A Collection of Heroes and Villains

heroes and villains

For most of my time with Torontoist, the holiday season meant rounding up Toronto’s heroes and villains for the year. Some choices were obvious, others were hotly debated during staff meetings. Feeling drained by the time December rolled around, I usually stuck to my comfort zones (heritage matters, media), feeling that other writers were better at articulating hot button cultural and political issues.

It took time for me to grow comfortable with writing opinionated pieces. When I worked for the University of Guelph’s student newspaper, the section editors had the opportunity to write editorials. My lone contribution was one of the weakest, being little more than griping about aggressive PR people I had to deal with while handling the arts section (I was probably too afraid to write anything stronger, given the toxic atmosphere in that office). Later on, I always feared any opinions might come off as too trite, too weak, and too bland for anybody to care about. I can be a slow, deliberate thinker, and it has taken years to develop many of my viewpoints.

Let’s dive into my contributions to Heroes and Villains. I did not contribute during my first two years with the site (2007-2008) and certain I skipped 2009 (though it’s hard to say, given the individual entries have vanished from the interwebs – here’s the list). To replace the original artwork, I’ll use a mix of photos and appropriate vintage illustrations.

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“The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Eugene Lampsonius. Oevres illustrées de Balzac, vol. 1-2 by Honoré de Balzac (Paris: Gustave Havard, Maresq et Companie, 1851). Old Book Illustrations.

2010 Villain: Rob Ford’s Campaign Team

Originally published on Torontoist on December 17, 2010.

Pundits and voters who held low opinions of Rob Ford during the municipal election campaign had to admit that his brain trust did a brilliant job of capitalizing on voter anger and the lacklustre campaigns of his opponents to win the mayor’s chair for the outspoken Etobicoke councillor. Beyond appeals to the “little guy” and catchphrases like the focus-grouped “gravy train,” tactics employed in the march to victory by now–Ford Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis and his associates at Campaign Research demonstrated a disconcerting willingness to achieve their goals by any means possible.

When the Ford camp learned the Star possessed the recording of a potentially damaging telephone conversation in which the candidate promised to find OxyContin for constituent Dieter Doneit-Henderson, Deputy Communications Officer Fraser Macdonald jumped into gear—and invented a person, Karen Philby (a.k.a. QueensQuayKaren), a George Smitherman supporter who spouted political views on Twitter. While Philby (whose last name, shared with a Cold War spy, might have tipped off her purpose in life) quickly achieved her intended goal—securing the Ford campaign its own copy of the conversation from Doneit-Henderson—she continued to post tasteful barbs directed at the other candidates (such as referring to Sarah Thomson as a “bitch”).

Philby also proved useful in undermining other candidacies. As “will he or won’t he” stories filled the press regarding John Tory’s intentions, the Ford campaign devised ways to keep him out of the fray, since they figured much of their support would gravitate to Tory if he ran. The methods ran from the mildly amusing (a YouTube video demonstrating Tory’s lack of superpowers when it came to stopping out-of-control gravy trains) to the deceptive: a Ford staffer called into Tory’s CFRB radio show as Philby to attack the host’s integrity.

Now that Ford occupies the mayor’s chair, we wonder what further shenanigans will be deployed to sway public opinion or neutralize opponents. Will a “Gloria Burgess” or “Donna MacLean” step forward to try to embarrass or derail Ford’s enemies? If the campaign was a preview of what’s to come, Ford’s key staff may score points among hardcore devotees and political junkies for the cunning of their tactics, but also further deepen cynicism about politicians in general and about City Hall in particular. We hope what we saw on the campaign trail does not foreshadow four years of dirty politics that use up energy that would be better expended solving the problems of the mayor’s cherished taxpayers.

UPDATE: The Rob Ford era…le sigh. When John Tory won the mayoralty in 2014, one of his campaign advisers was Nick Kouvalis.

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Portrait of William Lyon Mackenzie. Toronto Public Library.

2010 Hero: Shawn Micallef

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2010.

In the foreword to his book, Stroll, Shawn Micallef notes that Torontonians have convinced themselves that our city is underwhelming compared to those world-class ones, such that “we don’t expect to turn the corner and see beauty or be amazed.” Yet Micallef, in an ever-growing number of media outlets (Eye WeeklySpacingYonge Street), uses his sharp observational skills to discover the city’s hidden treasures. In a year in which the media, politicians, and other naysayers suggested that everything in Toronto is broken, Micallef’s curiosity and keen interest in Toronto’s virtues injected a necessary and refreshing optimism.

Stroll, published this year, compiles stories drawn from Micallef’s psychogeographical walks across the city, ranging from the parking lots of Pearson Airport to the tip of the Leslie Spit. Readers gain a sense of the sheer size of the city and are taken to unexpected spots, like the middle of Highway 401 above Hogg’s Hollow. The stories he tells in the book, along with those featured in his Eye columns, weave together history and urbanism, and empathize with the residents of the locales he wanders through.
Micallef’s writing acknowledges the suburbs without denigrating them or deepening the divide between the inner and outer city. Instead, he creates connections between these geographies, mapping the relationships between all who inhabit the GTA. When he went to Etobicoke to cover one of Rob Ford’s campaign barbecues for Eye, Micallef did not mock or demonize those attending, as a journalist for a downtown-based alt-weekly might stereotypically be tempted to do, but portrayed the attendees as normal human beings enjoying their evening. While Micallef irritated several followers on Twitter for not etching those around him as illiterate cavemen, as though the writing were already on the wall, the piece demonstrated his ability to see beyond the echo chamber and understand why people might support somebody who most of his audience finds repulsive.

