As I open this blog site, an internationally acclaimed Canadian writer has criticized the Mayor of Toronto’s proposal to close neighbourhood public libraries. Mayor Rob Ford responded that if Margaret Atwood got elected to something, he might listen to her.
In other words, if you’re an ordinary citizen, don’t bother to speak up.
Ford was elected to the Mayor’s chair in late 2010. He represents a kind of revenge of the Toronto suburbs against the political habits of the inner city. The old urban regional municipalities in Ontario — Scarborough, Etobicoke, North York — were collapsed into megacities in the 1990s by another suburban hero, then-Premier and former golf pro Mike Harris. The critics warned back then that the megacities would be too big and too shapeless to invite or respond to citizen input.
British Columbia, for subtle cultural reasons, has never created megacities. Metro Vancouver has 22 municipalities, each with its own style of governing; Metro Victoria has 13. Most municipal units are small or modest in size. So are they more democratic than Doug Ford’s Toronto? Are citizens more engaged?
I’ve had lots of experience over 20 years in setting up open houses and forums around politicians and public issues. In most cases, I would have to say that it’s difficult to draw a connection between the input at the open house and the eventual project design or political decision.
In my own municipality of Maple Ridge (population 75,000) — to which I have always been loyal — Council hired star planners in 2010 to work with a citizen advisory committee on a process to plan the development the Albion Flats, a partly agricultural area adjacent to the Lougheed Highway. The citizens came forward with four options. The provincial Agricultural Land Commission offered to review the options with the citizen group. A city council majority turned its back on the citizen options and the ALC offer, and adopted a back-of-envelope plan of its own, cooked up behind closed doors. “Maybe if you got elected to something, we’d listen to you.”
Is it impossible to influence local governments or regional agencies? Not at all. But those of use who want to exert influence need to dig in for the long term; and we need to find our own channels to talk to each other and the public outside the officially-sponsored events. One-off statements by celebrities and government-sponsored open houses can be useful in their way, but they won’t create a pathway to change.