A day in the life

The glassy buildings being built across the Don from Riverdale Farm reflect the setting sun.
A view of the Don Valley from Riverdale Farm

7:30 a. m.: I haul myself out of bed (after having stayed up late the night before doing work and giving myself a haircut), get dressed, feed the cat, throw things into my backpack, and head out to City Hall.

9:00 a. m.: Breakfast is tea and a muffin at the Café on the Square. And meds. I also remember to phone the co-op office for the time of tonight’s Board meeting (my first!).

10:00 a. m.: I sit with a bunch of other political junkies and live-tweet the Budget Committee meeting, while getting actual web work done during slow bits. Just as they get to the exciting bit (the operating budget), the committee breaks for lunch and it’s time for me to run.

1:00 p. m.: Buy tickets for trip to Detroit next weekend — it’s a meetup for Allied Media Conference track coordinators. Should’ve bought them earlier. Ouch.

1:30 p. m.: On my way to Riverdale Farm, make a pit stop at Allan Gardens to ogle cacti.

2:30 p. m.: Meet up with X. and S. at Riverdale Farm, do the tour, take lots of photos of farm animals. The sheep are particularly vocal.

5:00 p. m.: We head back west to check out Toronto’s newest attraction, the Loblaws that just opened in Maple Leaf Gardens. Sure, it’s just a grocery store, but it’s a really nice grocery store. G. arrives just as I have to run off again.

7:00 p. m.: Back to Parkdale for co-op board meeting. I was nervous because I’m relatively new to the co-op, but it helps because I know most of the other directors. All women!

9:00 p. m.: Arrive back home to an affection-craving cat. Almost too exhausted to eat and do dishes. Spend the rest of the evening catching up on the day’s news, procrastinating on the Internet, doing a bit of work, and fine-tuning the AMC track description.

2:00 a. m.: Finish work, email, etc. Finish blog post. Take a well-deserved bath and go to bed, trying not to dwell on all the things I have to do tomorrow…

Ninety-one years ago today

This afternoon I went to see Dave Meslin’s Fourth Wall exhibit, a gallery of ideas on improving civic engagement in Toronto, drawn from other cities around the world and our own history.

One of the most fantastic historical tidbits comes from the no-longer-extant Bureau of Municipal Research, a non-partisan organization that researched and produced reports about various city issues. This little pamphlet is from 1921. Mez has scans (page 1, page 2), but I wanted to transcribe it for accessibility’s sake.

Effective Citizen Co-Operation
What Is Everybody’s Business Should Be Each Body’s Business


Issued by the
Bureau of Municipal Research
189 1/2 Church Street, Toronto.
Telephone: Main 3620


Bulletin No. 84, January 7, 1921


Will 1921 Be A New Year In Civic Administration

OR

Will It Be the Same Old Year With a New Number?

Would the adoption of some of the following New Year’s Resolutions Make for More Effective Civic Administration?


For a Member of Council or Board of Education

  1. I will not speak on any subject unless I know something about it, and I will learn something about any subject on which I should speak.
  2. When I have said all I have to say of value on any subject I will stop talking.
  3. I will always confine myself to the subject on which I am speaking, and will not resort to personalities, no matter what the provocation, nor talk to the gallery, nor conceal my real sentiments in order to retain votes.
  4. I will keep my mind on the work in hand rather than keep my ear to the ground for tremors of dissatisfaction from interested quarters.
  5. I will vote on every measure that comes before the Council or Board, if necessary requesting the postponement of the vote until any required information may be obtained. I will not retire to the members’ room on the approach of a vote which I should like to avoid for personal or political reasons.
  6. In all my statements to constituents and colleagues, my yea shall be yea, and my nay, nay.
  7. I will treat the funds of the city as trust funds, and shall not suffer any of them to be appropriated, without vigorous protest, for objects not in the general public interest, no matter what the effect on my political fortunes may be.
  8. In dealing with the annual estimates, I will consider the best interests of the city as a whole, and will not resort to log-rolling, overt or tacit, and I will consider carefully the recommendations and statements of the official financial advisers of the city.
  9. Except in cases where the public interest requires it, I will protest against the conduct of any public business in private, either through the holding of private meetings or surreptitious meetings of cliques or factions to decide upon a course of action to be taken in public.
  10. I will speak and vote this year at the risk of it being my last year in Council or on the Board.
  11. I will not vote to upset the recommendations of any department head until such department head has been given every opportunity to defend his recommendation and, in my judgment, has failed to do so satisfactorily. Neither will I consent to any action being taken on matters requiring technical advice until such advice has been requested and obtained from the departments concerned.