Micallef’s impish sense of humour was comedic relief during the long, dreary municipal election campaign. For most of the year, he successfully disguised himself as the city’s firebrand first mayor on Twitter: @rebelmayor. While other observers defined the negative tone of the race, @rebelmayor defiantly functioned as a court jester whose mock campaign updates and serious barbs at candidates (those most voters would have also aimed muskets at if given the opportunity) provided a release for the frustrations of the electorate. Though @rebelmayor has been retired for the moment, Micallef’s commentary continues under his own handle on Twitter: after Ford officially assumed office, Micallef encouraged Torontonians to act on their libertarian impulses regardless of how silly they were.

Given how the next four years at City Hall are promising to shape up, we’ll need all the comic relief we can find. Toronto will also need more people like Micallef who are not afraid to defy the defeatists and express what they love about the city.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Micallef is a columnist with the Toronto Star. @rebelmayor pops up once in a while.

Here are the ultimate winners of the competition, along with links to all of the entries.

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The Telegram, September 14, 1965.

2011 Hero: City Hall Deputants

Originally published on Torontoist on December 12, 2011.

One of Rob Ford’s major accomplishments during his first year in office has been to provoke greater engagement in civic government. The mayor’s zeal for cutting City services has energized citizens to defend programs they believe are vital to Toronto’s well-being. If there was a point when any honeymoon Ford had was over, it was during the deputations given at the marathon Executive Committee session in July. As we summed up at the time, “It was the most important slumber party held in Toronto in years.”

Over the course of almost 24 hours on July 28 and 29, 169 citizens commented on service cuts proposed in the Core Service Review report. Speakers were not the lazy, unemployed types that several executive committee members attempted to portray them to be. Many had never addressed city council before and endured insults and reductions in their speaking time. From teary-eyed teens to neurosurgeons, the deputants represented all corners and social strata of the city.

Among the highlights was a speech dripping in Swiftean satire from retired educator Mary Trapani Hines. Her performance quickly went viral, inspired the “yellygranny” tag on Twitter, and possibly encouraged more people to go to City Hall to witness the rest of the session. Other theatrics included a visit from Santa, and puppet show that caused Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti to declare that some deputants were disrespecting council.

But it was councillors like Mammoliti who were being disrespectful. While claiming it was a great exercise in democracy, Mayor Ford paid scant attention to the speakers. Attempts to thin the deputant ranks ranged from running an all-night session to Mammoliti’s insistence that City staff determine if disabled participants were faking their incapacities. These obstacles mattered little when the hardcore Fordites were shown for the fools they were as the testimonials rolled on and a celebratory spirit developed within City Hall.

In the months since these deputations, opposition to the Ford administration’s brain trust has gained momentum as other citizens gained the confidence to fight them—witness the success of CodeBlueTO in derailing a new vision for the waterfront. Another marathon Executive Committee session in September saw an almost equal number of people speak. Early indications are that the voting on proposed City budget cuts won’t go smoothly. Most importantly, the deputants showed that Torontonians aren’t accepting the Ford Nation vision of them as mere taxpayers but instead are citizens who care about the services that make this city their home.

UPDATE: Giorgio Mammoliti was defeated in the 2018 municipal election. It will be interesting to see if the repercussions of Premier Doug Ford’s downsizing of city council and other acts against the city will cause a similar cycle of public pushbacks in 2019 and beyond.

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“Compositor at his case.” Illustrated by E. Bourdelin. Les grandes usines, volume 1 by Julien Turgan (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1875). Old Book Illustrations.

2011 Villain: Sun Media

Originally published on Torontoist on December 21, 2011.

When the Toronto Sun sought a new comment page editor in October (a job filled by former Rob Ford press secretary Adrienne Batra), one requirement was an understanding of the paper’s self-mythologized role as “an organization with edge and attitude that sticks up for the little guy.” Problem is, Sun Media’s shameless support of right-wing politicians who gut programs supporting the vulnerable and who distort facts to play to their ideological base is screwing the little guy.

Decisions to pull its papers out of the Ontario Press Council and to mercilessly attack the CBC reveal a desire to be accountable to no one, especially when Sun Media’s properties bully those they perceive as different or not aligned with their world view. Their refusal to apologize for running a transphobic ad during the Ontario provincial election reconfirmed the organization’s perennially poor relations with the queer community. April’s launch of the Sun News Network brought a Fox News mentality to Canada’s airwaves, complete with guest-haranguing anchors. Krista Erickson’s vicious attack on dancer Margie Gillis for receiving government grants, which Sun Media’s corporate parent Quebecor has been known to accept, prompted thousands of complaints to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council.

The Gillis incident illustrates Sun Media’s desperation to grab attention by any means. Despite the Sun’s “Welcome to Hell” cover following Dalton McGuinty’s re-election, a ring of fire hasn’t encircled Ontario. While most of Jack Layton’s political opponents paid their respects during the public outpouring of grief following his death, Sun News Network outfitted provocateur Ezra Levant with a garish orange wig and cans of Orange Crush while he and Michael Coren mocked people’s genuine feelings.

To the surprise of few, the Sun emerged as an unofficial City Hall mouthpiece this year. The paper and its City Hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy share the Ford administration’s view of Torontonians as taxpayers first, citizens who appreciate social services, the arts, and fire protection second. Levy’s unwavering support of the gravy hunt and her sycophantic attacks on administration opponents make us wonder if secretly she’s a satirist pulling an elaborate joke on everyone.

