Rob Ford’s proudest moment brought all those who oppose his agenda into one room for 23 long hours.
By the end of the longest continuous meeting in the history of Toronto municipal government, tables across the second floor of City Hall were littered with empty timbits boxes, coffee cups, pie plates and assorted other evidence of a large crowd’s sleepless, malnourished night. Committee Room 1, still crowded as the meeting endured into its 24th hour, smelled something like a hockey locker room and was punctuated by the same giddy banter and slouched postures you’d find in one after a double overtime playoff game.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford made an address to close the meeting. “I’ve been in politics 11 years,” he said, “and this is one of my proudest moments. Whether you agree or disagree, you’re here,” he said to the assembled members of the local citizenry who had participated in what was being called a “citizen filibuster,” a marathon of some 168 (or more, of an originally scheduled 344) speakers weighing in on the cuts to city services recently put up for discussion in consulting firm KPMG’s Core Service Review.
It was one of those recently rare moments in Toronto city politics that Councillor Josh Matlow—who thinks, like Solomon claimed to, that the fair answer to every question is to cut the baby in half—is always asking for, a left-right-whatever united sentiment expressed by the guy in charge. One of the mayor’s biggest opponents on council, Gord Perks, had minutes before said something similar.
“Today, I experienced something I’ve been waiting for all my adult life, over 20 years as a community organizer and five years in elected office,” Perks had said. “Today, I heard Toronto speak.”
It was on everyone’s lips throughout the night: look at all this democracy. People—senior citizens, high school students, business owners, artists, doctors—waiting around, packing three committee rooms for hour upon hour, listening to each other’s three-minute sermons on civics and awaiting their own turn at the microphone when they would get their chance to speak. There was a puppet show, a few poems, a spirited rendition of a Toronto political showtune, the requisite quotations from Oliver Wendell Holmes (“I like taxes, they buy me civilization”) Winston Churchill (on a suggestion that arts funding should be cut to fund the war effort: “Then what are we fighting for?”) and Peter Ustinov (“Toronto is like New York run by the Swiss.”) There were readings from Margaret Atwood and Doctor Seuss.
There was activist Dave Meslin, who initially drew the ire of anti-Fordists such as NOW magazine for trying his best to work productively with the mayor, shouting, “As a person dedicated to consultation, I don’t think the previous administration was perfect. I expected you might do better, and you’ve done much worse. And that is shameful.” There was former mayoral candidate Himy Syed, giving an impromptu comic masterpiece of a speech full of very specific and very workable budget solutions, tailored to each councillor on the committee. There was 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan, who wept through the entirety of her speech because of her fear of public speaking, explaining that the computers at Willowdale library are her only chance to do homework: “I’m no taxpayer but by working on the computers at the library, one day I can get a good job”—at which full grown men and women in the press gallery cried. (Really.)
At one point, a speaker complained that the mayor himself was not in the room to hear her and he entered from the back of the room on cue, his arms raised above his head like a professional wrestler called into the ring. There was all that and much, much, much, much, much, much more.
Don’t cut libraries, they said. Don’t cut grants, they said. Don’t outsource parks maintenance or TTC service or school breakfast programs, they said. Raise our taxes, they repeated again and again to outright derision from Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti. Look harder at the budget, they said, you’ll find more revenue.
At the beginning of the meeting, Rob Ford had said that the Core Service Review was about looking at what things in the city are “need to haves” and what things are “nice to haves”—because, he said, pointing to the budget gap of $744 million, this is why we can’t have nice things. To which one deputant said, “What everyone here has been saying is that the ‘nice to haves’ are the things that make the city worth living in.”
Of the fifteen dozen or so speakers, only three did not outright reject the idea of making serious program cuts: one of those was an anarchist who wanted grant programs slashed and replaced with 144 independent elected neighbourhood councils who would deliver programs, another forcefully demanded deep cuts to the police budget. There was only one genuinely Ford-friendly speaker in the bunch, who thought a donation system and user fees for libraries was the only option for them, and that the size of council should be cut in half.
And yet, for all the anger and pleading directed at the executive committee throughout the night from all but that one lonesome representative of the usually boastful Ford Nation, there was also a sense of… well, gratitude may be the wrong word, but it’s the one that comes to mind. Because these people, very few of them The Usual Suspects, who cared so much about whatever it is they came to speak about that they were willing to sacrifice a day’s work and a night’s sleep to say it, found at City Hall an army of fellow citizens just as concerned and perplexed and suddenly motivated as they were.
Somehow, Rob Ford had brought a burgeoning movement together. This was not like the Jarvis Bike Lane debate of a few weeks back, in which a very vocal but very narrow constituency of cyclists was outraged. This was not like the whole Pride fiasco, in which, again, a sizeable but particular constituency was enraged.
By looking at every goddamn thing that was not nailed down, the Core Service Review made it about every goddamn thing at once. And then the mayor went and invited everyone with something to say about it to come down to one single meeting. Which means the Heritage Toronto People and the AIDS program people and the library people and the cycling people and the dental health people and the snowplow-loving people and the labour-union people and the—well, all kinds of people who are not usually, necessarily on the same side of things—suddenly found themselves together facing an executive committee that appeared to be prepared to cut everything to plug an 8.5% hole in the proposed budget—a hole made larger by that same executive committee’s recent decisions to cut and freeze various taxes.
You got the sense as they spoke that not only were these people feeling the need to make a rational case for their favourite services, but they had been startled and terrified by the blunt-force dismissiveness of the ruling regime, embodied by Doug Ford aggressively kissing off The Atwood and talking trash about libraries. These people want to cut everything, was the vibe, and not only that but they’re feeling pretty arrogant and happy about shutting it all down, too. The mayor’s brother, after all, said he wanted to turn the place into Mississauga. Have you been to Mississauga? The only reason to live in Mississauga is because it’s so close to Toronto, isn’t it?
Anyhow, here they all were, filling three rooms at city hall, listening to each other and talking to each other and exchanging information and cheering loudly for each other, often in defiance of whoever was chairing the meeting at the time, trying to quiet them down. Applause and cheering are forbidden by the rules, but Ford and his deputy mayor Holyday didn’t even really try to enforce the prohibition. Because they couldn’t. People were only kicked out when they became openly abusive and belligerent—with one exception (a fella who wanted to speak but had missed his chance through some kind of botched spot-swap, and then refused to leave).
All of this talk of cuts and Ford-brothers braggadoccio had already started to expose some cracks in the stranglehold on power. This was a week in which CTV openly mocked the mayor, putting a clip of his handler Adrienne Batra trying to shut down an interview on the air. And a week in which not just swing councillors but mayoral allies such as TTC chair Karen Stintz began, unprompted, to disassociate themselves from Ford proposals. (Stintz tweeted out of the blue that she would not support any library cuts and expressed her support for TTC GM Gary Webster, while news reports said Ford wanted him fired.) Cracks were appearing.
And then the mayor invited all his many, varied, scattered opponents to have a sleepover together at City Hall to talk about their fears and complaints. If someone were trying to reverse the political momentum at city hall—if someone were trying to start an anti-Ford movement, in other words—this is how they might go about it. Ford said this episode of participatory democracy was among his proudest moments. His opponents thought it was too. It can only get more interesting from here.