Spiders of Toronto: #2017bestnine

So there’s a thing going around Instagram where you post a collage of your top nine photos from 2017, ranked by likes. Here’s mine:

As determined by 2017bestnine.

Maybe not surprisingly, there wasn’t much overlap with what I considered my best photos! I couldn’t quite narrow them down to nine, but here they are, in chronological order. Continue reading Spiders of Toronto: #2017bestnine

Spiders of the Western Waterfront

If you follow my Instagram you’ll see that I spend most of my spider-watching time on the western waterfront. There’s an abundance of diverse spider habitats all along the Martin Goodman Trail, but there are several parks that are worth dedicated visits. Here’s a tour…

Continue reading Spiders of the Western Waterfront

Five years ago yesterday…

…I walked into Toronto City Hall for the first time ever. I’d lived in Toronto since 2003, but I had very little interest in city politics—I was too busy first being a student, and later being poor. Then word started going around about proposed sweeping budget cuts. I was worried about how it would affect Parkdale, the neighbourhood I’d moved to in 2009 and grown to love. The mayor had said he would sit at City Hall and listen all night, if need be, to people’s concerns. How often do you get a promise that the mayor will listen to you, personally?

So, off I went. It was magical. You can read my account here. (Or the Star’s. Or Torontoist‘s liveblog. Or watch Matt Elliott’s hand-picked highlights.) I got thrown out near the end, when I yelled “Shut the fuck up” at Cllr Mammoliti. (I was horribly ashamed at the time. I cried about letting down all the councillors who had behaved with such dignity and composure all night. Later, I would learn that this was a normal response to Mammoliti and I was just saying what everyone else was thinking.)

I was hooked, and I kept going back. Normally cautious about privacy, I unlocked my Twitter account so I could livetweet and talk to strangers. I started reading reports and writing blog posts. I became part of a cadre of amateur City Council watchers who followed City Hall for fun—and later, as a calling, as many became writers, editors, political staff, and activists. Many of the people from the 2011 all-night meeting became familiar faces, friends, colleagues, and even chosen family.

I remember the morning I showed up to a Budget Committee meeting and realized that being motivated to show up to Budget Committee meetings in the morning was a rare gift. I remember that night in the pub I started crying because I realized politics could be a genuine career and a ticket out of poverty. I remember when people started buying me beer. I remember the first time I knocked on a door for a Council candidate and asked a complete stranger to vote for them. (It was fucking terrifying, and I’ve done it countless times since.)

It’s been a wonderful five years. I’m intensely grateful for it, and uncertain but optimistic about what the future will bring. Thanks to everyone for reading and being a part of this journey. I will totally hit you up to fund my publication/campaign in the future.

The “mushy middle” sets at last

Yesterday, while cops and protesters clashed outside City Hall, a quietly dramatic battle was taking place inside. In the face of sweeping budget cuts, the “moderate” councillors joined forces with resident pinkos like Carroll, Davis, and Vaughan and tabled motions reversing the mayor’s most controversial proposals. It started with Josh Colle, a heretofore silent rookie whose key role up till now was being mistaken for Josh Matlow.

Unsure Fry meme: Not sure if Josh Colle...or Josh Matlow

Shortly before the lunch break he put forward an omnibus motion that would save many of the services to be cut, including daycare subsidies, CPIP grants, and community centre youth programs. It was an audacious move that sent Ford allies into a tizzy. Speaker Frances Nunziata was acting like a crabby schoolteacher who’s lost control of her class. Deputy mayor Doug Holyday accused Colle of cutting a deal with his “special interest pals”. Giorgio “The Thumb” Mammoliti desperately attempted to paint Colle’s motion as some kind of salvo in the downtown vs. suburbs wars in a blustering tirade reminiscent of Brady’s closing speech from Inherit the Wind. It became pretty obvious why it was Colle who presented this; he responded to attacks from Ford allies with unusual determination and composure, refusing to be bullied into rhetorical traps.

Josh Colle introduces his motion
Josh Matlow Colle. Photo by Rene Johnston of the Star.

And then, one councillor after another began moving to reverse budget cuts not covered in Colle’s motion. Berardinetti (whose stance on daycare has not been particularly women-friendly) moved to save the Immigrant Women’s Health Centre. Crawford, to keep three shelters open. Cho, to preserve library services. And so on. (Matt Elliott has a wonderful breakdown.) The usual lefty suspects were, for the most part, lying low; most of the councillors were moderates—not always Ford-friendly, but not vocal opponents, either. A few who supported Colle’s motion or tabled their own were reliable Ford allies.

Cllr Gloria Lindsay Luby beams as she gives a thumbs-up, countering Mammoliti's surly thumbs-down.
Mammoliti’s thumb seems to have lost its power. By Steve Russell for the Star.

Side note: Ford’s inner circle (Rob Ford himself, as usual, didn’t participate in debate) badgered everyone (or tried to), as expected, but I thought their treatment of Ana Bailao was inexcusably patronizing. They saw a young, not really aggressive woman rookie and used all the old rich white dude pull they could muster to try to cow her into submission. I hope she wasn’t intimidated, and that she goes into the next meeting more prepared.

As protesters massed in Nathan Phillips Square, police presence ramped up and City Hall was put on lockdown—no one going in, no one going out. Security already wasn’t letting anyone into council chambers, partly because it was very full, partly to prevent any protesters from sneaking in, unfurling banners, and raising a ruckus (which happened a couple times over the course of the day). Tweets flew back and forth. We had only a vague idea about what was happening outside—arrests? tear gas? fights?—and most of the people outside were equally in the dark about what was going on in the council meeting. Tension drew to a peak as Nunziata, to councillors’ very vocal dismay, announced a short recess before the vote—presumably so the mayor’s cadre had time to get councillors alone and whip up enough votes.

And, in the end, Ford lost. Big time. Doucette’s and Bailao’s motions (for the High Park Zoo and fire services, respectively) were ruled out of order and a motion to defer contracting out janitors didn’t carry—but everything else went through, to immense jubilation from the gallery. Ford’s budget was swiftly, decisively defanged.

What I learned?

Common human decency sometimes wins the day. It may take a little (okay, a lot) of backroom machination, is all.

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?

City as mental condition

The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system. Without trust, you cannot identify anything; it’s like a sandstorm. You don’t see yourself as part of the city—there are no places that you relate to, that you love to go. No corner, no area touched by a certain kind of light. You have no memory of any material, texture, shape. Everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else’s will, somebody else’s power.

To properly design Beijing, you’d have to let the city have space for different interests, so that people can coexist, so that there is a full body to society. A city is a place that can offer maximum freedom. Otherwise it’s incomplete.

[…] This city is not about other people or buildings or streets but about your mental structure. If we remember what Kafka writes about his Castle, we get a sense of it. Cities really are mental conditions. Beijing is a nightmare. A constant nightmare.

—Post-detention, artist Ai Weiwei reflects on Beijing. Read the whole thing.

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.