For a Citizen

  1. During 1921 I will occasionally drop a note of commendation, commiseration or condemnation to my representatives in Council or on the Board of Education.
  2. I will not regard the interests of my ward above the interests of my city, and will not bring pressure on aldermen or trustees to secure special treatment for my ward or locality which would not be a benefit to the city as a whole.
  3. I will not ask Council to suspend by-laws for my personal advantage when it would involve a disadvantage to the city as a whole, nor will I support others in asking for such special treatment.
  4. In determining my actions as a citizen, I will obtain all the information possible, and then make up my own mind without outside dictation, on the ground that I shall be one of those who suffer in case of a mistake.
  5. I will study the estimates of the city as they pass through the various stages of amendment and adoption.
  6. I will try to do as much thinking about civic expenditures to which I contribute as about my private expenditures for services not paid for through the tax rate.
  7. I will not condone the brow-beating or contemptuous treatment of civic officials, while trying to protect the city’s interests, by any of my elected representatives, even if I may think such officials are mistaken.
  8. I will allow the results of my observations to affect my course when the times for nomination and election come around at the close of the year.
  9. I will be a citizen during 1921, not a parasite or mollusk, or piece of blotting paper.

Do you think the current City Council has been living up to these New Year’s resolutions? Would they agree to be bound by them in 2012? And how well are we doing at the whole mollusk thing?

Sci-fi for wonks

As any readers (do I have those?) may have guessed, I’ve become a bit of a political junkie. Cast your eye through the audience of concerned citizens at a City Council meeting and you can easily pick them out: scribbling notes for a possible post to pitch to one of the big Toronto blogs; tapping out tweets on their iPhone or scrolling through the #TOpoli hashtag; typing away on a netbook. It’s totally new to me—until three months ago, I’d never even set foot in City Hall, and when it comes to urban affairs I am not very well-read. Well, unless you count science fiction. There’s a lot of political sf—and some of that you could even call policy wonk sf. Here’s what I would put on a wonks’ reading list:

Isaac Asimov, Foundation (1951)

Mathematician Hari Seldon pioneers the science of “psychohistory”, which can predict the long-term future of societies, but is suppressed by the Powers That Be. The Foundation he creates grows immensely in power as it uses technology to shape the course of history. The Foundation series is a classic example of science fiction that’s conceptually brilliant but stylistically plodding, so not everyone’s cup of tea. Among the many people it influenced is wonk extraordinaire Paul Krugman, who cites it as the reason he went into economics.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga (1986-present)

This long-running series, which combines military sf, political intrigue, and space opera, centres on Miles Vorkosigan — a diminutive, hyperactive, physically disabled nobleman-turned-mercenary-turned-diplomat. Born into the militaristic, feudal culture of the planet Barrayar (to a mother from freewheeling Beta Colony), Miles compensates for his lack of physical prowess with his ability to talk himself into (and out of) anything. And thanks to his aristocratic connections to Barrayar’s Imperial family, he often finds himself in the middle of high-stakes political plots. Bujold is a smart, witty writer who handles humour and deep psychological themes equally well. I’m reading my way through the series now and enjoying it very much.

Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996)

Wolfe is one of the most gifted writers in the genre, and his take on the classic generation starship story (where after many years the passengers forget the outside world and end up worshipping the ship’s computer or whatever) is profound and unique. In the city of Viron in the vast “starcrosser” Whorl, a priest from an impoverished neighbourhood finds out that his manteion (church) has been sold off to a wealthy gangster (who, no doubt, is going to build upscale condos). A divine epiphany commanding him to save his manteion causes him to take drastic measures. He ends up leading a popular uprising against the Ayuntamiento, the deeply corrupt city council, and (eventually) delivering the citizens of Viron to their new planet. There’s also robots, blasters, prostitutes, animal sacrifice, lesbian legionaries, exorcisms, airships, gods, and the nastiest city councillors this side of Mammoliti, but it would all take too long to explain. It’s also deeply and unashamedly Christian, but more like Lord of the Rings than Narnia. Just read it.

Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring (1998)

In a Toronto devastated by economic collapse, the government and everyone else with the means have moved to the suburbs, leaving the downtown core a postapocalpytic urban wilderness. While enterprising denizens farm in Allan Gardens, eat squirrel meat, and take over running the libraries, hired thugs lurk in the shadows seeking to kidnap people for their organs…and even more sinister rituals take place at the top of the CN Tower. Young mother Ti-Jeanne, who leaves her no-good boyfriend to live with her grandmother at Riverdale Farm (RIVERDALE FARM!), must master spiritual warfare to save her family from zombies. And stuff.

This was Hopkinson’s first novel and it’s flawed as first novels tend to be, but no Torontonian—especially on the East Side—should pass this up. Even if it hits a little close to home lately.

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)

Evil killer robots from outer space, who rebelled against their human creators long ago, come back and bomb the shit out of the planets called the Twelve Colonies. Only some 50,000 humans survive due to being in space at the time, including aboard the titular battleship. The first season in particular deals with the political fallout: the highest-ranking member of the government left is Laura Roslin, the Secretary of Education who is now automatically the President and must go from resolving teachers’ strikes to, you know, defending humanity against evil killer robots and finding a new place to live.

In subsequent episodes BSG explores resource shortages, labour strikes, the uneasy balance of power between Roslin’s administration and the military, ethically sketchy interrogations, a terrorist getting elected to public office, martial law, black market economy, abortion law, and presidential elections. Among other things. Political junkies will have a ball. Personally I think the series goes downhill after the end of Season 2 and didn’t even bother watching season 4, but your mileage may vary.

Stuff I just thought of but am too lazy to recap because I’m going to an election party soon:

  • Jo Walton, Farthing (2006). Cozy English murder mystery in a world where Britain made peace with Nazi Germany. First book in the “Small Change” series.
  • Star Trek: DS9 (1993-1999). Do I even have to mention this?
  • Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (1998). Parable of the Sower‘s brutally depressing sequel. A new religious movement struggles to survive in a dystopian America where the Tea Party won.

You learn a new thing every day…

A spray of pussywillows outside a florist's on Roncesvalles Ave.

Roncesvalles, the name of Toronto’s Polish neighbourhood, is of Spanish origin, not, as I thought, French.

In Toronto it’s pronounced idiosyncratically as “Ron-says-veils”, and if it were a French name it would be more like “Ronh-se-vahl” (which I always figured was the “right” way to say it)…but Spanish is a whole new ballgame and I don’t know the rules!

A quick Google turns up a dictionary entry which says it should rhyme with “on the bias”. Ron-says-vye-us. Now, ask ten typical befuddled tourists at Dundas West Station, and you’ll get ten new pronunciations…!

