By Carlos Ruiz, Toronto Correspondent at Pedestrian Space
Last fall voters went to the polls to express their say on the future of the province of Ontario and the city of Toronto. Amid the disappointing, although unsurprisingly, low voter turnout, Ontarians re-elected a conservative majority in the provincial parliament, thus granting the Conservative leader, Doug Ford, a second term as Premier of Ontario. At the same time, Torontonians (the few that could be bothered to go out to vote) re-elected John Tory, a Conservative, to serve as Mayor of Toronto for the third consecutive term. Nothing wrong with this. The election was conducted fairly and the will of the majority won. After all, outside the Toronto city limits, Ontario is a very conservative province with a very different lifestyle – and infrastructure- than the more progressive the downtown area. However, there was a provincial initiative that caused controversy just before the election and that was characterized by many as undemocratic and unfair. The so-called Strong Mayor Powers.
The Strong Mayor Power law is a bill promoted by Premier Doug Ford that allows the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to act without a majority support in city council. In other words, it gives unprecedented powers to the mayor to enact bylaws and veto council decisions. This comes three years after Doug Ford’s government decided to cut the number of Toronto city councillors in half, undermining the representation of thousands of residents in different wards.
Included in the ‘Strong Mayor’ bill, which was passed by the Ontario Legislature in December 2022, there is a proposal from the government to remove huge chunks of land from the protected “greenbelt” and allow the construction of over 50.000 homes as part of a provincial plan to build 1.5 million homes in the next decade to tackle Ontario’s housing shortage.
The ‘greenbelt’ is a protected area of farmland, wetland, forest and green space in southern Ontario and was created in 2005 by the Ontario government as an attempt to prevent urban development from destroying this environmentally sensitive area. According to the Greenbelt Foundation, the protected area encompasses 2 million acres of land stretching from Niagara Falls to Peterborough across the Greater Toronto Area, and provides roughly 177,700 jobs in the province. Hundreds of species of birds, mammals and fish depend on this ecosystem and a lot of the fruits, vegetables and animal products that fill the shelves of Toronto stores come from farms within this protected area, so development in this land would makes the food affordability crisis we currently have even more dire.
Moreover, not only is the idea of development on the ‘greenbelt’ irresponsible, the kind of development that will come to this land is short-sighted. It is expected that the housing and infrastructure projects that are going to be built by large developers, some of whom have deep connections and are big donors to the Conservative Party, include mostly detached and semi-detached single-family homes in sprawled, car-dependent neighbourhoods with limited access to public transit. Thus, the plan to pave Ontario’s ‘Greenbelt’ is unlikely to tackle the housing affordability crisis but is certain to contribute to the climate crisis by decimating fragile ecosystems and encouraging sprawl and car-dependence.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN TORONTO?
In Toronto things are not looking better. In January the new city budget was unveiled and the news of the property tax increase and cuts to public transit were eclipsed by the recent wave of violence that has been taking place especially in city buses, streetcars and subway stations.
On December 8th, two women were stabbed by a stranger in High Park station, and one of the victims later died due to her injuries. On January 3rd, a man was pushed on to the subway tracks after getting in an argument with another man in Bloor-Yonge subway station. On January 21st, a female TTC employee was shot with a BB gun while waiting to start her shift as a bus driver in the Scarborough area. On January 24th, a woman was stabbed inside a streetcar on Spadina Ave by another woman in a seemingly random attack. On January 25th, two TTC operators were chased by an individual wielding a syringe. Luckily they escaped unharmed. On the same day, a 16- year-old boy was stabbed on a bus at Old Mill station. Luckily the boy survived.
These violent incidents, along with the fare increases and the service cuts that could leave commuters waiting up to 10 minutes for a subway and up to 30 minutes for a bus, have led many Toronto residents to reconsider their relationship with public transit, with many thinking about buying a personal vehicle or even moving to the suburbs and a general mistrust and fear of transit has been growing amongst commuters. Meanwhile, the response from the Toronto Transit Commission has been to hire more special constables (transit police) and, similarly, the response from the city government has been to deploy dozens of police officers in stations around the city, with some social media users reporting seeing a police officer armed with an assault rifle in a subway station during rush hour.
Commuters waiting for a bus in the Liberty Village neighborhood. Photo by Carlos Ruiz
Obviously, the recent wave of violence is not the fault of the city government or the TTC, but their response shows a lack of vision and understanding of the root causes of these attacks, mostly mental health issues, cost of living and drug abuse. By going ahead with the fare increases and service cuts, the authorities will exacerbate the problems because riders will have to pay more for longer waits to get on overcrowded buses, trains and streetcars.
In a time when we are already feeling the impacts of climate change, governments should encourage people to use public transit and should encourage the development of responsible, climate-conscious housing and infrastructure. Mayor Tory should lead an effort to restore public trust in transit and Premier Doug Ford should step in with financial aid in order to prevent service cuts and fare increases from happening. Toronto is still a vibrant cosmopolitan city and Ontario still is a leading economic and innovative province, but under the current leadership it feels like we are regressing at an alarming rate.
Update: Toronto Mayor announces he will step down
In an unexpected press conference on Friday evening, Mayor Tory announced he would resign after admitting he engaged in a relationship with a staffer “in a way that did not meet the standards to which I hold myself as mayor and as a family man”. The abrupt press conference was held minutes after the Toronto Star broke the story of Tory’s affair with the 31-year-old staffer.
As of noon Monday February 13th, Tory has not submitted his official resignation letter to City Council, which means that, technically, he is still the mayor. However, under the City of Toronto Act, once Tory’s resignation is formally accepted, Deputy Mayor Jennifer Mckelvie will assume the responsibilities of the mayor until a by-election is held. Mckelvie is the city councillor for ward 25 Scarborough-Rouge Park and has been in charge of overseeing the city’s Vision Zero strategy and its budget. She has also advocated for the deployment of more speed cameras around the city and has been a supporter of the Scarborough subway extension.
In the meantime, there are some names floating around as potential candidates. Gil Penalosa announced he will run again after finishing in second place in the October 2022 municipal election. “I’m convinced that together we can create a Toronto that is affordable, equitable, sustainable,” said Penalosa in a video posted on Twitter.
Michael Ford, nephew of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, is another potential candidate. After being elected to provincial parliament and appointed as minister of citizenship and multiculturalism by his uncle, the idea that he will run as mayor of Toronto is not far fetched considering the Premier’s interest and constant involvement in the way Toronto is governed.
Brad Bradford, councillor for ward 19-Baches-East York is another potential candidate and, being endorsed by Tory in the municipal election, could be a safe bet with the support of the Conservatives. Bradford has not confirmed his intention to run as of Monday.
Carlos is an avid walker and cycling enthusiast based in Toronto, Canada. With a background in Political Science and teaching, he believes walkable cities play a vital role in the development of local economies, the environment and public health as well as contributing to the strengthening of democratic values. Carlos is a strong advocate of changing the car-centric culture of North America and strongly believes in education as the most important tool for positive change.
Read Toronto & Bogotá Correspondent Carlos’ content here
Learn more about the Global Walkability Correspondents Network here