But it’s Sun Media’s consumers who are being played for fools. By ratcheting up the outrage to appeal to those who hate to see anyone receive any (perceived) advantage over themselves, and creating resentment of any use of public funds for purposes that its readers feel provide no direct personal benefit, Sun Media’s properties appeal to the worst in human nature. They prey upon our anger and foster a fear of those who don’t share their views or fit into their preferred societal norms. Sun Media’s revered “little guy” would do better to educate himself elsewhere on the nuances of issues that affect him than be patronizingly urged to direct his frustrations in destructive ways.

UPDATE: Postmedia bought the Sun papers in 2014. Sun News Network folded in early 2015. As the Toronto Sun was the heir to the Telegram upon that newspaper’s demise, it can be argued The Rebel was SNN’s offspring. The outrage expressed by the Sun has only grown shriller since this article was written.

Roundups of 2011’s other heroes and villains.

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Checking out the former location of centre ice in the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws, November 2012. 

2012 Hero: Maple Leaf Gardens

Originally published on Torontoist on December 9, 2012.

It probably comes as a relief to many hockey fans that Ryerson University has been using part of Maple Leaf Gardens as an arena since the Mattamy Athletic Centre opened in September. The reminders of the building’s past are all around you: from the recreation of the old marquee above the entrance, to the walls of photos of memorable moments, to the row of old seats lining the wall by the escalator.

At street level, the Loblaws store, which opened in November 2011, also mixes past and present. Beyond the wall of cheese and specialty food counters, the store’s pillars commemorate important dates in Gardens history. You can look at old newspaper wrestling ads while sitting down with a coffee. Centre ice is quietly marked with a red dot in the middle of aisle 25, though we hope staff haven’t been called too many times to clean up broken bottles of soy sauce from the adjoining shelf. There’s a hanging sculpture made from a jumble of salvaged arena seating. Even the parking garage is decorated with names of sports teams from the past.

The current state of Maple Leaf Gardens is a large-scale example of what can happen when a heritage building’s new owners embrace the structure’s past, rather than treat it with token recognition. Even future bookings, such as the upcoming Ontario Liberal leadership convention, harken back to the political events that regularly graced the Gardens. The site’s deep resonance with the public probably helped in its renewal. One can only imagine the outrage if the Gardens had suffered the fate of 81 Wellesley Street, which was suddenly knocked down in January before it could receive a heritage designation.

For years after the Toronto Rock played their last game there in 2000, we wondered if Maple Leaf Gardens was going to rot away. Former owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment might have been satisfied with that fate, given its reluctance to sell the Gardens to anyone who posed the remotest threat to the Air Canada Centre’s event bookings. As recently as last year, MLSE filed a lawsuit against Ryerson to prevent the university from using the name “Maple Leaf Gardens” for promotional purposes. Ultimately MLSE’s obsession with the bottom line won’t prevent the public from referring to the building by that name: we still call the Rogers Centre “SkyDome,” after all.

Besides, as long as the NHL lockout continues, the Gardens can boast it has hockey games. The Air Canada Centre can’t.

UPDATE: The NHL lockout ended the following month.

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“The shriek of Timidity.” “The defendants before the court.” Illustration by Gustave Doré. The days of chivalry, or the legend of Croquemitane by Ernest L’Épine (New York: Cassell Petter and Galpin, c. 1866). Old Book Illustrations.

2012 Villain: Extreme NIMBYism

Originally published on Torontoist on December 10, 2012.

Condos will destroy neighbourhoods, blot out the sun, and reduce my property values. Rapid transit lines in the middle of wide suburban streets and bike lines on busy downtown arteries will cripple my commute by minutes. Change will kill my comfortable lifestyle and bring strange new people into my community.

Those are effectively the arguments provided by the loudest, NIMBYest opponents of building and transit projects around the city. While there are many people who offer reasoned, carefully thought-out arguments for and against new construction plans, they are often drowned out by those driven by fear, innuendo, and sound bites. The result over the past year has seen ugly battles in neighbourhoods stretching from Humbertown to the Beach.

There is little space left within the city to develop the classic single-family homes that characterized Toronto’s neighbourhoods until the middle of the 20th century. To cope with an ever-increasing population, the city needs to build up. This does not mean 45-storey towers everywhere: smaller-scale projects like the proposed six-storey condo causing havoc in the Beach provide one solution. Yet, to hear the loudest opponents of that project, even a small condo will destroy the community’s character.

What these people forget is that Toronto neighbourhoods have changed before: Jarvis and Sherbourne streets were once the preserve of the ultra-wealthy, Cabbagetown was a slum, Liberty Village was industrial, and the suburbs were farmland or small settlements. Even if they benefitted from a wave of gentrification that shaped their neighbourhood into the comfortable community they know now, these people expect things to remain static. Like it or not, the “villages” they live in are part of the city and cannot stay removed from its overall infrastructure issues.

The true ugliness of the loudest NIMBYs emerges when the economic homogeneity of their neighbourhood is challenged, prompting fear of what even a slightly more economically diverse neighbourhood might mean. At one community meeting regarding Humbertown recently, one proponent of a proposed residential development was told to “get a job” when he argued it would keep area prices affordable. That kind of fear is ugly, and unfair.

In these cases all parties—tenants, homeowners, developers, designers, activists, and bureaucrats—need to put kneejerk, defensive, and reactionary responses aside and work together, to arrive solutions that benefit whole neighbourhoods in the long run. Painful as the process can be, it’s better to work the kinks out of a development proposal than obstinately block it, and better to accept that change is a healthy part of life in a healthy city than to reject even small alterations to the landscape as gross betrayals.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2012’s other heroes and villains.

 

2013 Hero: Church Street Parklets

Originally published on Torontoist on December 30, 2013.