Twenty-two hours in Toronto

“We’re fucked,” I scribble in my notebook as the meeting opens. Inexplicably it is in a small committee room rather than the Council Chambers, so they’ve had to open two overflow rooms and set up a projector and chairs in the lobby. With over 300 people registered to speak, the meeting is going to be ridiculously long. Nevertheless, proposals to move to the Council Chambers and take an overnight break have just been summarily shot down. A motion is passed to let people with children and people with disabilities speak first, but not without Councillor Mammoliti protesting that now everyone will claim to have a disability. This pettiness from the Executive Committee does not bode well for the process ahead, which Mayor Ford describes as separating the “must haves” from the “nice to haves”.

As you may know, KPMG’s “opportunities” for savings are not what strike most people as merely nice to have. They include the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, library branches and services, the Affordable Housing Office, the Community Partnership and Investment Program (which funds, for example, public health initiatives, youth activities, and cultural events), Wheel Trans, and more. (There are murmurs of indignation in the overflow room as the consultants give their presentation.)

This raises the question of how wise it is to cut them for one-time savings. What will the long-term impact be? Might, say, cutting funding that aids the homeless add a larger burden to policing or public health, and end up not saving money at all? Not to mention that many of these programs also save us money or stimulate the economy and receive funding from higher levels of government, so we must also look at how much revenue we stand to lose. But when the visiting councillors brought this up with the KPMG consultants, they replied stolidly again and again, “That was beyond the scope of our report.”

Only a few deputants are able to speak before it’s time for the lunch break. It’s drizzling in Nathan Phillips Square. People with umbrellas line up at the food tents for jerk chicken and ceviche and samosas. A small group of historical re-enactors from Fort York do military drills to a fife and drum. Yep, just a typical day in Toronto.

Later in the meeting the committee will just want to get things over with, but the earliest deputants receive multiple rounds of questions from councillors. Budget chief Cllr. Del Grande attempts to badger the deputants into making all the numbers add up, provoking cries of “That’s your job!” from the overflow rooms. Cllr. Mammoliti reminds each person from local Arts Councils that “of every dollar the provincial government collects in taxes, we get eight cents.” Eight cents, man! And you would have us squander it on art and culture!

Memorable deputants include Kim Fry, who likens this to the Harris government’s “manufactured crisis” and fires back spirited retorts to skeptical right-wing councillors; a neurosurgeon who brings in her very young son “to give him a voice” on zoos and libraries; a young blind woman whose voice shakes with rage as she describes her long struggle to qualify for Wheel Trans; and Kevin Clarke, who swoops in in a blue cape and promptly gets tossed out by security.

A young man named Miro Wagner shares a short fable about “a house called Toronto”, and a foolish contractor who knocks out the ugly pillars in the basement, then declares the house is too heavy and talks the residents into selling off all the furniture and appliances so the house doesn’t collapse. This is just the first of several creative deputations—later on, a guy in a Radio 3 T-shirt reads a speech which I gradually realize is a poem off his iPhone; at the peak of absurdity, Desmond Cole delivers his deputation through a sock puppet named Roy (sadly, no councillors asked follow-up questions); and Susan Wesson delivers her defence of libraries through song.

One woman actually gets a laugh out of Rob Ford as, summing up their political differences, she says, “…and I ride my bike to my gay friends’ wedding!” The only other time he shows interest is when a deputant mentions being a football coach. He drinks can after can of Red Bull and vanishes for long periods of time. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday takes over. He comes across as a bit more chill—for one, he lets people finish their sentences as their time’s running out, and has a less sulky demeanour in general. But the most dedicated councillors aren’t on the Executive Committee; it’s mostly Janet Davis, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Adam Vaughan, Gord Perks, and Mike Layton who rarely let a deputant go by without questions.

Maureen O’Reilly of the Toronto librarians’ union receives one of the most enthusiastic receptions as people file in with stacks and stacks of petitions and everyone in the room—the rooms!—claps and chants “Save our libraries!” This Youtube clip gives you a pretty good idea of what the night was like: Cllr. Mammoliti being a dick (he threatens to move to adjourn the meeting), Mayor Ford mangling poor Cllr. Mihevc’s name, Cllr. Davis being a mensch, Cllr. Perks essentially thumbing his nose at the Mayor as he asks Mihevc’s question for him, and the public cheering their heads off.

