A single day at city council led me to question democracy

I started my Masters at Ryerson over a month ago. It has been a fascinating experience, and through the program I’ve had the chance to meet and learn from a broad group of people, all experts within the city of Toronto. But no experience has been quite as fascinating as our “field trip” to city council last Tuesday.

I should begin by saying that nothing surprised me. As someone who often watched Question Period on CPAC, I was prepared for the petty arguments and the childish behavior. What I wasn’t prepared for was the political backlash following the meeting.

In order to give you an idea of what I mean, let me give you a short synopsis of the day in question.

We arrived at City Hall around 9:30 a.m. and filled up the general seating. As a side note: we were not allowed to bring coffee in with us. As a journalist, I was distraught.

Anyway, with notebooks in hand we looked at the agenda and immediately we knew it would be a good session—the mayor, Rob Ford, had decided his first priority of discussion would be the Scarborough subway vs. LRT debate.

Councillors taking their seat as the session began.
Councillors taking their seat as the session began.

The city had put together a new proposal that would see property taxes increase by 1.6 per cent in order to build a three-stop subway in Scarborough. Because the original proposal was contingent on a tax increase of 1.1 per cent, the entire plan had to be re-approved by council. Thus, the whole can of worms—the “LRT vs. Subway” debate—had reopened.

Most of question period was pretty repetitive. The same answers were given to the same questions, and everyone seemed to be hesitant to move forward with the same plan they had approved of months before. But, that confusion turned into animosity as Councillor Paul Ainslie of Ward 43 in Scarborough took the floor.

He put forward a motion to scrap subways altogether. He argued that it was ridiculous to spend so much money on a subway plan when money provided by the province could fund light-rail transit through Scarborough. He said more people could access the seven-stop route and that it would enable Metrolinx to begin construction sooner. He kept with the facts, tried to be light-hearted in his mannerisms, and kept a remarkably calm head as Doug Ford, who sits beside him, turned a few shades of blue and red. It was quite a show.

Of course, this is when we had to run back to campus to file our story. But we all kept looked to other media outlets to find out what happened next.

And here’s the rub: The next day, Ainslie resigned as the chair of parks and environment committee, and subsequently resigned his spot on Ford’s executive committee. Ford said the whole world could have seen the resignation coming, and that it was more respectable for Ainslie to resign than for Ford to have to fire him. He told CP24 that he couldn’t have someone who was disloyal on his team.

Since then, Ford has flung himself into the defensive. He subsequently placed robocalls to Ainslie’s constituents informing them of their councillor’s “voting record.” The Star reported a transcript of the call which said: “It was extremely, extremely unfortunate that your councillor, Paul Ainslie, was the only Scarborough councillor who did not listen to his constituents, and voted against the Scarborough subway.”

Ainslie finally had enough. Today he read a statement to the media that said he will not be bullied by the Ford brothers. He has filed a complaint with the City of Toronto Integrity Commissioner about the Mayor’s conduct. The statement in itself sent a strong message—that Ainslie was not afraid of Ford, and that he will continue to serve his constituents to the best of his ability.

As a former political science student, I am shocked at the partisan politics within Toronto. It disgusts me that a simple disagreement can result in such conflict. Do we not elect representatives to speak on our behalf? If so, is it not assumed that they will fight for their beliefs, regardless of whether or not it affiliates with the party in power?

My dad and I often joked at how meaningless elections have become in Canada. I remember he told me as a kid that there is only one question I should ask a candidate if they should come to our door: If your constituents want something, and your party is against it, what would you do? For the life of me I can’t remember an honest answer.

This conflict has proven that Canadian democracy does not work. Politicians are so obsessed with loyalty and re-election (Yes, I am talking about Ford), that their reaction to opposing opinions is to question their motivations and their abilities. Just because someone presents another option, it does not mean that they are out for your job. It does not mean that they are out to get you personally. All it means is that they would like to place something different on the table.

Councillor Ainslie has been through a lot over the past week. He has been attacked repeatedly for his decision to speak his mind.

So hold on to your hats folks, and keep your mouth shut. Because that’s the way democracy works in this city.

 

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