Rallying for respect and against the silencing of Toronto

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 'Nope Ford' sign outside City Hall at the Rally for Toronto, Sept. 26th.  Photo: Elizabeth Littlejohn

'Regular Programming in Dufferin Grove Park will be cancelled during the day time hours on Saturday, September 10, 2011 due to an anticipated, large, unpermitted event.' (sic)

- Sign posted on a tree in the park by Toronto Parks and Recreation, as ordered by Mayor Rob Ford.

According to Mayor Ford, democracy is a large, unpermitted event.

At Dufferin Grove Park, 500 people gathered to discuss core public service cuts under the banner of Stop Ford's Cuts! earlier this month. Spread out on picnic blankets, Torontonians organized into 20 focus groups to strategize how to protect essential services, keep public sector jobs, and work together to draft the People's Declaration for presentation to City Hall this week.

The sum of these 2012 budgets cuts amounts to $100 million, which matches the 2011 revenue cuts by Mayor Rob Ford, which include the $60 vehicle registration tax and the refusal to increase property taxes by three per cent. This infographic by "Ford for Toronto" blogger, Matt Elliot, shows the mayor's attack on environmentally friendly projects at a glance: Ford finds it necessary to privatize core services, eliminate the Hardship Fund, environmental monitoring, such as the Toronto Environment Office and Atmospheric Fund, and reduce transit service levels so that people can drive cars and own homes. Sound familiar? In August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper eliminated 776 jobs from Environment Canada.

At the Dufferin Grove rally, situated in the west end hotbed of urban hippiedom, Cleo Halfpenny was selling hand silkscreened voodoo dolls of Mayor Ford with Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti in his pocket for $25 a pop, $20 without Giorgio during the meeting. Colourful Mayor Ford graffiti has been springing up on walls throughout the city faster than the white brush of the Fords' can erase. As one of his decrees, Ford said taxpayers should call 911 to alert them of graffiti, and in the Dufferin Grove sign, he asks park-goers to call 311 to stop outdoor meetings, but he cannot stem the fabulous graphics, incisive political blog entries and pithy information visualization charts protesting his efficiency-finding measures.

Toronto is awash with graffiti -- Ford as an octopus, with his tentacles in many jars, his white potato head saying "Spud," the stenciled word "Nightmayor," and online campaigns such as Margaret Atwood for Mayor and 500,000 citizens against Ford. The silencing of creative constituents has brought about agitprop resistance provoked by anger, and softened by mirth, pointing out how ludicrous this all is, while laughing at Ford's anti-graffiti legislation as a "catch me if you can" tactic.

A photojournalist friend, R. Jeanette Martin, is documenting the Rob Ford graffiti art for posterity; she cannot keep up with the sightings. Whether it is Brazil, Twelve Monkeys or Jabberwocky -- it seems like Toronto City Council is directed and scripted by Monty Python's Terry Gilliam. Mayor Ford tried to close the park washrooms during the Stop the Ford's Cuts! rally through an edict to Toronto Parks and Recreation; local councillors had to formally request they remain open.

On Sept. 19, I witnessed the first morning of the second round of marathon deputations from an overflow room at City Hall. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti asked for a motion to cut deputations down from five minutes to two; it was granted, and speaking time for the opposition was divided by more than half. Within the first several hours, when a blind PWA spoke eloquently to keep funding for HIV services, he paused to turn to face a councillor and consider his question. Mayor Ford cut him off brusquely, timing him out. Councillor Adam Vaughan quickly invoked City Hall's policy for accommodation for disability. For the next 20 hours, in an absent, monotonous tone, Ford continued to recite the names of the deputants, ending their time to the allotted second, as his form of efficient, cattle-call democracy.

Ford no longer accepts interview requests with Toronto Star, or Spacing, the urban planning magazine, or any other publication held to be favourable to ex-Mayor Miller's regime, from his City Hall throne. The video of activist Dave Meslin pointing out the lack of respect for deputants can be seen here.

Shortly after the PWA deputized, a nurse, outfitted in a beautiful Caribana headdress of her own design, spoke of her dependency upon rehabilitation services after a severe concussion, and mentioned a podiatrist who attended her homeless shelter, and offered services to her for free. You could almost hear the pens scratching by Ford's note-takers to ensure that this service was suspended; Ford has refused the hiring of two nurses who specialized in HIV caretaking from the province, but allowed three nurses who focused on the spread of bedbugs. Councillor Mammoliti threatened a young mother with a 35 per cent tax increase if she demands childcare; 35 per cent is the recurring refrain of tax hikes threatened by the Brothers Ford to budget dissenters, and is completely without factual basis. (See more on this here.)

