Taking the Long View on Rob Ford

In Improbable Mutterings on July 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I’ll confess: I’m no student of Toronto, or even of civic history. I’ve lived here for ten years, but my knowledge of the city only extends as far back as my time here. I arrived during the lingering years of Mel Lastman, cut my teeth under the watch of David Miller, and am now feeling the brunt of Rob Ford. So please, temper your expectations that what I write will in some way be a comprehensive analysis of what Toronto “needs.” I’m only writing from experience.

I think Rob Ford is going to be good for Toronto. I think his is the kind of medicine the city truly needs, in the long run. He is a sceptic, and takes no sacred cows for granted. He is, of course, as Ivor Tossell points out, troublingly “uncompetent.” Since the late spring, he has blundered into one media catastrophe after another, every one of them based on possible cuts to valued services or snubs to certain communities. The local, national, and social media coverage of his performance since Toronto’s Pride celebrations has been almost universally condemnatory. From the perspective of legislative leadership, this reputation has certainly been earned.

As our mayor continues to ladle away the illusory “gravy,” the howling has reached a fever pitch. One would think that Rob Ford was dismantling the network of civility that holds the city together. I’d prefer to take a more moderate view, and believe that Ford is, in so many ways, challenging what it means to be a Torontonian.

Toronto’s Downtown citizens take our wonderful city for granted, in large part. Under Miller, much of what we thought the city “represented” – tolerance, diversity, exploration of new ideas, expansion of services – thrived and was widely supported. Downtowners, and those on the Left, considered this movement to be progressive, in the sense that looking back was unthinkable.

Or so we thought, until the election of Ford in 2010. His election, and his agenda, shows that the ghosts of amalgamation still haunt the imaginations of the outraged and buzzing Downtown Tweeters and newspaper jockeys. The collective judgment of social media, and its young vanguard of civic unrest, would have people believe that Ford is the herald of a looming culture war.

So much has already been said about the regions of Toronto that elected Ford: whether fiscally or socially conservative, these areas of the city have roundly rejected the “Downtown Agenda.” The constituents of these places are Torontonians too, though they may not walk the streets during Nuit Blanche, or own a bike. Their voice truly matters and, lest it be forgotten, more of them voted on the day that it counted most. Ford’s victory is a testament to the depth of those concerns, rather than his qualities as a leader or a statesman (which are demonstrably meagre).

Much of Toronto’s greatness is assumed, rather than earned. When things get bad – such as when a mayor wants to cut a much-heralded service or feature, or openly snubs a core part of its downtown community – the immediate reaction from most of its Downtown residents is to invoke the “values” of Canada’s largest city.

Believe me, there’s nothing implicit about these values. Take Toronto’s LGBTQ community, who understands this topic better than most. As someone with family who identifies as non-heterosexual, this is an important subject for me. Like many, I was appalled at Ford’s open rejection of Pride 2011’s events. But I wasn’t thinking about a moral or political or economic argument. I was thinking about how much Ford resembled people I knew back in my hometown – people who were, at their core, good, but who carried over ancient prejudices that do represent a majority view around the globe.

Acceptance is earned, not given. It’s a long project, a never-ending campaign.

I will stop short of calling Downtown Torontonians “complacent” – a word I don’t think applies in spirit, but certainly does in practice. In my time in Toronto, its downtown “elites” (a term I hate, but let’s use it for sake of understanding how those who don’t live downtown think of us) are rather unaccustomed to fighting, en masse, for what they believe in. This is perhaps a symptom generally of the Left in the recent era, but in Toronto’s downtown core, so much of what we hold dear is assumed to be enshrined in the city’s constitution. Nothing could be further from the truth; nothing could be less true in any future, in what is a rapidly changing city with a visibly changing agenda.

