Toronto, a city of…taxpayers?

“Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”  — Howard Zinn

I’ll throw in my two cents, though it’s a long toss across the ocean and into the streets of Toronto.  Even from here I can feel the palpable anger, the quiet desperation, and unfortunately, some bitter resignation.  I think there’s also creativity and passion and wit in the resistance.

We need all these things – save the bitter resignation – because transforming Toronto will take a fight.  I was going to say ‘resurrecting,’ or ‘saving,’ but that’s not accurate.  Toronto has never been the idyll some are suggesting it is; libraries never the great leveler, no matter how important it is to save them from the chopping block.  The budget discussions are about far more than the cost of services.  They’re about creating a city that doesn’t allow people to starve or lose their homes and their jobs because they can’t get to work without a reliable transit system.  They’re about expanding access to services and and smashing the inequality that exists in Toronto to pieces. 

For those who don’t know, Toronto recently elected a neo-conservative, queer-phobic, anti-environmentalist white man for mayor.  This is itself a contentious statement, and not because the labels I’ve attached to Rob Ford are up for debate.  The contention is in the word ‘elected’.  I, for one, see very little legitimacy in municipal elections where absentee landlords can vote (and even run for office), but the 380,000 or so Toronto residents without Canadian citizenship cannot.  I have many more issues with electoral politics in general, but that is just absurd.

On September 19th, City council will vote on the proposed budget cuts.  This week’s preliminary 22-hour executive committee meeting, where 169 people waited to speak their minds on why Ford & co. cannot make such drastic cuts to service, was a valiant and admirable attempt at wresting some power back from the municipal machine.  Unfortunately it’s clear that Ford and his allies have zero intention of heeding what was said.

In Ford’s Toronto, the (frugal) taxpayer is king.  The municipal government is not a site of power, but one of business transactions.  I am a taxpayer, hear me roar.  But the claim doesn’t even make sense in a city where a third of a million residents pay taxes and have no representation save that thrust on them by the election in October 2010.  Yes, we pay taxes.  But we are much more than our taxes; we are also residents with rights to good food, to shelter, to transit, to art and creative pursuits, to recreation, and more.  These are rights borne of our status as people no matter our citizenship.  They aren’t contingent on taxation.

14-year old Annika Tabovaradan gave a passionate speech at the public executive committee meeting about the crisis Scarborough residents will face if branches close.  She and many of her classmates depend on the computers at these libraries.  But what’s especially telling was how deeply ingrained the taxpayer line has become.  I’m no taxpayer, Annika said, but when I get to use the computers in the library and do my homework, I’ll be able to get a good job someday.  Annika, you don’t need to apologize for anything.  You are not a ‘customer’ of services from Toronto Inc., you are not a ‘drain’ on the city coffers, and you owe no penance for lacking a source of tax revenue.

So what now?  This question divides those committed to a more equitable and accessible Toronto.  Many on the left are worried that being too confrontational will alienate the fence-sitters who aren’t really comfortable with Ford but also fear a cohesive, socialist city (not the ‘s’ word!).  The problem with this fear isn’t that it’s wrong – strong and decisive action would undoubtedly alienate some – but that it assumes the only thing standing between us an a more socially and environmentally just Toronto are the apathetic electorate who get their conservative hackles up at the word ‘taxation’.  Apathy may be part of the problem, but it’s certainly not all.  The elections privilege the propertied over landed immigrants; the city is starved for money at the hands of the provincial and federal governments; services are being downloaded onto municipal governments with lightning speed; capitalism is still making a working class of us all.

We’re facing a crisis on September 19th.  If the budget passes, services will be cut.  The cuts will be felt the most by those least able to bear them.  We cannot throw up our hands and say better luck next time.  Time to work on more awareness.  Awareness and debate are critically important, especially leading up to the vote, but on September 20th, it will be time for a different, more democratic type of action.  We say no.

When they go to shutter a local library, we occupy it, standing next to the librarians whose jobs will be threatened.  When they try to pull night buses off the streets, the drivers keep driving and refuse to collect fares.  When they threaten to axe the public school nutrition programs we go and seize food (from the City Hall cafeteria?) and serve it to the kiddies.  What we need is more civil disobedience and the shedding of taxpayer as our primary identity.  Or heck, do they want to see a real budget crisis?  Stop paying property tax (or rent).  We’ll block the evictions.

There are examples of decisive actions happening all around us, sometimes just in short bursts, but almost always ignored by the mainstream media.  When they cannot ignore them, they challenge their legitimacy.  For most of July there have been thousands of Californian prison inmates on hunger strike to challenge the fundamentally unjust conditions they face.  In February, thousands occupied the Wisconsin state capitol building in response to a Republican attempt to deny workers their rights to collective bargaining.  A year ago, thousands of people took to the streets in Toronto to challenge the G20 and were criminalized and assaulted.  The Egyptian government recently fell at the hands of an unerringly strong grassroots movement.  Do not forget these instances of collective action.

I’m not saying don’t write to your councilors, or that you shouldn’t talk to your neighbours about why Ford’s cuts are terrifying.  All I’m saying is that it probably won’t be enough, certainly not in time for September 19th, so we need to start thinking more creatively.  Don’t dismiss the protest as a form of dissent.  It’s a cliché but it’s true: democracy’s more than the ballot box.  (There’s little democracy in our ballot box.)

Alternatively, look on the bright side!  If the police budget is cut, maybe they won’t have the wherewithal to criminalize dissent when we occupy City Hall.  Right?

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2 Comments

Filed under On Human Connections, Politicking

2 responses to “Toronto, a city of…taxpayers?

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