Some characterize Premier Ford’s disruption of Toronto’s city council elections as an abuse of power; but I would say he’s using the power of his office in a majority government to advance a specific set of interests – exactly why he vied for that power in the first place. The self-styled man “for the people” wants to prevent the people from using our democratic process to achieve material changes in their lives.
Ford may not have put a platform before the electorate, but he did offer ideological positions that warned of his governing agenda. For the people, this included: opposing a higher minimum wage but championing subsidies for cheap beer. For private interests and corporations, lower taxes and fewer rules put in place to protect the public interest. The leader’s and many candidates’ repeated statements vilified or valued people according to race, religion, gender. White nationalists supporting his campaign have grown emboldened by his victory.
This municipal election was going to challenge the new provincial government. Never before had the city seen so many young, progressive people step forward to run for city council and school board. So many are women. So many are racialized. They are fiercely committed and hard-working. And they have traction because they emerge from real struggles as authentic leaders for their communities.
A majority of people in the city care about affordability and inequality. A majority, when polled, were concerned about carding and fair policing. And an increasing number of Torontonians take underfunded transit that isn’t equitably accessible across the city. The time was right for communities to back candidates that would champion policy choices at city council that would put words into action.
As much as I love my city, I won’t pitch into hollow self-congratulating about how diverse and inclusive we are. Loving the city means to me instead both boldly challenging the inequalities that fuel the polarization among people by race and income and ensuing disengagement from democracy of those on the bottom.
Between 1980 - 2010, there’s been a 96% increase in income inequality among neighbourhoods in Toronto, according to a United Way research report. Any reimagining of Toronto has to start with a recognition of how a majority of people experience the city due to the economic choices made by those in power at all levels of government — particularly in the last 40 years. Many Torontonians have only ever experienced low wages, high unemployment, expensive housing, fewer services.
The economy is all of us. As a result, economic conditions breed insecurity and fear about the future.
When people can’t change their economic circumstances by participating in our democratic institutions, they turn away from them, sometimes in ways that are destructive and counterproductive towards their own communities.
Additionally, precarity erodes solidarity.
I ran in a ward that voted Ford in 2010 and 2014 and has now swung NDP in the provincial election. There’s no room for the soft centre in the sharp edges of the old City of York, where local policy decisions historically didn’t foster a sense of the common good. People can turn against others (refugees, Muslims) one election year, and then embrace an agenda that takes on racism and xenophobia in the next. Acknowledging such voter trends poses the question: how do we build a permanent base for progressive values and organizing?
My own work centers on helping people to question, to think critically about the present, to see the systems that shape their actions, and to imagine a different future. Without this, we can’t collectively change the rules of a game designed to leave a majority on the margins, to compete with each other for jobs, and decent housing — eroding bonds to each other.
It’s taken decades of federal and provincial policy choices to fuel inequality in cities. Today more than ever, we need people to build and demonstrate our power.
Toronto and its people need a bold civic platform: built from people’s experience, speaking directly to living wages, housing people can afford, building a sense of solidarity, and upholding the right of every person to freely move in the city. Torontonians need people to fight for their economic safety, security, and for fairness in all interaction with institutions.
We can’t give up the fight to define our own political rules, that is why every procedural, legal and organizing strategy is being deployed to challenge the Conservative takeover of Toronto’s elections.
And come election day, we will need progressive champions on city council and the school board to support from the inside of institutions, the work that we must continue to do on the outside. In this way, we can build resistance to the ideas that seek to divide us while building a base in every corner of this city for lasting progressive change.
Alejandra Bravo is the Broadbent Institute’s Director of Leadership & Training and board chair of Progress Toronto. She is also a former Toronto City Councillor Candidate, whose campaigns and ongoing work focuses on building progressive power and fighting for a fair, just and inclusive economy for all.
Photo: Marco Verch. Used under a creative commons license.