-picked wards where an isolationist, me-first attitude can lead to election victory.

Where are they?