This article was originally a Walrus Talk presented at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference in Quebec City, Que. The speech has been expanded in order to deeper explore the concepts and themes presented. You can watch a condensed version of the talk here.
Conversations on matters of municipal governance, autonomy and local power have found their way back into mainstream politics — specifically, on the need to empower municipal governments to better address the needs of their cities. But as conversations coalesce around the need for stronger federal-municipal partnerships, little focus has been put on the people of these cities — their experiences and stories — and how government impacts their lives.
The path forward is connecting people’s stories and how cities govern themselves.
My story, one of a first-generation Canadian, has informed my unique approach to addressing social and economic inequality, and is an example of the stories that policy-makers desperately need to hear — but rarely do.
I was raised by a single mother in social housing in Toronto’s East End. Like most social housing complexes that were built in the post-Second World War era, our housing development was tucked away, enclosed and sectioned off from the residential homes around us.
Located off a busy main street, rows of brown townhomes with chipped brick exteriors enclosed both my neighbourhood’s vibrancy and its troubles from passers by. So much so, that I often referred to my hood as a “world within a city.” A walk into its core is where its heartbeat could be felt the strongest: chalk-covered pavements, abandoned jump ropes, voices in the background calling “who’s got next?” at the basketball court. Joy spilled into our streets and hugged the walls of our alleyways, carrying us through moments of struggle and difficulty.
It’s growing up there that I became aware of the deteriorating conditions of Toronto Community Housing. I witnessed the impacts of stagnant working-class wages and low social assistance rates. And at an all-too-early age, I became familiar with how our daily cost of living was growing faster than we could keep up with. I witnessed gun violence, experienced unliveable housing conditions and had friends whose parents struggled to keep their lights on.
A 2015 United Way report dubbed the City of Toronto the most unequal capital in Canada. It noted that the gap between rich and poor households are widening at double the national pace.
A tour through the city’s former boroughs paints this bleak picture. Neighbourhoods are currently gentrifying faster than we can track their changes, most notably along new transit development on Eglinton Avenue West. Condo and luxury apartments have become the preferred choice of developers and city council, while the city’s shelter system is at capacity and unable to keep up with demand. The use of food banks has increased by 14 per cent in the last 10 years, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank’s annual report.
For Black and Indigenous peoples, the situation is even more grim. According to the Human Rights Commission, Black people are 20 times more likely to have a fatal encounter with a police officer than their white counterparts. As noted by renowned scholar David Hulchanski, Black people live mainly in clusters outside the core — where transit is poor and commutes are long. Low rental vacancy rates, which currently sit at one per cent, coupled with a decreasing stock of affordable housing have resulted in reports of racialized and Indigenous people experiencing considerable difficulty finding housing as they encounter discrimination by landlords.
How did Toronto get here?
It can reasonably be argued that provincial downloads, under-investments in housing by federal governments, stalled transit planning, and low municipal taxes are to blame. But I’d like to push past the notion of poor public policy for a moment, to take a closer look at how these decisions are being made.
What if it’s the very way we govern our cities that is exacerbating the inequality crisis we see in Toronto today? What if it’s how most municipalities across Canada are run that is stifling their ability to effectively respond to issues of resource allocation, planning and racism?
We must make storytelling a key part of the way our cities are governed. If municipal leaders heard more stories like mine — from people in neighbourhoods across Toronto that experience marginalization, poverty and exclusion — there’s a possibility the city I love could have been given a chance to correct its course.
Too often, resident stories are shared through formal, impersonal processes known as consultations and deputations. Residents who experience marginalization must take time off work to participate in high-pressure situations, often under a time limit, to present their case. Their story, in effect, is weakened. In Spacing Magazine, University of Toronto Professor Mariana Valverde argues that such processes empower mainly “well-educated, middle-aged, home-owning residents.” The physical and social segregation my neighbourhood experienced, for example, was perpetuated by these curated, limited and imbalanced models of participation.
“As cities grow larger and more diverse, local governments will increasingly struggle to stay connected.”
However, exploring the idea of additional avenues for local residents to participate in their governance process is not a new phenomenon. We’ve all heard of participatory budgeting, community councils and neighbourhood associations. But, the way they’ve been pitched have framed these reforms as consolation prizes, rather than as necessities. For example, in the 2018 Toronto municipal election, the idea of strengthening Toronto’s Community Councils was introduced by mayoral candidates only after Doug Ford’s decision to cut council in half began to feel permanent.
But democratizing local governance is not simply a kind gesture for residents to feel included in the decision-making process — it should be viewed as a necessary way for municipal governments to maintain their relevance — in a rapidly urbanizing country, given their weak constitutional status.
Montreal, one of the most decentralized municipal governments in Canada, has a government structure consisting of borough mayors and councillors who serve their immediate neighbourhoods, although the correlation between citizen satisfaction and a democratized model like this has yet to be fully explored in Canada.
The strength of municipalities is that they’re supposed to be the government closest to the people. But as cities grow larger and more diverse, local governments will increasingly struggle to stay connected. Currently, 80 per cent of Canadians now live in cities.
Rapidly growing cities like Calgary, Winnipeg and Regina are most in need of building participatory structures into their governance process, or risk losing touch with residents’ needs. Doing so can prevent the threat of inequality and losing sight of issues important to marginalized groups, which can often happen in larger cities.
The thing about stories is that you have to expose yourselves to those who have important ones to tell. But the further away municipal leaders are from the daily lives of ordinary people, the less likely they are to hear them, causing the value of local governments to decrease.
A lower-tier system of governance, comprised of neighbourhood councils, should include residents who are racialized, newcomers, women, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and those experiencing the brunt of poverty. Integrating these voices into the policy making process will allow for the building of local power and public pressure from the ground up.
Democratizing local governance is the policy solution municipalities should be considering for the future. My call to action to municipal leaders: Go forth, find the right people and hear their stories.
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