I hope the new mayor is one that will address serious issues in our city such as employment, housing and social services, public transportation, support for arts and culture, youth programming and infrastructure needs. Beyond these issues, I am looking for a mayoral candidate that will begin to rework internal procedures to invite true participation of Torontonians in municipal processes.
As part of a democracy, we all have a right to make our voices heard on matters of concern, and our elected officials have a responsibility to address them. Citizen participation can take the form of involvement in a local town hall, contacting a local councillor, and of course voting.
For those who do vote and who are engaged, for those who want to try and make change, is the system accessible and conducive to meaningful participation?
Approximately five years ago, I supported a very nervous young person to present a 5-minute deputation to council to accompany a petition advocating for the development of a community centre in the West end of Toronto.
We didn’t expect a major outcome - the deputation was a lesson in civics and the advocacy for a community centre was part of a decade-long battle. Although the end result was applause by the councillors present, the process was horrifying. During the deputation, many councillors were talking and laughing with each other, and I even saw one sleeping. If the students in a classroom had been behaving as disrespectfully with their teacher, they would have been sent to the principal’s office!
The BeautifulCity.ca Alliance, co-founded by Devon Ostrom, is an example of nine years of advocacy and mobilization that brought over 300 members of the arts community to council chambers in December 2009. BeautifulCity.ca is a predominantly youth led alliance of 60 organizations who first introduced a tax on billboards in 2001 as a means of beautifying Toronto and giving voice to high-need communities. They believe that vibrant public spaces enhance property values and increase traffic for small businesses, boost civic pride and tourism, build community cohesion and give something highly visible back to residents.
The efforts of the group resulted in over 4,500 people signing a petition in support of a billboard tax (with the revenues going to support arts and culture), a 2007 Environics and 2009 EKOS poll that demonstrated that seven out of 10 Torontonians were in favour of the tax as well as hundreds of people calling their local councillors and becoming civically engaged.
Mayor David Miller also echoed the success of the alliance at a Planning and Growth Management Committee meeting (11/4/2009) when he said, “there are some people here that have been amazing advocates, sometimes perhaps annoyingly so. They have brought to the attention of this council the fact that our bylaws were not being followed and they brought to this council that when we regulate something that creates tremendous wealth for businesses, should perhaps a little bit of that wealth be put back into the public spaces in this city. And I say good for them. That is a grassroots campaign. Good for them, drawing that to our attention….”
On Dec. 7, 2009, Council passed the bylaw and tax at 10.4 million per year.
So where are we at now? The tax was passed and the end result is that the arts did not receive a 5 per cent cut this year and the city’s CPIP (Community Partnerships and Investments Program) grants portfolio received a 2 per cent inflationary increase.
It is hard to believe that the city would try to cut arts funding by 5 per cent in an election year, while sporting a $100 million surplus and a brand new tax that will generate millions in revenue.
The increase to CPIP is essentially a 2 per cent cost of living adjustment to an existing granting program. The result is that approximately $300,000 will go directly to Toronto's hundreds of arts organizations, and no direct investment in city beautification, the initial purpose of the movement. The tax would not even exist without the mobilization efforts of the arts community for the past nine years.
There is some hope in this long drawn out battle. Today (April 7), Toronto’s Executive Committee will decide on the future of the billboard tax for art. The outcome will send a powerful message to our young people - those that are engaged in advocacy and want to try and work within the system, alongside our elected officials, to better our city.