The myth that the people in control know what they’re doing has long since been revealed as optimistic nonsense. Whether we’re talking about U.S. President Donald Trump or the men who run Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the Philippines, the world is suddenly awash in leaders – all of them one way or another elected – who don’t have a clue about leadership, indeed, who seem barely connected to reality.
Worse still, many of our so-called leaders are clearly hellbent on our destruction. Some, like Trump, are adrift in a sea of narcissism so deep they can no longer tell where they end and the world begins. Others are prisoners of ideology; some simply demented. There are the thugs, racists, xenophobes, psychopaths….
Then there’s Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who simply doesn’t know any better. He and his ilk are the ones who leave the road to hell littered with good intentions. These are the leaders who know too little to know how little they know. Guided by an overweening sense of their own rightness and a toxic mix of fear and paranoia they can’t tell friends from enemies, truth from lies, or right from wrong….
In his confusion, Ford has wreaked havoc with every move he has made. Whether it’s the implementation of legalized pot, the redevelopment of Ontario Place, a provincial take-over of the Toronto subway or dismantling provincial environmental laws, in just months the premier has compromised the future of this province, let alone this city, to the point where our future prosperity can no longer be taken for granted.
That’s no mean feat.
Heading into 2019, the action has moved from City Hall to Queen’s Park. It’s not the mayor and council who matter now, it’s Ford and his Progressive Conservative yes-men. For Torontonians, it will be a year of political pushback, civic action and perhaps even civil disobedience. Just to hang on to hard-won gains of recent years — think of Ford’s attack on the sex education curriculum — will require enormous effort.
Unlike, say, the French, who have a robust tradition of street protest, Canadians are much less vocal in their anger. Faced with a fuel surcharge, people across France organized demonstrations against the national government that started months ago and continue today. Their cause is hardly enlightened, but although their rage was triggered specifically by the increased price of gas, it is also about shrinking wages, unaffordability and the growing precariousness of economic life.
In Toronto, a more muted grass-roots response is taking shape. A group called Defend Toronto has formed to fight Ford’s threat to “upload” the subway. Whether this marks the start of a larger movement remains to be seen, but the cumulative results of Ford’s policies could well lead to a mobilization of anti-government forces not seen since the days of Mike Harris. The former premier, don’t forget, had barricades erected at the entrance to the Legislature in response to the proliferation of protest at the Pink Palace.
Given city council’s passivity, it’s unlikely municipal politicians will be willing let alone able to protect Toronto from Ford. They have accepted legal advice that there’s nothing they can do, that they are powerless to lead the city that elected them. On one level, of course, that is true. The inadequacies of governance in Canada are such that cities in this country are creatures of the province. As the City of Toronto has itself noted: “The Canadian Constitution gives the provinces exclusive control over cities and other municipalities….Therefore, the powers a city possesses depend almost entirely on the powers the province wishes to grant…. [A] province can, at will, take away or change any municipal power previously granted.”
The results include chopping council, commandeering the subway, intervening with the public school curriculum, unilaterally controlling public facilities such as Ontario Place. But powerlessness doesn’t mean Toronto has no options. No matter what, the city has a voice. Though the 2006 City of Toronto Act requires that the relationship between city and province be carried out with “mutual respect, consultation and cooperation,” there has been precious little evidence of that.
Despite intermittent talk about creating a Province of Toronto, or at least introducing legislation to make Toronto a “charter city,” no one’s holding their breath. Without constitutional change, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Toronto is stuck in a governance straightjacket it outgrew decades ago. With a hostile premier in power for the foreseeable future, the city must learn to be smarter, tougher and more aggressive than it likes. The mayor, especially, must move beyond his traditional timidity and make his arguments clearly and boldly using language that can’t be misunderstood or ignored.
Starting in 2019, hand-wringing will no longer be enough. A mayor and council accustomed to talking the talk have no choice now but to walk the walk. It won’t be easy, but the stakes have never been higher. Doug Ford has seen to that. Thanks to him, nothing less than the future of the city is at risk.