A parklet is, as the name suggests, a teeny tiny baby park. Generally an extension or reuse of existing space, like a sidewalk or a parking spot, it’s a small sliver of the street that’s used to provide greenery and public enjoyment. As we observed earlier this year: “The idea isn’t to promote recreation. Instead, the goal is to reclaim space for pedestrians and idlers and bring vibrancy back to streets that have been dominated by automotive traffic. Building a parklet is a means of creating a sidewalk cafe atmosphere, even—especially—in places where there aren’t any sidewalk cafes.”

A series of parklets was installed this summer along Church Street, in Church-Wellesley Village, as a test run for similar street infrastructure initiatives planned for World Pride in 2014. Backed by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) and the local BIA because of its constructive use of public space and potential to boost local businesses, the project found sponsors in Home Depot and a carpenter’s union. They were installed in a flash, as well: to observers like the Star’s Christopher Hume, their speedy implementation marked a break from the city’s traditionally timid approach to such experimentation.

Beyond offering lounging space from which to watch the city pass by, the parklets offer a glimpse of how we can make streets more amenable to all. Traffic flow improves when fewer drivers block the road with complicated parallel-parking manoeuvres; friends running into each other can move into a parklet to talk without disrupting the pedestrian flow or inducing sidewalk rage.

We’d be happy if similar initiatives to reclaim public space spread across the city. While there’d inevitably be complaints that losing a handful of parking spots would provoke a disaster of St. Clair-ish proportions, we suspect most people would latch on to the parklets—perhaps then, most complaints would take the form of sighing over filled seats.

UPDATE: While parklets didn’t return to Church Street after 2013, they made summer appearances on Elm Street for several years.

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Goad’s map of Corktown area, 1884. 

2013 Hero: Corktown Common

Originally published on Torontoist on December 31, 2013.

The appeal of Corktown Common is as simple as getting to hear the rhythm of frogs who live there. The chorus of croaks emerging from its marshes on a hot summer night temporarily transports you from a heavy construction zone to somewhere far from the city lights.

Though the park won’t be finished until 2014, the sneak preview we enjoyed this summer demonstrates how aesthetic, environmental, and recreational needs can be realized and met in a space Torontonians can be proud of. Adults appreciate the effort Waterfront Toronto made to create a varied green landscape; kids can run wild up and down the knolls, glide down the built-in slides, or go for relaxing swings; cyclists riding the Don or Martin Goodman trails are able to fill their water bottles or take a stretch. (We also recommend just lying on the grassy field and staring up at the clouds). When residents move into the condos rising to the west, we imagine the park will become a community gathering place, an oasis amid the desert of concrete and glass.

July’s intense downpour tested one of the park’s major purposes, which is to function as a berm by protecting downtown from the effects of flooding along the Don River. It passed the test, holding back the waters that trapped commuters and motorists in the lower Don Valley.

Corktown Common demonstrates the viability of Waterfront Toronto’s efforts to improve our lower shoreline, do so in a way that’s enjoyable as well as functional—and in the process, increases our excitement about the many other projects they still have in the works.

UPDATE: It’s still a great park.

I don’t remember the reason why I didn’t contribute a villain in 2013 – either I was nearing my fill of the City Hall gong show by that point, or felt it was better to stick to positive contributions.

Roundups of 2013’s other heroes and villains.

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Grounds of Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre, May 2015.

2014 Hero: The Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Cultural Centre

Originally published on Torontoist on December 22, 2014.

The need for an institution such as the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre, which opened in September, was brought into relief during this year’s municipal election. Anti-Muslim incidents, including sign defacing and slurs, underlined the usefulness of a bridge-building complex. Though bigoted louts probably won’t venture near it, the complex’s role as a cultural centre has great potential to, according to its mission statement, “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. Through education, research, and collaboration, the Museum will foster dialogue and promote tolerance and mutual understanding among people.”

Though controversial in some circles for bringing about the destruction of John B. Parkin’s 1960s modernist Bata Shoes Head Office, the complex at the Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway has the potential to become a new architectural landmark—much as Mies van der Rohe’s iconic steel and glass Toronto-Dominion Centre did after replacing the Beaux Arts–influenced Bank of Toronto headquarters 50 years ago. Like that project, the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre has architectural heavy hitters behind it, including Fumihiko Maki, Charles Correa, and Moriyama and Teshima.

“Don Mills once was a locus for innovation in architecture and planning,” Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic noted, “with offices and warehouse buildings designed by some of Canada’s top architects in the 1960s. That modernist legacy has been badly diluted by new buildings, but the absurdly fine quality of the museum and Ismaili Centre will set a new standard.”

The items displayed in the museum, which has been touted as the first in North America devoted solely to Islamic art, literally provide a colourful take on the culture. Among the most impressive items are painted, lavishly illustrated manuscripts. Cross-cultural influences stand out, whether through works inspired by local cultures or in Iranian paintings that would not have looked out of place in Renaissance Europe.

For once, Toronto may have received just the kind of world-class institution it covets.

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Fort York, 1885. Toronto Public Library.

2014 Hero: The Fort York Neighbourhood

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

For years, it seemed as if Frederick Gardiner had had the last laugh. Though attempts to move Fort York to make way for the Gardiner Expressway failed during the 1950s, the historical site’s location, hemmed in by traffic jams in the middle of an industrial neighbourhood, did it few favours. But thanks to recent developments, the old military grounds now sit at the heart of a revitalized area of the city.

The big news from Fort York itself was the opening of its new visitor centre in September. Though still incomplete, the structure offers a visually stunning space for exhibits and other educational activities. The result of a partnership between Vancouver’s Patkau Architects and Toronto’s Kearns Mancini Architects, it has been described by the Globe and Mail as “part building, part landscape” due to its string of steel rectangular panels.

This year’s edition of Nuit Blanche took advantage of the space within the fort’s grounds (even if the entrances did create bottlenecks), as well as nearby parks such as Canoe Landing. These green spaces offer a place of respite for visitors and incoming residents amid the condo towers rising nearby—and more are in the works, including Mouth of the Creek Park. The chain of parks creates public space and pedestrian corridors, even if the Ford administration did manage to stymie progress through actions such as delaying the construction of a bridge to Garrison Common.

To serve the community’s creative, intellectual, and social needs, the Toronto Public Library opened a two-storey branch across from the fort in May. The branch offers amenities such as a digital innovation hub (complete with 3D printing) and architectural features such as wooden ceiling beams that honour the area’s historic wharves—and it has filled the large library desert that was created by the closure of the Urban Affairs Library in 2011.

While the neighbourhood emerging around Fort York will experience growing pains, it seems poised to integrate itself at last into the fabric of the city.

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Cartoon of Olivia Chow by Andy Donato, originally published in the Toronto Sun.

2014 Villain: Not-So-Latent Bigotry on the Campaign Trail

Originally published on Torontoist on December 23, 2014.

“Diversity Our Strength.” Toronto’s official motto reflects our idealized image of the city as a shining beacon of multiculturalism and tolerance. Yet, as Rob Ford’s mayoralty proved, a significant segment of the population finds bigotry and divisiveness palatable.

Public displays of intolerance marred the recent municipal election campaign. During the mayoral race, Olivia Chow faced a steady stream of slurs about her ethnicity. Some questioned her speaking ability, referencing her accent and the slow speed of her talking—the latter the result of partial facial paralysis. During a debate at York Memorial High School, a heckler told Chow to go back to China. The Sun lowered the conversation by publishing an Andy Donato cartoon depicting a Mao-suited Chow riding the coattails of her late husband Jack Layton (the paper lamely defended it by claiming it always depicted NDPers in the garb preferred by historic Chinese dictators). Whatever your opinion of Chow’s campaign, these attacks were despicable.

So too was the anti-Muslim bigotry that reared its head in ward races. Running in the heart of Ford Nation, Ward 2 candidate Munira Abukar saw her campaign signs defaced with messages such as “Go Back Home.” In Ward 10 (York Centre), TDSB trustee candidate Ausma Malik was targeted by opponents who tried to depict her as a supporter of fundamentalists. Candidates also reported car window smashings and garbage tossed on volunteers.

In the wake of these incidents, front-running candidates had little or nothing to add. As Torontoist’s Desmond Cole observed, “If diversity is our strength, why do political candidates believe they will lose ground for publicly condemning racism?” Pandering to the basest instincts of some voters encourages the ignorant and intolerant and demeans our public discourse—and so does remaining silent.

UPDATE: Roundups of 2014’s other heroes and villains.

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The City, June 18, 1978.

2015 Villain: Paul Godfrey

Originally published on Torontoist on January 4, 2016.

Since debuting as a fresh-faced, twenty-something North York city councillor in 1964, Paul Godfrey has, for better or worse, played a key role in shaping modern Toronto. Since early crusades against “sip n’ sex” at fast food drive-ins, Godfrey has rarely shied away from controversy. During half-a-century in the public eye, he became a consummate networker and backroom operator, especially in local Conservative circles. He often jokes about a line his mother told him as youngster: “When you have your choice in life between smart and lucky, take lucky all the time.”

That luck produced an impressive string of top-level jobs: chairman of Metropolitan Toronto, publisher/CEO of the Toronto Sun, president/CEO of the Blue Jays, chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, chair of the board of trustees of RioCan, and now president/CEO of Postmedia. But his track record has sometimes raised questions regarding whose interests he works for. This is a guy who promoted amalgamation, Mel Lastman, and our desperate need for a casino.

This year was not one of Godfrey’s better ones. His ham-fisted support of the Conservatives during the federal election campaign made a laughingstock of the country’s largest newspaper for the Tories regardless of the opinions of local editorial staff. Andrew Coyne resigned as comment editor of the National Post after a column was spiked for his support of another party. Reeking of desperation, the front page of the chain’s papers bore a Tory attack ad during the final weekend of the campaign. Readers and employees were disgusted, while the competition (including Toronto Star chair of the board John Honderich) had a field day attacking Godfrey’s disregard for freedom of the press.

While Postmedia newsrooms were slashed and its papers hemorrhaged circulation, Godfrey and other officials didn’t exactly share in the pain. A total of $925,000 in bonuses was paid to its top six executives, some of which stemmed from the acquisition of Sun Media, which closed this spring. The optics of these payments, including the $400,000 given to Godfrey, did little to improve Postmedia’s optics in an industry in crisis. He was paid a total of $1.76 million for his trouble, thus living up to his mother’s adage about luck.

Godfrey has enjoyed a long run wielding the levers of power. It’s time to turn them over to somebody else.

UPDATE: As of 2018, Godfrey is still at Postmedia, where he continues to draw a healthy paycheque.

Roundups of 2015’s heroes and villains.

I declined to contribute to 2016’s batch, which proved to be the final edition. By that point I was only writing Historicist for the site, slowly edging toward my decision to leave Torontoist for good.