Repeatedly, deputants said there is a revenue problem, not a spending problem, and were soundly ignored by the executive council, who pointed out the number of times they had deputized previously to discredit them. Many of these deputants were incensed by this tactic; they were representatives for large constituent groups, such as graduate student unions, and when Councillor Mammoliti pointed out they were being paid handsomely for their services, noted their $15,000 graduate student stipends. And in the most hypocritical repudiation of Ford's campaign tactics conceivable, Nick Kouvalis, the principal architect of the Gravy Train campaign meme, has jumped the mayoral ship to work as a public relations consultant with firemen, on the site notgravy.com, to save them from 300 layoffs.

There is a reason why Ontario's neo-conservative tag team of Ford, Hudak and Harper (also known as the "trifecta of Republican-style, right-wing ignorance and bigotry" by the Twitterati), is working so quickly to privatize core public services at the municipal level -- they realize that sustainable urban planners, architects, grassroots organizations and citizens who build progressive movements are strong, organized and thoughtful in cities, and want to quash them. This was openly admitted by Harper when he attended a barbeque in Ford's backyard this past spring.

Conservative PR flaks have made repeated attempts to take down this video from Facebook, but it pops back up again. This tactic is congruent with the Canadian European Trade Agreement, more comprehensive than NAFTA, which is presently in its ninth round of backroom negotiations, and will open up municipal services to European interests. Harper intends to ensure the rungs of the municipal-provincial-federal ladder are filled with his yes-sayers. If elected as the premier in Ontario, Tim Hudak wants to get rid of the Human Rights Commission to further silence leftist dissent; for more on his future initiatives, see the website The Best Ontario Election website, brought to you by Truthfool Communications, who put up the site Shit Harper Did last election.

Just last week, the inclusion of electronic surveillance in the Conservatives' tough on crime omnibus bill was stymied through a Stop Spying petition with 70,000 signatures, organized by openmedia.ca. These wiretapping bills are really about the censorship and control of social media by PM Harper and his media advisers -- they are well aware that Facebook and Twitter are the loci for grassroots organizing. Although their new media firms still monitor social media postings, these bills were drafted to ensure that their warrantless stalking of grassroots opposition would be admissible in court. These bills were excised from the omnibus bill this round, but will no doubt be revised, to crop up in different versions to be reconsidered in future legislation.

And finally the Ford Brothers have lost an important battle. A concerned citizen has registered a formal complaint against Doug Ford for meeting with an unregistered lobbyist, an Australian developer, to sell off the Lower Port Lands, putting in jeopardy the development plans of Waterfront Toronto. These award-winning sustainable plans, developed over six years, and with thousands of hours of good faith consultancy of citizens' groups, were supported by a letter signed by 147 architects, urban planners and professors in an emergency press conference to denounce the revised east end theme park version, replete with a ferris wheel, mono-rail and mega-mall. In addition, CodeBlueTO presented 7,300 signatures on their citizens' petition to preserve the three key principles of the Waterfront Toronto plans -- flood proofing the Port Lands and South Riverdale, renaturalizing the mouth of the Don River, and building urban neighbourhoods -- citing them as essential. Media reports say this battle loss has created a rift between the Ford Brothers, and pundits have asked for the return of the unauthorized $500,000 for this unneeded, second consultancy, directly from Rob and Doug's bank account.

The silencing of the dissenting left by the neo-conservative public relations policy apparatus continues on, whether in the careful handling of Mayor Ford to monitor his press access, his controlled role-calling during the marathon deputation sessions, the shortening of deputation time at City Hall, or the censoring of the barbeque video on YouTube by PM Harper, and the hidden inclusion of all-inclusive electronic surveillance in their omnibus crime bills.

When citizens are being censored, they act with graphic ingenuity. As witnessed during the people's wake for Jack Layton in Nathan Philips Square, internationally, chalk has become the unique identifier and ephemeral signature of hope and optimism for Toronto, easily washed away by rain, only to fill the square again. This Monday, during the People's Rally at City Hall, chalk filled the square again with heartfelt requests to protect our core services, and question the unfounded logic of the Fords' service cuts. Regular programming of democracy will resume one day, and together, we will make it happen. Torontonians have proven themselves capable of compassion through accepting property tax hikes, and additional taxes, as they realize services and jobs for many will ensure the health of all. They have said so through many hours of City Hall deputations, waiting patiently for their shortened turn to speak.

This week, Mayor Ford and Councillor Mammoliti showed up in new business suits, and debated for a day and a half; one-third of 1 per cent of the city's $9-billion-plus budget, $28-million in "service adjustments" was found, and the votes can be seen here. By a vote of 22-23, The Hardship Fund, which offsets medical costs for the needy, was cut. Councillor Vaughan reminds those watching the cuts will be on the table again after the election in November. Mayor Ford is claiming a "huge victory" for finding efficiencies. 

Elizabeth Littlejohn blogs at Railroaded by Metrolinx and is a professor of new media.

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