Photo of people protesting outside an apartment building. A man is holding a megaphone and there are other people around with signs.
A protest at 75 Eastdale Ave., organized by ACORN in summer 2023. Photo: David Gray-Donald

City Council and the Ground Game

Mayor Olivia Chow was always going to increase the police budget in 2024, it was just a question of how much. The extra $20 million Chow announced to police made headlines in February because she had first planned an increase of only $7.4 million.

Progress Toronto, an advocacy group that endorsed Chow’s candidacy, criticized her support for the extra police funds. “This is disappointing, Mayor Chow — the police have bullied, fear-mongered and threatened to get what they want,” read the group’s statement.

Of course, Chow never promised as a candidate to defund the police, or even to minimize increases to their budget. Many seemed to be projecting onto the mayor a policy vision she has never embraced.

Toronto city council’s endless appetite for policing, security, and punishment is a gut-punch for people who want their city to invest more in life-giving approaches. But proposals that would meaningfully improve life for unhoused and poor people, renters, and transit riders rarely make it to city council. The poor and working-class people who would benefit most from such an agenda usually lack the political power to get it to the table.

The emergence of a more progressive agenda doesn’t hinge on our mayor’s presumed compassion, or on the youngest and most diverse council in memory. Instead, it is forming and faltering and taking shape within self-organized groups of people who are surviving the city’s neglect, and who are building their own agenda for safety, fairness, and prosperity. The more such groups can grow, connect, and share resources, the more likely council is to start reversing its harmful direction.

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Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, as evictions spiked and businesses failed, encampments became more common in public spaces across the Greater Toronto Area. The city responded in part by leasing underused hotels as makeshift shelter spaces.

The shelter hotels have been sites of suffering and neglect, but also places of connection and organizing by groups like Voices for Unhoused Liberation, whose members support people living at a Delta hotel in Scarborough, as well as at an encampment in a downtown park.

Sid Jackson, who’s been doing outreach and organizing with Voices, describes city-run hotel shelters as “very carceral, punitive, traumatizing” spaces, where police sometimes occupy the lobby, and where residents get kicked out for unclear and arbitrarily-enforced rules. “Often, you’re only given like [a] half hour to pack your belongings, and then you’re shipped off,” Jackson says during a phone interview, adding that people often have possessions lost or stolen once they’re discharged.

Voices for Unhoused Liberation has been supporting people to appeal service restrictions, recover belongings, and receive support if they can’t or don’t wish to use a different city-run space, such as a specific shelter.

The group is focused on what Jackson calls “building the collective power of unhoused people” at places like the Delta. “After just mostly focusing on relationship building, community building, establishing trust and consistency, we’re now in conversations about: what does organizing the building look like?”

The group ultimately wants a city-wide policy change on restrictive shelter access, and has campaigned along with other groups for a policy to stop encampment and shelter hotel evictions. But at the moment, Jackson says, few of the 25 councillors seem eager to champion a better shelter access policy. And while Chow has been aggressive in calling for federal and provincial shelter funds, the mayor hasn’t said much about the revolving-door reality of the city’s shelters.

In most cases, Toronto’s mayor only has one vote on city council. If she proposes anything that local councillors don’t want or fear is unpopular, they lose almost nothing by voting against her.

City hall reporter and columnist Matt Elliott has been charting how often councillors vote with the mayor for almost 15 years. He found that in Chow’s first months in office, 24 of 25 councillors have sided with Chow for the majority of votes.

This trend was also true for Chow’s predecessors. John Tory and Rob Ford both got support from council for most of their respective terms of office, although Ford had council turn on him three years into his term, in 2013, after he acknowledged drug use issues and was the subject of a police investigation.

Elliott says in an interview that this consensus is less about council following the mayor’s agenda, and more about councillors generally sticking to a right-leaning policy agenda that satisfies investors and homeowners.

“How do you go from John Tory to Olivia Chow?” Elliott muses. “It’s not because there was a major shift in the ideology of the city.” Rather, he argues that many wanted a change in leadership after Tory’s affair with a staffer led him to resign, but the policy direction of council didn’t fundamentally change.

“If [council] was a person, it would still basically be like John Tory, still sort of leaning toward the right,” says Elliott. He notes that the one issue where council repeatedly defied Tory was on his desire to legalize rooming houses throughout the city.