And the seventeen-year-old girls from Crescent Town, talking about how their community centre has improved their neighbourhood; and fourteen-year-old Anika, sobbing as she begs the Mayor not to close libraries; a zookeeper and a parks worker, a med student and a professor; countless ordinary middle-class people saying that they will happily pay higher taxes to keep these things open, because it’s just the right thing to do.

A couple times Cllr. Perks dashes in with freshly refilled pitchers of water. “That’s how it should be,” says someone approvingly, “they’re supposed to be serving us.”

The guy sitting across the table from me brings a box of Timbits to pass around the room. Then suddenly there’s boxes of coffee from Tim Hortons and Starbucks, and cookies, and crackers, and juice. Pie and vegan desserts appear from nowhere. Fresh fruit. (All this in the wee hours of the morning. Where is it coming from?!) There is a general feeling of camaraderie between complete strangers. The people sitting next to me apologize for not being able to stick around to hear my deputation and wish me luck as they leave. Those of us near the end of the list commiserate about the long wait.

Finally I go up and say my bit, and listen to some of the people who have been there since the morning finally getting to say their bit. Himy Syed reels out a list of practical tips for each councillor, culminating in “Councillor Matlow, please unblock me on Twitter.” Dave Meslin, in plaid pyjamas and toting a stuffed bunny, commands great respect as he speaks calmly to the Committee about his disappointment in the whole process.

There is certainly a lot to be disillusioned about. When I read about the Mayor saying he would sit there for days, as long as it took to hear everyone, I guess I assumed that he would do just that—listen. Instead he clearly wanted to get it over as quickly as possible and made no attempt to engage with people. And having the meeting run all night shut out a great number of people who wanted to have their say. I am upset about Mammoliti, who went out of his way to be an asshole to as many people as possible. I am just generally let down by how the Executive Committee were really just there because they felt obliged to be, and those hours and hours of words just went in one ear and out the other. Like Meslin said, the process itself was disrespectful. It was designed with one end in mind: cutting public services as quickly as possible. That’s all.

But I was elated to be there, because it was also a celebration of Toronto. As one deputant (who had been there since 9:30 in the morning; I sat next to her first thing) said near the end of the meeting, “The nice-to-haves are what make this city worth living in.” It was a long, riotous, passionate, often irreverent tribute to the best of our city: art, nature, diverse community. It was a plea for (and by!) the poor and hungry, and a defence of the neighbourhoods some people call “bad” but which we know as our vibrant, resilient homes. It was testimony to the power of public libraries, which I now believe to be the very soul of Toronto. I am so proud to see my neighbours affirm that the fortunate should help out the needy, and that our worth is not measured in a budget surplus, but by how we treat our most vulnerable.

Pardon a little digression. After I came out as queer, I found I couldn’t just carry on as before, with the only change being the number of genders I was attracted to. Rather I came to discover entirely new ways to love, some which I have no name for, some that I had never imagined, some which I never thought I would feel. And it is still happening, and it’s surprising and a little frightening every time. What I learned last week was how it feels to really love my city.

It’s a pretty good feeling.

In the News: Poverty, Housing, Health

Toronto Star, “Affordable housing to simplify onerous rent rules”, Nov. 29. The [Ontario] Liberals are coming through on their promise of an affordable housing strategy…sort of.

Globe and Mail, “Province tells Ford to back off on Toronto welfare funding request”, Nov. 29. The provincial government promised municipalities it would cover half the cost of running Ontario Works. But that cost has risen sharply thanks to the increased caseload during this recession. They’re hoping Ford’s frugality means a lower payout.

The Toronto Star, “The rich get rich, and the poor get sick”, Dec. 13. Poor people are vastly more likely to get type 2 diabetes, and, of course, be unable to afford the healthy diet that would help control it.

