All posts by Chris Tindal

Jonathan Kay and Toronto Life: What’s the point?

I have no idea what point Jonathan Kay and the editors of Toronto Life were trying to make with their “almost rich” feature.

The package takes a look at what it’s like to live as a member of the one per cent—meaning an income of around $196,000—and combines a short essay by Kay with profiles of five such households. Kay’s essay especially has drawn heated criticism online, the most notable example being a masterful Gawker rant. The author of that post, Hamilton Nolan, seems to believe Kay’s main intent was to argue that those who make $196,000 a year aren’t really that rich, because the cost of living in Toronto is so high.

And Kay does make some arguments to that effect. He writes that “for many Torontonians, that $10,400 [the after-tax, monthly income of someone making $196,000 a year] disappears fast.” By way of example, he points out that living in a $1.5 million house, spending $1000 on a stroller, renovating a kitchen to add granite counters and “spending a fortune on artisanal cheeses” to host a “casual” weekend gathering is really expensive. (“No shit,” replies Nolan.)

But the profiles that follow, like Kay’s examples, don’t support this argument at all. Instead we’re introduced to one man who spends $800 a month on wine in addition to his $1,000 a month on clothes. We meet a retired couple who buy a new Mercedes every three years using cash. One family of four owns a Toronto house, a cottage and two cars including a BMW while still managing to put away $20,000 a year in savings and go on an annual $7,000 vacation to an all-inclusive resort. Another family’s reported monthly expenses only came to $5,780, presumably leaving them with a $4,000 a month surplus.

Most people would agree those sound like pretty rich lifestyles, as Nolan ruthlessly and convincingly asserts, so if the point of this feature is to argue that $196,000 isn’t that rich, these are very strange examples to hold up.

But then, even Kay doesn’t argue that point in his subsequent reply to Nolan. The “admittedly witty” take down, Kay says, “doesn’t change the fact that the growing debt phenomenon among the upper classes I describe is very real.”

Ok, so now we’re talking about debt, I guess. And in Kay’s original essay we can find examples of concern about debt: “the average GTA household is now carrying almost $40,000 in debt on top of a mortgage,” he says, and “the ratio of the average single-family Toronto home price to the income of its occupants” has risen to 5.5 from its historical average of 3.5. But the key word in both of those statistics is, of course, average. These claims that debt is a problem in general for an average household then get juxtaposed with the family putting away $20,000 a year in savings.

So I don’t see how “the growing debt phenomenon among the upper classes” can be the point either. Other than that, I’m at a loss. Is his thesis that “the city [has become] more and more the exclusive domain of the One Per Cent?” That “the era of the ‘mixed’ neighbourhood… is falling away?” That “urban life is unaffordable unless both partners are bringing in serious money?” That previous generations “did not waste a single moment worrying about replacing [their] laminate kitchen counters?”

I don’t know. And I suspect, based on the wounded “can’t we just move on from this” tone of his Nolan reply (he quotes Homer Simpson, “I like it better when they’re making fun of people who aren’t me”), Kay might not know either. Toronto Life has a knack for getting writers to produce bewildering content that’s out of character and lacking in focus. I wonder what kind of direction he was given, and how much he knew about how the family interviews (conducted by Maggie Gilmour and Jasmine Budak) would be framed.

What I do know is that the whole thing is a missed opportunity. Lifestyle inflation is a real thing, and would have made for an interesting exploration in a Toronto context. The increasing cost of housing and debt are serious problems as well, though certainly not limited to the one per cent. And the fact that pretty much everyone seems to think of themselves as “average” continues to be fascinating. It would be great if another publication did a reboot of the Toronto Life feature, this time using a more economically diverse collection of households and exploring the actual cost of living most Torontonians encounter. Maybe someone will yet take that on.

Maybe we should have let Ford win

As the 2014 Toronto municipal election campaign wound down to a close, opponents of the mayor wondered what went wrong. Once again they had underestimated Rob Ford, the big guy from Etobicoke, and failed to grasp the appeal of his message. The simplistic sloganeering strategy of 2010—“Respect for taxpayers! Stop the gravy train!”—had been iterated upon but not fundamentally changed. In 2014 it was all “Stay the course! Don’t change your horse!

A campaign based on incumbency was both predictable and predicted. What Ford’s opponents also should have predicted, but didn’t, was the degree to which he would use his record to his favour rather than run from it like the embarrassment they assumed it was. Beginning in late 2011 and escalating in 2012 and 2013, the mayor had lost many key council votes and failed to follow through on his election commitments. It seemed at the time that this was the momentum progressives needed to take the city back.

