Every couple of years I make a pilgrimage to the center of Canada, to visit family and just to take stock of the city and places where I grew up, where I went to school, and where I joined the RCMP. I am presently taking that 360 degree look around from the beating heart of what the Iroquois named from the phrase– “where there are trees in water”– the city hated or loved by the rest of Canada– Toronto. The Iroquois, by the way were simply referring to this area as a place where one would find weir nets in the lakes. Ontario or “kanadario” was also Iroquois named, meaning “sparkling water”. Clearly, the namers had a thing about the water in those times. If Canadians were now asked to describe this city, it is unlikely that the water (Lake Ontario) would be part of their definition, nor the first outstanding feature that would come to mind. You can’t really even see the water from the lakeshore because of the massive tower developments looking towards Toronto Island.
This is a city though, despite any preconceived notions, that one should be paying attention to; it is a bell weather of the problems and the dynamics of Canada. It is, in this country of hewers of wood and drawers of water, the financial and industrial epicentre for Canada. When they press the buttons here, whether we like to admit it or not, the rest of Canada has to jump; and when things fail here, the effects are felt throughout this country. It is where elections are decided, with an obvious slight bow to Quebec and its growing francophone autocracy. It is where the 6,372,000 people of this traffic engorged city live– the “6” in Toronto slang, that being a reference to the 6 large scale municipalities which were joined in 1998 as one which now form a discombobulated government of many voices, many opinions and little unanimity.
It is always changing, this place of my birth, the waves of immigration and population insuring constant change, constant growth and the need for ever increasing social services. The infrastructure has changed little, the streetcars still ply up and down Queen St, but the streetcars have doubled in size. Queen St. itself, is now an even greater hodgepodge of cafes, vintage clothing boutiques, vape shops all scattered amongst the boarded windows that could not survive Covid or gave up trying. Brick is the building material of choice in this city, and as the city ages, what looked new, now looks old, decaying bricks literally falling off buildings and now laying inert on the sidewalks.
The demographics and the growth of the ethnic neighbourhoods is both inspiring and worrisome. As of 2021, 57% of the population of the city now belongs to a visible minority group; when I worked here for the RCMP at Jarvis and Dundas, in the 1980’s, that figure was about 13.1%. There are lots of “littles” now: Little Italy, Little India, Little Jamaica, and Little Portugal, surrounded by Greektown, Koreatown, and Chinatown. So Yes, the city has changed, those neighbourhoods have grown in size and the infrastructure such as stores, and services, are now large enough to support their own specific neighbourhood. There is no need to intermingle, there is no need to leave your neighbourhood, which many champion as a good thing, but in many ways it is not. It is the Canadian mosaic, not the Canadian melting pot.
This puzzle of a city is aptly demonstrated by the current mayoral race in Toronto. Believe it or not, there are 102 people running to be mayor— have filed their nomination papers and paid the entry fee. All are for the most part, one issue candidates, and that issue usually a perfect reflection of the neighbourhood from which they have arisen. Even the top 4 or 5 are polling less than 10% in numbers. The current leader, by far, is a re-tread, Olivia Chow.
Ms Chow has been a politician, both civically and Federally for most of her life, and a standard bearer for the NDP. She was married to NDP Federal Leader Jack Layton who served as the Federal Opposition leader from 2003-2011 before he passed from cancer in 2011.
She has been around the city of Toronto and its political environs for many years. In 1991 she was elected to Toronto city council, then in 2006 was elected as a Federal MP. She came back to the city and ran for mayor of Toronto in 2014, but placed third. She ran again Federally in 2015 but was again unsuccessful in the riding of Spadina/Fort York. She was born in Hong Kong, raised lower middle class in Toronto, and attended Jarvis Collegiate and then the Ontario College of Art.
She is “woke” to be sure, and her issues have not changed much over the years; homelessness and public transit usually lead every Toronto list, and of course, looking after the ever growing downtrodden. She was known for her daily blissful bike ride to City hall, a very colourful bike, that she adorned with flowers. She at one time had to resign from the Toronto Police Services Board because during a riot at the Legislative Assembly she approached the police to change their tactics in quelling the riot. So now she is back, and leading the race for mayor.
The problem for Ms. Chow and other candidates who have been politicians in the last twenty years in this city, is that the city is going the wrong direction. More of the same, the same solutions, the same talking points simply are not working. There is confusion everywhere, confusion in the fixing of streets, confusion in the bylaws, confusion in the decaying neighbourhoods and their infrastructure. The politicians worry about plastic straws, but not about hundreds of thousands of vehicles idling in stale-mated traffic every day of the week. They worry and repeatedly talk about safe streets, while at the same time refusing to clean up those streets. I recently asked a friend why he never drives into the city from Mississauga? He sums up his discontent with “on the streets all you smell is piss and marihuana”.
Housing is un-affordable to the working middle and lower classes, and the struggling salaries are contributing to the growing disappearance of that tax paying middle class. The hotels, restaurants and bars are staffed by the only people who will take the jobs, the largely immigrant population, who are still struggling with English as their 2nd language, so still willing to do manual labour, and often thankful for the opportunity. Downtown, amongst the financial banking towers and the intersection of Yonge and Bloor, which were once strewn by Harry Rosen three piece suit wearing bankers; now sweat shirts, and sweat pants are the norm, the towers look empty, there is a tiredness on the face of the people shuffling along the street. There seems to be no energy left.
If one remains positive about this city it may be in the fact that those immigrants, those still willing to work and not overly concerned about “work-life balance” may pull it up by its boot straps, and reignite this once prosperous and dynamic area. But, you also have to be honest about those chances.
The city is claiming that Covid 19 placed it in a $933 million deficit. But putting aside the argument that everything can be blamed on Covid, Ernst and Young in a recent report in March 2023 says that covid aside, the city is grappling with a $46.5 billion in “financial pressures over the next decade” that will threaten the city’s “fiscal stability” and the “sustainability of its service levels”.
Of course, the only solution being offered up by the local politicians is that they get more money from the Federal and Provincial governments. No one seems to understand that a tax dollar is a tax dollar, regardless of who is paying it out. There certainly is no solution that involves cutting back on spending.
So what does this all have to do with policing? I firmly believe that police officers are both a mirror of society in general and they also serve as the canaries in the coal mine. They will see the unadulterated problems first, and they will be the last ones around when the things go wrong. The Toronto news is a reflection of all the cities of Canada, but it is bigger here, the numbers often overwhelming; “stabbing downtown”, “police seeking two suspect after man shot in Scarborough”, “one man wounded in stabbing in east-end Toronto”, “family dispute in Vaughan results in charges of attempted murder, kidnapping”,”Markham mosque attack”, and “three Toronto teens arrested for string of armed pharmacy robberies”. It is a fire hose of inflammatory and outrageous headlines every day.
Toronto is very close to being and feeling like an American city. They have always aspired to be New York north, but are the changing times and the seemingly overwhelming problems going to drown all the good intentions. New York north or more likely Detroit north?
The city for now is still functioning though, massive high rises are still being built, the cops are in evidence everywhere, directing traffic on Yonge St, or working overtime security for window washers cleaning high rises. There are visible levels of efficiency in terms of moving people through the subways, trains, or to and from the airport. Blood is still pumping through the now enlarged heart of the city, but whether it is enough to keep the extremities going remains to be seen.
I do hope that they make it, that despite the government, there is enough independent thought and entrepreneurial vigour in the new generations coming along that they can make it work. It is my hometown, but it is no longer my home,– but we need Toronto –Canada needs Toronto.
Photo courtesy of RebelXL- via Flickr Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved