Update, July 13, 2023: Olivia Chow is Toronto’s new mayor. This article was published before the election.
Toronto’s municipal government is like an ocean liner, a giant ship. It’s a huge structure already in motion. To be mayor and run it the same as usual is very different from trying to significantly alter what the city does and who it serves. Currently, the city works best for real estate developers, big landlords and wealthy residents.
Candidates like Saunders, Bailão and Bradford wouldn’t change much in the grand scheme of things. They may add a few more cops, tinker with developer fees and launch studies and pilot programs. City staff won’t resist, business lobby groups won’t try to make their lives hell and property-owner associations won’t have a fit.
But some voters might hope that candidates like Matlow, Chow and especially Brown would significantly change the way the city government works to benefit renters, the unhoused, racialized communities and all lower-income people. Trying to make changes in this direction as mayor is much more difficult. Matlow, for example, made enemies at council and among the city staff while pushing for better park services and protections for unhoused people.
The city has been working well for a segment of the rich and powerful. Any changes that will shift benefits away from them will have to be hard fought.
No matter who is elected mayor, these power struggles will continue.
If it is…
The risk: Too many Chow supporters will adopt a “wait and see” approach, and in the meantime Chow will be pushed by Premier Doug Ford, by city staff who have long worked for John Tory and by the business community to stick with the broken status quo. In this scenario, not much will change.
What to do: Push hard to make gains with this rare opportunity. Don’t sit back and wait.
Why: Chow is from the NDP establishment and has its backing. This helped Chow during the campaign period. But the NDP’s track record after being voted into power is full of backtracking and disappointment. We can look at the dismal environmental records of B.C. and Alberta NDP governments, or the lack of gains made – and even losses incurred – by workers during former Ontario premier Bob Rae’s 1990s NDP government.
Hamilton today may be even more prescient, with former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath now in the mayor’s seat, and yet very few changes supporting the working class are underway.
The problem is not limited to a lack of ambition by these leaders; it is also that very powerful forces line up against them. Business lobby groups, banks, police associations, much of the media, and city staff can together block changes and get in the way at every turn.
Seeing this, it is important for a mayor like Chow, and those generally aligned with her stated vision, to develop strategies to actually win things. Sitting back and waiting for Chow to deliver would mean setting ourselves up for disappointment and not building our collective power outside of formal political channels.
The risk: He’ll do whatever Ford wants, and will give unlimited support to the police while the rest of the city falls apart.
What to do: Organize to build strong communities that can withstand the coming attacks on low-income people, renters, people with disabilities, the environment, transit, the unhoused, drug users, and anyone else who doesn’t fit neatly into the capitalist system.
Why: Saunders is very clearly Ford’s pick, and Ford would be happy to have Saunders using the “strong mayor” powers to implement the PCs’ agenda. Legislatively, there won’t be much that can be done to stop him.
So, it’s going to take grassroots resistance to protect the places and people Saunders and Ford have in their sights to exploit for their supporters in business: Ontario Place, apartment buildings, encampments of unhoused people in parks, the proposed gas plants, and so on.
The risk: People may be fooled by Bailão’s vague promises to improve city services and will be unprepared when the attacks
on tenants and unhoused people continue as usual.
What to do: Study the John Tory era for what worked and what didn’t, play the communications game and build strong organizations.
Why: Bailão, like Tory, is very image-conscious and wants to appear as a “progressive” leader while also maintaining the support of big business. Showing how her decisions benefit big business over working people will be essential in getting people equipped and motivated to build movements that are able to push back on her status quo agenda. Some gains can be made under Bailão, but expect mainly small changes on files such as housing. It will take major pressure from social movements to make these changes more substantial and lasting. As with Saunders, attacks on the most vulnerable will likely continue, but with a better marketing job.
So, building community organizations able to withstand those attacks and demand better remains necessary.
Matlow can be treated about the same as Chow. There’s a major risk that people will sit back and wait, and wait, and wait. He doesn’t have the same NDP affiliations as Chow, though, so he may be even more willing to move outside of accepted norms when pushed.
Taking policy positions somewhere between Bailão and Saunders, Bradford used to care about maintaining a “progressive” image, but has increasingly abandoned that. Attempts to hurt his image may not work as well as with Bailão. Bradford is likely to do what Ford wants, with little resistance. As such, he should be treated more like Saunders.
Possibly even more supportive of the police and aggressive toward drug users and unhoused people than Saunders, a Furey mayoralty should be approached in much the same way. The big difference is that Furey would likely make more outlandish statements than Saunders, including by targeting immigrants. In addition to community organizing, there will be a major communications and popular education battle as Furey tries to yank Toronto’s political window way to the right.
This article appeared in the 2023 Summer issue.