But throughout the 2014 campaign Ford and his supporters repeated the mantra that they needed to “finish the job” they’d been blocked from doing by a “left-wing, NDP, union-friendly council.” If not for an elitist, out-of-touch council, Toronto would be full of subways by now. Our taxes would be lower. Our debt would be wiped out. The Weapons of Mass Gravy would have been found and eliminated.

Instead, Ford’s team had persuasively argued, Toronto was held back because City Hall was still too full of Millerites. Now, Torontonians were looking set not just to reelect the mayor, but also—tired of the embarrassing and paralyzing in-fighting of the past four years—to send a new slate of like-minded councillors to the clamshell with him.

The most dangerous thing about Rob Ford has never been his political ideology or his vision for Toronto. The most dangerous thing about him is his extraordinary incompetence. If Ford could blanket Toronto with a comprehensive network of funded subways, if he could find efficiencies and reduce spending without harming Toronto’s most vulnerable, if he could personally return every phone call and be a champion for every resident, who would stand in his way? The biggest problem with Ford’s first term was not his choice of objectives, it was that he was completely incapable of achieving them.

If council hadn’t worked against him—or, more definitively, if they’d done what they could to try to support him and achieve his vision—he’d be exposed. There would be no Sheppard subway in the works for 2015 as promised, or maybe at all. Toronto would be spending an extra $2 billion to bury an LRT where it doesn’t need to be buried, serving as a big flashing “hey isn’t this the kind of gravy we thought we were voting against” sign. Above all, Toronto would be a meaner, poorer place, with less child care, social services, community programs, recreational activities, environmental protection and potential for economic development. And he’d have no one to blame but himself.

It’s a horrible thing to contemplate, though. Once implemented, Ford’s plans not only become exposed as wrongheaded or completely unworkable, they also become exposed as genuinely harmful to real people. How could any reasonable councillor of good conscience knowingly vote in a way that would negativity affect so many of their constituents and the city itself, just to make a political point in aid of positioning for a future campaign?

No, fighting back was the only thing they could have done. Still, as October 27th, 2014 drew ever more near and the prospect of another four years of Ford became more and more likely, this time with a more supportive council, it was an inescapable thought. Maybe we’d be better off if we had allowed him to win. And, by doing so, allowed him to fail.

Who is Andrew Frank?

Andrew Frank, who on Monday was fired from ForestEthics for going public with accusations that someone in the PMO labeled the organization an “Enemy of the Government of Canada” and of the “people of Canada,” was an annoying classmate. Actually, he could be a complete pain in the ass. Unlike the rest of us Radio and Television Arts students at Ryerson University in Toronto, Andrew had no aspirations of being a writer, director or broadcaster. Unlike the rest of us, he wasn’t after fame and the media spotlight. Instead, having decided that news and entertainment media were having an unduly negative influence on society and culture, Andrew moved from a small British Columbian community to Canada’s largest city simply to understand those forces better. To become better equipped to operate in a media-dominated world.

But that wasn’t the most annoying thing about him. He was indisputably one of the best of us. Nothing you did or created ever looked remotely impressive next to Andrew’s projects. When Andrew decided to shoot a pseudo-demonic  birth scene in a candle-lit church using a tracking shot, there was no going half-way. He somehow convinced a downtown Anglican church (even after they had seen the script) to let him move in, light the candles and build the track. When he decided that the perfect music to underscore this scene was a Led Zeppelin song, he didn’t settle for one of the widely-available rip-offs, nor did he do what many students would probably do and just use the song and hope he didn’t get caught. He went and secured the damned rights to the damned Let Zeppelin song. (All of this for a scene that, to my memory, was just a brief flash-back in an otherwise straightforward video.)

That wasn’t the most annoying thing about him either. If you were lucky enough to get to work on one of his projects, he’d run you ragged. While creating what we believe to be North America’s first TV pilot written and directed in American Sign Language by deaf (some identified as Deaf) actors and improvisers, we worked 18-hour-days, mostly outside, in the winter, for weeks. At 1 a.m. when you can no longer feel your hands, are running on 4 hours sleep, know you’re starting again at 6 a.m. and still have to strike the set and load the truck, it’s easy to decide that “that last take was good enough.” But Andrew always wanted to get one more shot. He knew it could be better. He knew what “right” looked like, and he wasn’t willing to compromise.

That was the most annoying thing about him. Andrew’s success, from what I could tell, was the result of two things: the exceptional amount of effort that he put in, and the high standards he refused to let go. Even while still at school, those values extended beyond school projects into activism. At the end of our program Andrew moved back to B.C. and became a full-time environmental campaigner, often working for free on initiatives he either created himself or strongly believed in.