The Toronto Star, “Welfare rules forcing people into destitution, report finds”, Dec. 13. Includes a smattering of delicious nation-wide statistics. You don’t qualify for social assistance until you’ve exhausted nearly all your assets, and then payments are well below the poverty line—leaving no means of getting back on your feet. Some people seem to think that poverty just happens, like weather or something. In fact, government policies actively create and sustain poverty. You just need to look at the numbers.

In the News: Social Assistance and Affordable Housing

A few interesting articles in the papers recently:

Globe and Mail: “To end poverty, guarantee everyone $20,000 a year. But are you willing to trust the poor?

This week, a House of Commons committee on poverty released a report proposing a guaranteed basic income for Canadians with disabilities, on the model already available to seniors. The Senate released a similar report this spring calling for a study of how it would work for all low-income Canadians.

In Quebec, a government task force went further, recommending a minimum guaranteed income starting at $12,000 for everyone in the province.

The article covers several promising case studies from all over the world. As a pessimist, I expect the moralistic middle class to react by shooting itself in the foot. Bootstraps!!1!!1, etc.

Globe and Mail: “Health of 400,000 ‘nearly homeless’ as dire as those on streets: study”

So far, [the researchers have] concluded that the biggest gulf in health outcomes is not between the homeless and the housed. Rather, it’s between those who have adequate housing and those who don’t.

Their lifespans are about seven to 10 years shorter than the general Canadian population, the study points out, citing previous research done in 2009.

Men in vulnerable housing situations have the same chance of living to age 75 as an average man in 1921 – before antibiotics were around. They’re more than twice as likely as the average Canadian to commit suicide.

Women in similar situations are as likely to survive to the age of 75 as an average woman living in Guatemala. They’re six times more likely to commit suicide than the average Canadian.

Toronto Star: Porter: “Linda Chamberlain’s job was making her broke”

As I mentioned on Twitter, even a part-time minimum wage job pays substantially more than social assistance. The “welfare trap” comes into play when someone’s on social assistance and working: half your pay is subtracted from your social assistance payments. And if you’re in subsidized housing, your rent is geared to your income—your gross income. Such is the case of Linda Chamberlain.

After three decades of battling schizophrenia and homelessness and poverty, Chamberlain finally got a job. She worked 2 ½ days a week as a peer support worker on the very floor where she once lived at the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. It’d be hard to find a better success story.

Except, under the antediluvian web of provincial rules, she lost half of her paycheque to the government, while her rent-geared-to-income skyrocketed by 471 per cent.

The article notes that, when a panel of welfare experts recommended—among many other things—that rent-geared-to-income be calculated from net and not gross income, the Community and Social Services Minister shot it down. Because we’re in a recession. And we have to cut expenses—inevitably at the cost of the poorest, most vulnerable, and most marginalized.

Poverty Is By Definition Unsustainable…

I have been doing cognitive behavioural therapy with a doctor at the practice—it helps you deal with negative thoughts and stress. But a lot of my stress comes from financial insecurity, and that’s really not something you can think yourself out of. The doctor encourages me to see the practice’s social worker to help me budget.

I make an appointment. I talk about how it feels impossible to improve my situation when I can barely get by, let alone put money aside. I talk about the panic at the end of the month, knowing exactly how much is in my account, hoping that I don’t have to buy anything before the next cheque arrives. “It’s stupid, but sometimes I’ve worried about dropping the carton of eggs because I didn’t have the $2.50 to buy another one.”

“It’s hard,” he says. “I see other people on social assistance and everyone worries about the same thing—the end of the month, the end of the month. And people do drop the eggs sometimes.”

I ask him how other people manage.

“Sometimes they go hungry.”

He gives me the addresses of a couple Parkdale food banks and says I can make another appointment if I’m having trouble with ODSP or anything like that.

“Thanks for your help,” I tell him.