What would a 2018 edition of Heroes and Villains look like? A few candidates would be obvious. Doug Ford would be high on the villain side, for any number of reasons. I put out a call for suggestions via Facebook and Twitter, and here’s what came back:
2018 Heroes
Ulli Watkiss
Tanya Talaga
Kyle Lowry
Austin Matthews
Overdose prevention activists
Candidates in the 47-ward council race
Chanty Marostica
2018 Villains
Doug Ford
Ontario Proud
Dean French
Faith Goldy
Giorgio Mammoliti
Sidewalk Labs
Sky Gilbert

Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The City of Brotherly Mayors?

Originally published on Torontoist on November 29, 2012.

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Photos of Rob and Doug Ford by Christopher Drost. Howland pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A father who served as an elected representative. Run-ins with an unyielding city council. One sibling removed from office for legal reasons. The Ford brothers, right? Yes, but these characteristics also apply to the only pair of brothers to have sat in the mayor’s chair (so far), William Holmes Howland (served 1886 to 1887) and Oliver Aiken Howland (served 1901 to 1902).

Rumours regarding Doug Ford’s intentions to run for mayor if a by-election is held to replace his judicially ousted brother inspired us to take a look at the Howlands. While there wasn’t an official “Howland Nation,” William built a strong constituency among the working class in the mid-1880s by supporting labour movements and pushing for reforms to social welfare and public morality—reforms that eventually gave birth to “Toronto the Good.” William’s removal from office in February 1886 was due to an effort by supporters of defeated former mayor Alexander Manning to prove Howland didn’t own land, which at the time was a requirement of the mayoralty. Some speedy legal work, combined with no nominations for a successor, saw Howland back in office after a week’s exile.

We whipped up a diagram to illustrate the parallels between the Fords and Howlands, just in case Doug Ford ever wears the chain of office. Click the image for a zoomed-in view.

UPDATE

Rob Ford wasn’t booted from office. Doug Ford was unsuccessful in his 2014 mayoral run, and it remains to be seen how his run  to govern Ontario as leader of the Progressive Party will go.

Feasting on Ford Fest (and the rant that follows)

Originally published on Torontoist on September 10, 2012.

One of the first things that happened when we arrived at Ford Fest: we were asked to provide our names, addresses, and phone numbers. When we tried to skip the sign-in process, a volunteer told us it was required. We said we weren’t comfortable providing our personal information. “Then why are you here?” demanded another. (She later said the information was for “security purposes.”)

Rather than protest further, we scribbled our names amid over 5,000 other signatures from those who came to enjoy the Ford family’s hospitality, as matriarch Diane Ford threw her Etobicoke home open to the entire city in an annual tradition.

Apart from disputes over people cutting into the burger line, it was one of the evening’s few confrontations. The laid-back atmosphere—which mixed die-hard supporters, neighbourhood families, politically engaged residents who often disagree with Ford, the curious, and the media—must have been a relief for the Fords after a rocky week in court. A Facebook-organized LGBT gathering didn’t materialize, though people wearing rainbow colours danced to Councillor Gary Crawford’s (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest) hire-worthy cover band, Gently Bent.

The relaxed approach applied to the food line, whose mass disorganization would have made an anarchist smile. No one knew where the queue began, so people joined in wherever they could without offending others. We let in two elderly women who sweetly looked around to make sure nobody would call them out. As we waited, we observed several requests for security to deal with line jumpers and one loud public shaming by the pool.

The line snaked around the backyard, threatening to form an infinite circle that would never lead to the lone barbecue pit. Standing for over 90 minutes for burgers and hot dogs provided time to observe the Greco-Roman-inspired lawn décor and the rose petals floating in the pool. A beer and wine station along the way offered relief, though some trouble with the tap produced cups that were 70 per cent head/30 per cent brew.

Our wait was punctuated by watching the exploits of one enterprising party-goer ahead of us, who loaded up a cooler with a case of free pop, brought take-out containers for the grill, and tossed a used bun back at the cooks. His extreme behaviour embodied the front-of-line ethos, where the long wait broke down into a free-for-all whenever the latest charred item came off the grill. Once away from the line though, tension eased. (The entire event was much busier than last year. If Ford Fest carries on, the food line will require better planning: line markers and additional grills would be a good start.)

Ford Fest provided the mayor with a friendly platform to list his accomplishments and pep up the crowd for his 2014 re-election bid, which promises to continue with an us-versus-them mentality. “We have to get out there, bang on the doors,” he shouted. “As you saw this week, they’re coming after us, every which way.” While thanking his family (including a trembling salute to his late father), Ford indicated that brother Doug “gives me the marching orders, and I march.” (The crowd didn’t erupt in laughter.)

Ford also promoted his Don Bosco football squad, urging guests to attend their season opener on September 14 against the Donald A. Wilson Gators, who won last year’s Metro Bowl. “Mark my words,” he boasted, “we’re going to be the Metro Bowl champs, not Donald Wilson.” He was rewarded for his football and charitable efforts with a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal and couldn’t resist a shot at his legal opponents: “Some people think that it’s a terrible thing to help kids out, but I’m helping kids out!”

Plenty of kids were on hand, enjoying the food or the balloon animals made by a roaming man in a tux. They were also encouraged to lend vocal help to Gently Bent’s rendition of “Another Brick in the Wall.” It was unclear if that song accidentally or intentionally commented on the depths of the mayor’s knowledge of municipal law.

What stood out most at Ford Fest was the family’s genuinely welcoming nature—including personal thanks from Diane Ford, who went table to table to say hello. For all his faults as a public official, Rob Ford’s ability to connect with people on a personal level is what has gotten him as far as he has, and its merits are real. However and whenever he leaves office, it’s at least one (and possibly the only) thing future mayors may want to adopt from his tenure.

BEHIND THE SCENES

Warning: this is going to be a long one. Working a few long-simmering thoughts out here, so be ready for some ranting.