Most of us don’t operate with such a strong unwillingness to compromise, especially when it comes to our own employment. In their response to Andrew’s open letter, ForestEthics doesn’t give any indication that the very serious accusations he makes aren’t accurate. In fact, by saying that Andrew was fired for “[violating] the confidence of the organization,” they suggest that what he revealed is accurate information the organization hoped to keep secret in the interest of not biting the hands that feed them. And as Andrew himself points out in a blog post this morning, denials coming from the PMO and Tides Canada (an organization that funds ForestEthics) aren’t as absolute as they could be either.

I haven’t yet spoken with Andrew about what happened. I don’t know anything more than what’s been publicly reported. What I do know from my years working closely with him is that Andrew is not motivated by fame, sets high standards for himself and those around him and strongly values honesty. I know that when he’s a pain in the ass, it’s usually because he’s doing what needs to be done when no one else will do it. And when he decides what’s right, he doesn’t settle for anything less.

Regardless of what you think of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, if you believe Canadians deserve to know the truth about what kinds of chill tactics are being used against NGOs and ordinary citizens, please join this cause.

Becoming an MP

During the ill-fated campaign to introduce MMP voting in Ontario, critics often argued that one of the biggest problems with MMP was that it would allow parties to choose candidates, and that that process would be heavily influenced by the party establishment. I found this argument perplexing, since it’s an equally (if not more) valid description of how the current system ends up placing candidates on a ballot and, subsequently, in a provincial or federal seat.

It would be difficult for a reasonable, disinterested person to conclude Craig Scott is anything other than very qualified to be a Member of Parliament. The human rights lawyer has a bio that hits all the right notes: he’s worked for human rights around the world and here at home, recently turned his focus to environmental justice and is active around housing and poverty.

Additionally, at the Toronto Danforth NDP nomination meeting Monday night, he gave the strongest speech, both in content and delivery. He’s able to comfortably speak to a wide range of federal issues without sounding like he’s just reciting a list of talking points. Verbal cues, like a nod to “evidence-based policy,” hint that there is hopefully more depth to his thinking than can ever be fully apparent in a short campaign speech. And he managed not only to move the room of party faithfuls, but also cause this often-NDP-critic to repeatedly nod his head.

In addition to those qualities, Scott brought with him the largest selection of influential NDP endorsements. Backing from impressive individuals like environmentalist Rick Smith, Rev. Brent Hawks and Maher Arar was paired with the green light from his party’s political establishment: current MPP Peter Tabuns, Toronto and York Region Labour Council President John Cartwright and past President of the Ontario NDP and Toronto Danforth Riding Association Janet Solberg.

I do not suggest that any of these endorsements were anything less than honestly earned. They are, however, somewhere between difficult and impossible for another candidate to overcome. In that way—barring a shocking underdog victory—a small group of well-connected people chose Craig Scott as the next MP for Toronto Danforth before the NDP or any other party had even held a nomination meeting.

There are three main ways in which I see these endorsements exerting an influence on the voting membership. Most obviously and legitimately, the approval of respected like-minded individuals makes a candidate more attractive. Party members are very similar to voters in a public election in that they are busy individuals who don’t have a lot of time to fully vet each candidate. In both party and public elections, quality endorsements serve as a helpful shortcut for voters. That doesn’t mean voters will vote strictly based on endorsements, but they’re likely to take well-endorsed candidates more seriously and begin their decision process with a bias towards them.

Further, some endorsements come with critical campaign resources like lists, volunteers and money. Key party and labour individuals have increased access to these resources, which can be deployed to help win both the nomination and the public election. Some savvy voting members may also see the writing on the wall and conclude that nominating a candidate with these kinds of connections is the best way to ensure future electoral success, though that’s more difficult to demonstrate.

Finally, and of greatest concern, is the dissuading effect enough of these endorsements can have on other prospective candidates. Within political parties, prospective candidates who come up against the chosen individual of the party establishment often feel pressure not to run at all, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes those candidates declare themselves and then withdraw (in the federal riding of Toronto Centre, Liberal Rob Oliphant dropped out to support Bob Rae, and, provincially, former George Smitherman staffer Todd Ross dropped out to support Glen Murray when Murray received Smitherman’s nod) and sometimes we never really learn what might have been (many believe that former Toronto budget chief and Liberal party member Shelley Carroll would have run for mayor if the Liberal establishment hadn’t anointed Smitherman instead).

In other words, we know Scott was the best and most qualified candidate on offer to NDP members Monday night, and may end up being the best candidate the residents of Toronto Danforth get to select from when a by-election is called. We don’t and can’t know if he was the best of all the candidates who may have considered a run. And, after all the other parties have gone through a similar process to pick their candidates, voters will get to choose from the candidates the parties have already chosen, never knowing who else might have been on offer.

Reasonable people will disagree on if this really represents a problem and, if it does, how best to fix it. But we should all at least have a better understanding of the process that goes into becoming an MP, especially if we hope to improve our democracy through voting or other reforms. It’s not as straight forward as simply letting the voters decide.