Commentary  Why Toronto’s elections matter to all of us

Rob Ford has called homeless shelters an “insult to my constituents,” opposed AIDS prevention programs – “if you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS, that’s bottom line” – and accused Asian immigrants of plotting to take over society: “Those Oriental people work like dogs. … They’re slowly taking over.”

He also happens to have a good chance of becoming Toronto’s next mayor; despite his dated, reactionary, and bigoted views, he’s leading the race, polling around 30 per cent support. Even if you’re not from Toronto, have never been to Toronto, or don’t normally pay attention to Toronto, its upcoming municipal elections are something to care about. The outcome will have real effects on the rest of the country, and concerns all Canadians, and not just because his retrograde comments will be an embarrassment on the world stage.

One of the most troubling aspects of Ford’s platform are his plans for infrastructure and transportation. Should he be elected mayor of Canada’s largest city, Ford promises to no less than eviscerate Toronto’s already fragile ecological infrastructure. Under the guise of accountability and fiscal responsibility, his platform calls for tearing up bike lanes, removing street cars, and increasing the city’s car capacity. Instead of looking beyond cars as the primary means of transportation, Ford’s Toronto would eliminate the few positive steps in this direction – like separate lanes for bikes and right-of-way for streetcars.

A municipal administration actively dismantling sustainable infrastructure and making life more difficult for marginalized people – not to mention being a general embarrassment for the city – would set a horrific precedent for the rest of Canada. Other cities have, of course, taken independent steps towards sustainable urban life (see Projet Montréal’s work in Plateau-Mont-Royal) but there’s also a need for large-scale and highly visible leadership to provide the political paradigm for other cities and governments to follow. Toronto is this country’s largest city: in population, economy, and influence. Everything Rob Ford has said and done indicates that if he provides national momentum in any direction, it will be backward.

Ford’s emotional appeal for lower taxes and pay cuts for municipal politicians have allowed him to side-step with frightening ease his more unsavoury aspects. His success is also no doubt helped by general voter apathy – only 41 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in Toronto’s 2006 mayoral elections.

Toronto’s elections are on October 24. If you’re from there, it’s not too late to register to vote (find out how below). If you’re not, this debacle points to just how fragile sustainable and sensible urban structures still are. Looking at Toronto, we can all see why active political participation is so important.