Apart from the usual second-guessing about using certain turns of phrase, or leaving out a fact I wanted to throw in, I rarely regret pieces I’ve written. This one is an exception, due to its ending. I wrote the final paragraph based on what friends who were there observed, especially after I left the premises. I also felt I needed to include some balance in there and reflect the vibes others felt, lest I came off like a stereotypical anti-Ford crank easy fodder for pro-Ford supporters willing to defend their boy at any length.

Truth is, whatever welcoming nature was happening, I wasn’t feeling it that night. Looking back at it now, Ford Fest was a key point in my deepening disillusionment with Toronto politics and the coverage of them.

From the moment I was asked for personal information—and the reaction the friends and I received when we questioned the necessity of collecting such info, which I bet was later used for campaigning purposes—I couldn’t shake the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land.

My discomfort grew as I waited for food. The line represented many elements of the Ford mayoralty—the chaos, the pathetic, the pettiness, and the selfishness. The closer I moved to the grill, the more I felt end of days was imminent. Between watching people grab as many free items as they could without concern for others, jostling in line, and the every-man-for-themselves free-for-all at the front, I pondered how easily civilization could come unglued.

Coupled with speeches which entrenched the divisive nature the Fords thrived on, I felt something die inside of me. This was populism at one of its lowest, basest forms. Make people scramble like animals for free food while preaching that instead of working together to create a better city we should further inflame the divisions that don’t help anyone other than politicians eager to benefit from the flames of fear, hate, and paranoia.

Was everything I was taught growing up—to respect others different from you, to work together instead of apart to solve problems—just a bunch of hooey I shouldn’t have paid attention to?

I know the idea at the time was to understand what made Ford supporters tick, not to demonize them. And, to a certain point, I could see how Ford’s blend of personal vulnerabilities, working for individual constituents and speaking to a demographic who felt beat up by the system could entice a voter. And I also knew Toronto’s history of doing everything on the cheap and knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, qualities Ford embodied. But I also saw how the more opponents and the press pointed out every single peccadillo, every single misstep, one grew immune to the insanity and shrug it off. Information overload was not a blessing. The moderate/progressive side never figured out how to make a palatable alternative which could appeal to soft Ford voters, always finding a way to make a message too weak to hold up, or bumble campaigns.

The city and its media were sucked into a reality television show, and the joke usually seemed to be on us.

While the Ford era provided plenty of material for me to add historical context to, I grew weary of the circus. I turned off social media feeds obsessively dedicated to City Hall. I glossed over stories in the newspaper, or groaned whenever the latest mishap floated across the screen. Over the next stretch on this site, you’ll see stories I covered regarding urban politics that only deepened my disillusionment, especially when the loudmouths took over the floor.

Burying myself in other work seemed a better alternative than despairing over what could actually be done to turn the tide against increasingly divisive political and social issues. Sometimes I’d turn down stories that felt too depressing to crank out, or could only support rather that work to solve divisions (though I did write the occasional partisan crack if I felt strongly about the issue—nobody’s saintly).

Let’s say the 2016 American election didn’t help my state of mind.

What did the Ford era ultimately bring us? Setbacks to building a better transportation infrastructure. Jokes for late-night comedians. Growing the seeds of distrust between the core and suburban areas in the city that don’t need to be there, which continue to be perpetuated by politicians who only heed their baser instincts, their baser constituents, or their constant need for attention.

As I write this update at the dawn of March 2018, some polls suggest Doug Ford has a shot of becoming the next provincial Progressive Conservative leader. Though I have tried very hard to tune him out, it’s hard to escape all news about his campaign, of which stories suggest he’s still playing his family’s brand of divisive politics. If he wins the leadership, I would not be shocked if he winds up premier, which is a depressing prospect. Or, depending how much Doug shows his true colours if he gains power, perhaps an opportunity to work to finally kill this brand of destructive rousing of partisan nastiness and expose it for the brutality that underlies it—if wider opponents can ever get over their bickering between each other on individual causes.

Does some of what I’ve just ranted about sound cynical and jaded? You bet.

I suspect I’m not alone feeling this way. If there’s a new, broader way to fight this crap, I’ll all for it. The movement among American youth to fight guns shows glimmers of hope. And, having worked with many millennials, I’m hoping that things may change once they start holding positions of power.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled historical stories.

 

Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!

Originally published on Torontoist on September 1, 2011.

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A photo montage showing what a monorail might have looked like at Bay and Bloor. The Telegram, April 29, 1958.

You’ve heard all the jokes and Simpsons references related to Doug Ford’s vision of a Toronto monorail, his grandiose derailment of Waterfront Toronto’s development plans. But Ford is not the first Etobicoke-based politician to be mesmerized by the possibilities of single-rail travel. From the 1950s onwards, civic officials from the former township have participated in schemes ranging from a monorail system within Etobicoke General Hospital to an above-ground link between Union Station and the airport. One flirtation with single-rail technology that Etobicoke civic officials helped promote with their suburban peers, though, had it ever become reality, would have resulted in a monorail being installed along Bloor Street, instead of a subway line.

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Vernon Singer, Reeve of North York 1957–1958. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 217, Series 249, File 251, Item 1.

