Russ Ford's Blog

The Lakeshore Spring and the seeding of local democracy



Some might describe John Sewell as a champion of lost causes. A more apt description might be a champion of difficult or unpopular causes,  but never lost ones.  That's because he rarely loses no matter how strong the  current is flowing in the opposite direction.

John first burst on to the political scene by successfully leading a fight by low income tenants not to have the City of Toronto expropriate their homes so a developer  could remake their community without them being part of it.

If you were not around Toronto in the early 1970s, you may not understand the political and historical significance of the fight to save Trefan Court.  It was a moment in time that forever  changed politics in Toronto.

Let me say without any fear of contradiction, that until Trefan Court  tenants had no voice in Toronto. They were not considered ratepayers because they did not and still do not pay their municipal taxes directly to the city.  Tenants do  pay  them as part of their rent  and actually  pay at a higher rate than homeowners,

At the time Toronto city council had never met a developer or a proposed development they did not like.   Council worked with developers  because ``new`` was considered ``progress``.  Old was something that needed to be torn down   It was a time when many  buildings which today would be considered  historic came under the wrath of the wreckers ball,  even iconic buildings like old city hall and union station were almost felled

After the Trefan victory and the subsequent election of John Sewell and Carl Jaffrey to city council politics or the way it was done changed.   Citizen engagement was in, back room deals with developers was out.

This week we all experienced a bit of déjà vu as John Sewell came to Mimico to lend his support to the cause facing tenants on our western waterfront.

He spoke to well over a hundred members of Ward Six Community Action Team better known as W6CAT.  This group started about four years ago as a means to try to get the  tenants`  voice heard  in the redevelopment of Mimico.  It has gone from a small handful of people to a membership of over 400 residents which likely makes it  the largest residents` groups in ward six if not the city.

This is a different model of tenant organizing.  Typically tenant groups focus on bread and butter issues like property standards and  usually represent  tenants in one specific building.

W6 CAT does not focus on these issues and neither is its membership representative of one building.  The redevelopment of Mimico  is a community wide issue and that has been the focus and the organizational structure of W6CAT.   It has representation in almost  all of the buildings.

While a ratepayers group that is well organized and this large would normally receive a lot of attention  from the local  politicos, W6CAT has had to fight for its legitimacy.  Tenant  groups still have a difficult time getting the ear of those in officialdom.

We know the reason, "tenants don't vote."  Certainly if you look at the results of the last election in Ward Six,  that is true.  The two areas of lowest voter participation were the tenant buildings in Mimico and the co-ops in New Toronto known as Lakeshore Village.

There has not been much research on voter participation in Canada but much has been written in the United States.  In both countries income level is the most significant variable that determines whether or not a person will vote.  The higher the income, the more likely they are to vote.

Many theories have been proposed to understand this phenomena but in one form or another it usually comes down to apathy, alienation or a lack of attachment.

This  raises the chicken and egg question.  Are our governments so unresponsive to the needs of low income people, because they do not vote or is low voter turnout a symptom of a political system that many  low income people choose not to participate in because it is so unresponsive to their needs.

Whatever the reason,  it is exactly why governments can get away with its so called austerity agenda which is fundamentally an economic plan in which those that have the least are sacrificing the most.

We have seen where this agenda has taken us. It has brought some countries to near economic ruin and it has greatly widened the gap between the haves and have nots.  What has to happen before we acknowledge that for the vast majority of people the austerity agenda has been harmful.

I suspect it will never be acknowledged by those in office. It would be like admitting the snake oil has no curative powers. 
The real solution is democratic reform, making our form of government work for all of us.  The reforms can be structural which I will blog about next week,  but they also need to start with conversations in communities.  People coming together to assert their rights and challenge the status quo.   That is how it started in Trefan Court many years ago and that is also how it started in Mimico.

This same process is now starting in Lakeshore village.  Small conversations have started as to how the community can be brought together to address common issues and assert their rights.  Like the Mimico tenants, they are tired of being ignored.  What is going on in Lakeshore Village is still very embryonic but the success of W6CAT can only be inspiring.

City Planning released its secondary plan for Mimico this week   and it contains some very strong statements about the need to maintain affordable rental  housing .

By contrast Etobicoke York Community Council earlier passed a motion  essentially asking staff to find incentives for developers which would include the option  of moving the rental units offsite.  That resolution was soundly defeated at City Council.  Had it passed it would have been tantamount to  the city holding a fund raiser for waterfront condo developers.

There is a reason why there is condo boom in this city.  There is a reason why our waterfront is now congested with condos.  They are enormously profitable to build.

John Sewell cautioned the crowd that policy documents are just paper. Their implementation is political.  He told them they must be vigilant in ensuring what staff have proposed is what gets adopted.  No doubt efforts have and will be made to make it a much more development friendly outcome.

That would have been much easier to accomplish a couple of years ago.  Not anymore. 

Tenants in south Etobicoke will be silent no more. 

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