The people who are so incensed at Rob Ford should see his term in office – and I do think he will be a one-term mayor – as a golden opportunity to do their own KPMG-style audit on what it is they truly value. Much of the outrage we have been seeing in the past few weeks was completely obvious in coming. So, suburbanites wanted to scrap the vehicle registration fee. Sure, cutting it has left Toronto with a major budget shortfall – which Ford inexplicably considered to be a “saving” – but it was going to happen: it was a key mandate Ford’s election platform. It is entirely natural that services he and those who elected him do not consider to be “essential” would be on the chopping block to make up the difference. Did anyone honestly think this man was going to go easy on “soft” programs?

This is partly a lesson about simple mathematics, but it’s also about values. It’s accepted that it is political suicide to suggest a candidate run on a platform of higher taxes and more user fees. Yet this is, in part, what is needed to sustain much of what Ford is threatening.

Ford’s bean-counting, small-minded rule will ultimately be a civic disaster, I think. That doesn’t mean it has to be the death of civility; it doesn’t mean Toronto is on the precipice of a suburban nightmare – of paved-over parks and strip-malls, of white picket fences and Leave-it-to-Beaver conservatism. But it does mean that countering Ford’s “vision” for Toronto (does he have a “vision” or a “reduction” in mind for the city?) means making hard choices, and actually owning them in public. George Smitherman and Joe Pantalone failed to do this during the last election, because, in part, they assumed Toronto’s “values” would simply manifest themselves at the ballot box.

“Toronto” will mean what we want it to mean. It’s an emergent entity, more malleable than other major Canadian cities like Vancouver or Calgary with a more defined geographic or economic identity. (Being from “the biggest city” or “the most diverse city” doesn’t mean very much come election time.) Ford’s success has showed us the fragility of the Downtown mirage. That mirage is dissipating in front of our eyes, as we witness a host of cuts that will reduce services for miserably meagre savings.

Moving back to pre-amalgamation borders is an absurd suggestion. It is a protectionist, utterly inefficient idea that is more about head-in-the-sand solipsism than defining a civic region. It also accepts the notion that cultural and economic and infrastructural reconciliation with the “ends” of the city – North, East, and West – is impossible. I don’t hold to that belief, and I don’t think that people in those areas are looking for this solution either.

Redefining what Toronto “means” will mean including the regions whose putative agenda Ford has so single-mindedly advanced. That may mean some hard choices for Downtowners: it may mean acknowledging that things like bike lanes are simply not on the radar, or the budget, of a city of this geographical size; it may mean understanding that the fight for LGBTQ issues is not “won,” but is, in so many ways, still in its early stages, and that outreach and understanding needs to be stepped up tenfold, rather than entrenching opinions in a “liberal Downtown vs. conservative Suburbs” battle.

I hope the outcome of this outrage will be a stronger Toronto, a city that has a better sense of where it is going. I don’t doubt that some will try to advance the notion that we are in fact in the midst of a culture war; Ford himself occasionally voices opinions that encourage this line of thinking. In the end, however, I want to believe that the mayor’s outrageous claims and ridiculous missteps will encourage greater understanding and forward movement. I know that might be naïve, and that the forces which rally opinion are usually divisive in nature. I do very much hope that the growing outrage can be directed towards self-definition and renegotiation, rather than towards individuals — even Ford himself — in a spirit of blame and mistrust.

  1. Hope is not a strategy my friend!!!! Rob Ford does not make me feel like a Torontonian at all, in fact I feel shunned by my own city that I grew up in. Maybe shunned is not the right word, more like I’m being kicked out! No mayor will ever be perfect, but finally seeing great plans come to life to make Toronto a better, more inviting place, to live work and play. Ford is going to rob us of that and waste all of our money for a fucking mall and a ferris wheel. No libraries, no transit city, no lower donalnds project…our city is turning into a slum, because he can’t be bothered to actually do his job. He’d rather be at the cottage! My Toronto is not for sale!

    • Hi fijigal! Thanks for your comment. I agree, there’s a ton of problematic plans coming from his office. One of the things which has come up recently, which I don’t mention in this post, is the fact that he and his close advisers seem to be making these decisions in private. You mention the “mall”, which I assume you mean the plan for the Don-area waterfront…I think their “plans” (if you can call them that) to scrap the years of consultations is particularly troubling.

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