For an idea that ultimately stunk to City of Toronto officials, it’s appropriate that the inspiration came at a sewer convention. North York Reeve Vernon Singer was attending a sewage conference in Dallas in early 1958 when he wandered off to the local fairgrounds. He was mesmerized by the short monorail line that had attracted visitors to the site for the past two years. Back at the convention, Singer told fellow Metro Toronto councillors Chris Tonks (the reeve of York Township) and Charles R. Bush (an Etobicoke representative) about his discovery. The politicians met a publicist for the system’s manufacturer, Monorail Inc., who dazzled them as Lyle Lanley wowed the citizens of Springfield. Especially impressive was the construction cost: $1 million per mile. Given the trio’s reservations about the estimated $200 million cost for an east-west subway along Bloor Street, a monorail that could be built for peanuts was highly appealing.

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Globe and Mail, April 29, 1958.

Once they returned to Canada, Singer and Tonks demanded that Metro Toronto council conduct a full investigation into the benefits of monorail before giving final approval for a Bloor subway. While Tonks believed it would be “deplorable” if his demand wasn’t met, TTC Chairman Allan Lamport wasn’t so sure. “Lampy” told the Star that he thought “a couple of high-priced salesmen have been advising some amateurs.” He believed any monorail on Bloor would be “an ugly roller coaster,” that it didn’t make sense for Toronto to build an elevated rail line when cities like Chicago and New York were tearing portions of theirs down, and that estimates that 60,000 passengers would be transported each hour were only possible if multiple lines were built. Metro Toronto Chairman Frederick Gardiner shared Lamport’s reservations, as transit consultants advised him to stay away from monorails—cars swayed in the wind, switching cars off line was time consuming, and promises of high speeds had never been realised. It also became clear that the $1 million per mile estimate only applied to building the tracks, not to costs like securing rights-of-way, demolitions, and building supporting structures like pillars.

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Editorial, the Telegram, May 1, 1958.

Singer and Tonks pushed ahead. They arranged to meet with Monorail Inc. president Murel Goodell at Singer’s downtown law office on May 3, 1958. This move outraged Gardiner and other councillors who felt the reeves lacked the authority to hold a meeting that seemed designed to stall the subway. As Singer and Tonks had “got us into a mess,” Gardiner insisted that the meeting be opened to other local bureaucrats. Tonks consulted his “respect for taxpayers” playbook and told the press that if Lamport didn’t show up, “it will be a slight on the endeavours of those trying to save the taxpayers from a huge expenditure.”

Around noon on May 2, Singer talked to Goodell on the phone and warned the Texas businessman to be ready for a fight. Goodell claimed he was a fighter. Four hours later, a telegram arrived from Goodell indicating that he wasn’t coming to Toronto. “We agreed to meet you in a small, informal session,” the wire read. “We are not ready for any official meeting without first a thorough investigation plus conferences with our experts and your local authorities on what Monorail can do in Toronto.”

So much for being a fighter.

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The Telegram, May 3, 1958.

Gardiner was furious. He called the cancelled meeting “the biggest municipal flop in years.” All of the daily newspapers had editorialized against monorails, with the severest attacks appearing in the Star. The paper believed Goodell chickened out when he was “unprepared to face a stiff quizzing by men who know their business” and regretted not seeing Gardiner and TTC officials tear into him.

The fiasco didn’t deter Singer, Tonks, and Etobicoke reeve H.O. Waffle from introducing a motion at the next Metro council meeting to “make immediate arrangements” for a study. As the Telegram put it, they seemed to have “one-track minds” which “refused to be thrown off the track.” To the reeves’ amazement, Metro council voted 9 to 8 on May 6, 1958 in favour of further study. Over the next month, pro- and anti-monorail supporters gathered their evidence for a June 17 meeting.

But the pro-monorail forces underestimated Frederick Gardiner. Unbeknownst to the rest of Metro council, Gardiner commissioned A.V. Roe’s Avro Aircraft division to study the use of monorails within Metro Toronto. Like the TTC, Avro felt monorails had no place in heavily built-up areas. Where they might work was in the suburbs, especially along CN’s rail line from Union Station to Malton Airport. Besides offering speedy service to passengers heading between the landmarks, such a line could also have provided commuter service between downtown, Weston, and Rexdale, and hooked into the subway system at Union and the proposed Dundas West stations. That such a line would also service Avro’s aircraft and engine plants in Malton could have only been coincidental. The report estimated construction would cost $76 million.

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Weston Times and Guide, May 8, 1958.

Several councillors were outraged, as Gardiner refused to let them see Avro’s report in the name of confidentiality. Despite censure for his actions, Gardiner emerged victorious when a motion for further study into monorail as public transit, which would have delayed a final subway approval vote by 60 days, was defeated 15 to 8. The Avro report was eventually released to council and the Bloor subway line got its go-ahead. While consideration was given to a Union-Malton monorail for a couple of months, the plan was rejected by the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board that September. A direct rail link from downtown to the airport would remain at the dream stage for years to come. Monorails were envisioned for sites like Exhibition Place and the Toronto Islands, but the line that operated at the Toronto Zoo from 1976 to 1994 was the only one that made it off the drawing board.

Will Doug Ford’s dream of a waterfront monorail come true? The city’s history says don’t bet on it.

Additional material from the Avro Aircraft Limited Report on Monorail (Toronto: A.V. Roe, 1958) and the following newspapers: the April 29, 1958, April 30, 1958, May 3, 1958, May 6, 1958, and June 18, 1958 editions of the Globe and Mail; the April 29, 1958, April 30, 1958, May 1, 1958, and May 3, 1958 editions of the Toronto Star; and the May 3, 1958 edition of the Telegram.

UPDATE

Like other hare-brained ideas which emerged from either Ford brother, no waterfront monorail is on the horizon as of early 2018. Re-reading this piece, it’s interesting the note how Avro’s vision of a monorail service between Union Station and Malton sounds a little like the UP Express train (though they’re still working on a proper connection with Dundas West subway station).