Although Toronto’s mayor does have the option of using strong mayor powers to pass laws with a minority of council votes, Elliott says doing so without broad public support could put a mayor permanently at odds with their council.

In Elliott’s experience, successful policy campaigns map out council as 26 individuals with no strict party loyalty, at least 14 of whom must be convinced or pressured to pass a motion. He sees the mayor not necessarily as a driving force, but as a follower of city council and public opinion.

“If you’re somebody outside of city hall who really cares about an issue and wants to push, you have to do that math of getting to that 14 number as far as votes go, because that’s what the mayor’s office is going to be doing.”

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Two weeks before Chow announced nearly three times the police budget increase she’d first proposed, she also committed full funding for a Scarborough rapid busway. It was a major victory for advocacy groups like TTCriders that had campaigned for years to replace Scarborough’s defunct rapid transit (SRT) line.

A key moment came in spring of 2023, when city hall wouldn’t put up the relatively small funds for the busway’s design. With the mayoral race to replace Tory underway, TTCriders issued a candidate survey to press mayoral hopefuls on the busway issue.

“Chow was the first candidate to promise full funding,” says TTCriders executive director Shelagh Pizey-Allen. “After she did, many of the other major candidates followed suit.” The candidates’ pledges then led council to approve the design funds they’d previously neglected.

TTCriders press conference calling for an investigation into the Scarborough RT derailment. Photo: Damian W.K. Baranowski.

TTCriders is animated by volunteers like Elton Campbell, a former York University student who commuted by transit to the Keele and Glendon campuses. “We may not have a lot of money [as an organization], but we have the human resource element to it,” Campbell says in an interview. He draws a connection between transit advocacy and other anti-poverty work. “On the TTC at times, it’s over-policed; certain communities are over-policed. Some people can’t pay the fare, they need some kind of support.”

Campbell says the broader umbrella of anti-poverty work has allowed TTCriders to make important partnerships with the Toronto Environmental Alliance and Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. “Transit gets all of these people all over the city where they need to be, so everything is connected.”

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Alejandra Ruiz Vargas is a member of ACORN, a community union whose members dictate what causes and campaigns to take on. In an interview, Vargas speaks seamlessly about ACORN’s work on tenant issues, food costs, childcare, and fair banking policies. “We are low-income and moderate-income tenants,” she says, “so all this is related.”

Vargas says the value of member-driven organizing is in building belonging. “Before, we felt like ghosts, invisible,” says Vargas. “The power to have a voice, the power to get organized and to know that there are people behind you that think alike and that have the same issues, this brings something more powerful than even money.”

After more than a decade of pressure from numerous local groups including ACORN, city council implemented new landlord licensing rules in 2018. The new system is meant to hold landlords more accountable for repairs and maintenance, but landlords are often negligent and fines are insufficient to change their behaviour. Vargas says although there’s more to be done, the licensing fight has made the group stronger.

ACORN has partnered with TTCriders on transit issues, and with Progress Toronto on changing zoning rules to build affordable housing. The group also trains labour union members on campaigning. Such alliances help grassroots groups share strategies and resources, and amplify one another’s work. It’s also harder for politicians to ignore demands from a host of groups repping different communities and interests.

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The months-long mobilizations for Palestinian liberation, in Toronto and around the world, have shifted public opinion and challenged institutional support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine. This movement, although globally focused, is necessarily local in its day-to-day work. The mass gatherings organized by groups like the Palestinian Youth Movement, Toronto 4 Palestine, and Jews Say No To Genocide have managed to rattle Toronto’s political establishment. Chow has offered sympathies, but has also engaged in fear-mongering of protests, and turned yet again to policing as a solution. The mayor is not leading the progressive forces — she is scrambling to manage their outrage and determination.

Likewise, a handful of local and provincial politicians have started hinting their concern over police repression of protests. It isn’t surprising that these elected officials represent areas featuring Palestine solidarity groups like East End Acts, Davenport for Ceasefire, and Toronto Centre for Palestine.

The power of organized local groups cannot be underestimated, and has to keep growing and deepening the connections between issues for a more humane political agenda to emerge.

This article appeared in the 2024 May/June issue.