"The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
- American journalist, Finley Peter Dunne, 110 years ago
Let's rewrite his words to say that "the role of the deputant is to comfort the children afflicted and afflict the comfortable adults."
I was Deputant #155 on the morning of Dec. 8 at Toronto's City Hall. Sporting goggles on my head, I pleaded for funding not to be slashed from MacGregor Park's wading pool in my Ward 18 neighbourhood. From behind the mic, I witnessed the tactics of the budget committee, led in its charge by budget chief, Mike Del Grande, who was flanked by Councillor Doug Ford, with Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti in the rear, as they ruthlessly interrogated the deputants on how they would generate revenue for the City.
Deride, discredit, dismiss. 1,2,3... knockout. The right-wing members of the budget committee were coached by their media handlers how to demoralize those brave enough to wait, endlessly and breathlessly, for their turn to speak up, with time cut back from five minutes to three under the Ford regime. My de facto mayor, Councillor Adam Vaughan, ex-Budget Chief Shelley Carroll and left-wing councillors Janet Davis and Mike Layton, responded to the right-wing blows by asking leading questions of the deputants to give them more air time, and help support their pleas to maintain core services such as nursing homes, hot breakfasts, swimming pools, and arts grants against the 10 per cent slash across the board. The need for these core service cuts are because Mayor Ford cut $320 million in taxes in his first term in office.
If Ford had not done so, we would have had a balanced budget, as last year's budget under ex-Budget Chief Shelley Carroll had done admirably to ensure a social safety net, and recreational programs for kids. As she pointed out to the Budget Committee, "Perhaps there would not be 348 deputants if you had not written the budget like this." This one of the few moments of levity in the dreary proceedings; Deputant #212 was marched to the door by the security guards at the request of Del Grande when she had the gall to request another day of deputations so everyone on the roster could speak.
Children will suffer the most under these cuts; libraries, transit tickets, ball hockey, swimming pools, and everything that makes a city family friendly will have higher costs. Children do not earn money, so Mayor Ford is asking children to break their piggy banks to pay users' fees so that some of their parents, who do earn money, no longer have to pay a $60 vehicle registration tax. I say "some of their parents," as the children most victimized by these budget cuts, probably have parents who do not have cars, yet their parents will pay more money for TTC tokens for their children, with another 10 per cent cutback in transit service and frequency.
Illogical? Yes, and so is this budget that asks kids to earn money before their time. The City of Toronto is in arrears an additional $65 million in tax penalties for Mayor Ford's cancelling ex-Mayor Miller's brainchild "Transit City"; he had a short meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty, and Transit City was replaced with Ford's subway system which will serve fewer riders, "Transportation City," and has not been able to find private-public partnership interest, or additional funding from Queen's Park. The light rail transit system, which would have enabled outer suburban parents to take their kids to downtown activities faster, has been quickly dismantled, with nothing to take its place, and tokens are going up in price. 1,2,3 knockout for the families by the Fords.
There is one ward which will not have their student nutrition program slashed, Ward 2; Councillor Doug Ford wrote a $1,000 personal cheque to make up the loss for his constituents, and to preemptively guarantee his re-election. $380,000 in children's nutrition programs will be slashed across the city, but there is one set of City Hall rules for the wealthier, suburban wards with councillors on the budget committee, and another set of rules for the inner city wards with the highest unemployment, at risk youth, and crime rates. A published map shows the cuts are targeting the poorest areas first; they are assumed to have the least protective representation, and vocal constituents, and so are most vulnerable. One online comment says it best:
"How is it that the budget can keep $500,000 leaf collection and windrow clearing for posh neighbourhoods, but can't afford nutrition programs for poor schools? If he's cutting gravy, wouldn't special pickup services fall under the "gravy" category?"
I deputized because five wading pools are to be closed in downtown Toronto, and my neighbourhood's wading pool in MacGregor Park is about to be replaced with a "splash pad," which is really just a car wash for kids. Suburban youth have access to their own front lawns and pools, but around Bloor and Lansdowne, children from high rises have nowhere else to go but this park, and puddle about in its wading pool, to beat the heat. Revitalizing this wading pool has radiated health for my community far beyond the borders of the park. Its Art Club founder, Kristen Fahrig, has teaching arts and crafts, swimming and storytelling over the past six years, and has changed MacGregor Park from a crack haven to safe space with "eyes on the street," benefiting the entire ward.
I cited the Human Rights Code, and its duty to accommodate, to ask that the wading pool be left intact as disabled children cannot use "splash pads," and that as a child who was very near-sighted, swimming was my safest, and only, sport. In response to my remark, Councillor Vaughan's head snapped up -- Vaughan is the chair of the accessibility advisory committee, one of 21 citizen committees Ford tried to shut down this summer, and on Dec. 3, he also cancelled the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
As I spoke, I was distracted by background noise. I later learned it was a song led by a parent dressed as the Grinch, and a group of children, singing in the City halls, seen here at Stop the Child Care Cuts:
"You're a mean one Mr. Ford,
These cuts make you a heel,
You're as cuddly as a cactus,
You're as charming as an eel, Mr. Forrrrrd!
You're plan is a bad banana, with a greasy, black peel!
You're a foul one, Mr. Ford,
Closing child care's a nasty stunt,
Your heart is full of unwashed socks,
Your soul is full of gunk, Mr. Forrrrrd!"
And then, the children shouted: "The three words that best describe your childcare plans are as follows, and I quote: STINK, STANK, STUNK!"
Minutes after my deputation to the Budget Committee, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande announced that they must listen to the "perceptions" of deputants, even if they are Martians. Perhaps he was referring to my four eyes -- the googles perched on my head -- above my glasses; perhaps he was referring to the left-wing deputants which the right find alien, as they obstruct their mission to destroy the public safety net. The awaiting deputants in the audience murmured he was insulting, and I snapped "We are educated residents, not Martians." At my rebuttal, Del Grande, embarrassed at his display of right-wing partisanship, held a three-minute timeout, like a substitute teacher in primary school, who has lost control of a heckling class.
Fine residents were in attendance that day, just as they were at the previous marathon deputations at City Hall, but on December 7 and 8, the mood was sombre, and chastened, as we were aware through experience that our deputations were being ignored. Councillor Mammoliti was shown on the CBC saying that "these were the same 500 people speaking," and that he had "no idea what they were saying." And so after the blanket derision by Del Grande, began the discounting of the time and committed involvement of the deputants by Mammoliti to the press, so that we were easy to dismiss by those watching the mainstream media's limited reportage of hours of passionate, articulate deputations.
As I sat and listened in Meeting Room 1, I thought what courageous citizens we have in our fair city, trying to protect the rights of the littlest ones. Mayor Ford, as the Grinch, and the Budget Committee, as his elves and nickel-pinchers, have really taken the joy out of Christmas, and the City of Toronto, for many families.
Elizabeth Littlejohn blogs at Railroaded by Metrolinx and is a professor of new media.