NOW Magazine: Voices in the void

Oct 1st, 2010 by Ellie Kinzer in the NOW Magazine Toronto

The emergency meeting of One-Toronto that brought 300 to the Church of the Holy Trinity Monday night, September 27, was both gratifying and slightly impossiblist.

The proceedings, which moved with military precision and no audience participation (save a Tabby Johnson singalong), were geared to reframing the current election debate. Backed by a coalition of labour, arts, enviro and social justice groups, OneToronto is dedicated to a vision of the city that “builds on its successes, cares for its neighbours, protects the environment and values community.”

So far, so good.

Chair John McGrath tells the enthusiastic crowd that he’s troubled by the negativity in the campaign. “There’s too much no and not enough yes,” he says, laying out OneToronto’s terms: “We won’t be endorsing any candidate; we want candidates to come to us to adopt our approach.”

Then a roster of impressive activists takes to the stage. Tam Goossen makes a pitch for pushing diversity issues, and Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Franz Hartmann says people have bought into the notion that something is terribly wrong with our city, but there are huge strengths we have to build on.

Annie Kidder scores thunderous clapping when she warns, “Beware of those who want to cut the fat from the system: one man’s or woman’s fat may be another’s flesh and bones.”

Prince Waifeh, an Acorn member, says, “Politicians ignore low-income people, so low-income people are ignoring the politicians.... We have to talk about issues that really matter.”

And former mayor David Crombie offers eloquent pleas for grassroots processes and reminisces about his youthful fight to save this very church, stressing that “the public has to be the push behind City Hall.”

Believe me, I really want to get excited, but my engines, I’m afraid, are starting to sputter. Animator-in-chief Jack Blum of REEL Canada urges the repetition “until you’re sick of it” of the following: 1) Facts, not fury. 2) Protect what’s great about the city. 3) My city includes everybody.

The idea is to ask candidates these questions: how would they tackle climate change, improve city services, invest in communities and further equity and diversity?

Everyone is told to write letters to editors, send video clips to OneToronto’s YouTube channel (onetoronto.ca), tweet messages to the site and text five friends to get them to email questions to candidates.

“We want to get more voices out there than the ones we hear,” says McGrath. Suddenly, sparks of light flicker through the sanctuary as cellphones get turned on for the networking effort.

Here’s my problem. I love all the stuff where people find each other online and feel all mass-movementish. Still, if the purpose is to thump Rob Ford, folks in this room contacting five of their buddies isn’t really going to be that effective, if you see what I mean.

More importantly, I’m not sure whether this crowd under the vaulted ceiling realizes what mix-and-match policy weirdness there is in this election. The David Miller legacy (if we dare use the word), though unacknowledged, hangs in the atmosphere.

So amidst all the chatter on fiscal responsibility and value for tax dollars, you’ll see even conservative-minded candidates, Fordists excluded, scraping together positions on OneToronto’s four concerns. It’s happening on the ward level, too. But while you can ask the four questions, what are the correct answers?

All mayoral hopefuls – minus Ford, who sticks rigidly to script – appear to favour the priority area plan and the liveable city. Conservative Sarah Thomson (no longer a candidate) pushes radical road tolls. Right-wing Rocco Rossi now likes bike lanes and wants to dramatically increase arts funding. George Smitherman’s got the Green Energy Act covered, but he’s also put privatizing garbage service on the table, and a tax freeze.

The truth, it seems, is more than a few questions away. But beyond references to the “values we share,” policy fine points aren’t a big item in the pews tonight. It’s all cozy and fun, but I’m really not sure we’ve made much headway.