After years of cuts and attacks, former Toronto Mayor John Tory won’t be missed. However, Tory’s resignation alone doesn’t solve the crises of skyrocketing rent, police violence, crumbling transit lines, poverty, and the other effects of decades of austerity, across the city.
John Tory won’t be missed
Last month, former Toronto Mayor John Tory announced his resignation, after admitting to a relationship with a much-younger staff member. After hiring a crisis communications firm and even setting up a “war room,” to manage the scandal, Tory eventually decided it was best to step down and “reflect.”
Much of the corporate media took this chance to defend Tory’s reputation and his “legacy,” of “decency,” “stability,” and “rectitude.” In reality, from his time in the backroom of Bill Davis’ viciously anti-union Progressive Conservative cabinet, to his tenure as PC leader, to his mayoral stint, Tory’s lifework has been to victimize those below him.
As Progressive Conservative leader, Tory campaigned against minimum wage increases, for Social Assistance cuts, for privatized healthcare, and for police attacks on Indigenous land defenders. As Toronto’s mayor, elected in 2014, Tory worked tirelessly to defend profits and attack workers and the left. Tory’s budgets routinely underfunded Toronto’s ambulances and transit, submitted firefighters to “value for money” audits, and promoted “labour savings,” across Toronto’s workforce. Elsewhere, Tory demonized Black Lives Matter falsely for making “implied threats of violence,” while giving the police massive budget hikes and an effective free hand to brutalize the city’s homeless. This is Tory’s real “legacy.”
Transit on the brink of collapse
Over the 20 years since the Harris Progressive Conservatives downloaded the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) onto the city, the system has endured constant cuts. Today, some parts of the transit line are reportedly held together only by duct tape.
Yet, the cuts continue. After cutting over $570 million in 2020, Tory’s 2023 budget increased fares and extended maximum wait times substantially. As the TTC is already more dependent on fares and other user fees than nearly any other transit system in the industrialized world, these cuts will be disastrous.
On top of fare hikes, Tory’s TTC administration has been emboldened to expand its “revenue protection,” strategy, by hiring police and “fare inspectors,” to harass, criminalize workers and community members for “fare evasion.” Despite several reported cases of fare inspectors beating, bloodying and pepper-spraying transit riders, the program’s budget has risen while overall transit funding fell.
The fine for transit infractions, now over $400, is significantly higher than most other bylaws (parking violations, for example, come with a $40 fine). The difference is that fares weigh more heavily on workers and the poor, who are more likely to depend on transit than millionaires like John Tory and the TTC executives.
While these bureaucrats call “fare evasion,” theft, they’ve spent years cutting funding for transit and programs and demand the rest of us pay for their funding cuts, their handouts, and their bloated salaries. These fines are, in short, about shaking down the poor, to cover the cuts and perks demanded by the rich. And, they must be fought.
The worsening housing crisis
Rising transit costs, enforced by the police, are only one of the things squeezing workers and youth across Toronto. Enabled by John Tory, surging rents—averaging over $2400 monthly—are driving more and more into poverty and homelessness.
Companies like Starlight Investments, one of Toronto’s largest landlords, have taken advantage of legal loopholes to increase their “rent turnover,”—pushing out longer-term tenants with evictions, service cuts, and fire code violations to evade rent control and hike costs. As one Starlight executive said: “This is where landlords have been getting double digit rent growth.”
Toronto’s other major landlords—CAPREIT,Morguard, Killam, Minto, InterRent, Boardwalk—have also maintained steady profit throughout the pandemic by increasing their turnovers and evictions (by as much as by 59 per cent) and implementing massive rent hikes. Curiously, Toronto city council hasn’t vowed to crack down on “rent control evasion.”
Meanwhile, Tory and city council continued to cut social housing. Decades of cuts to the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s (TCHC) budget have led to thousands of unit closures. By the city’s own metrics, the TCHC is one of the most hazardous landlords in the city. Internal projections by the TCHC anticipate more cuts will come—as its capital repair budget will be “unfunded” by $76.5 million by 2026. This will lead to more evictions and leave more tenants desperate.
Poverty amid plenty
Toronto is by far the wealthiest city in Canada. Yet, 133,000 children are also growing up in poverty. The city has a substantial unemployment rate of six per cent and a youth unemployment rate of 15.7 per cent and up to 28 per cent for Black youth.
Beyond those statistics, the city has seen an unignorable explosion in tent cities and food banks. As of June 2022, 171,631 households in Toronto depended on food banks every month, up from 60,000, pre-pandemic. While the city’s shelters were already bursting at the seams—with most sites operating at above 90 per cent capacity every night—homelessness is also rising sharply.
Overall, the city’s Shelter Support And Housing Administration observed a net increase in Toronto’s “chronic homeless,” population from 2020-22 of 500, even as the weekly homeless death rate rose 53 per cent between 2020-21.
But more police will lead to more violence against the poor and those from marginalized groups.
A number of current and former Toronto politicians have been floated as potential candidates to replace Tory.
As the Ontario Human Rights Commission observed in 2020: “police shootings were most likely to take place in larger urban communities with high Black populations and high levels of poverty and socioeconomic inequality.” Elsewhere, Toronto police data have found that most of those killed by the TPS “involve individuals described as being in a mental health crisis.”
This budget will only increase the sense of desperation that, at bottom, massively increases the violence across the city. These funds will not house anyone, will not reduce poverty or unemployment, support those who need help, or make life more affordable. It will do nothing to keep people safe—but it may embolden and increase police violence, which rose 25 per cent last year, and further endanger workers and the poor.
Tory’s successors signal little change
Supported by right-wing campaign consultants, Beaches East York councilor Brad Bradford has suggested that, if he runs, he will strive to continue Tory’s legacy—but “faster.”
Former Davenport councilor Ana Bailão has also threatened to return from her work in the real estate industry—to cut “red tape,” for real estate developers.
However, so far, the only candidate who has declared his intent to run is former city planner Gil Peñalosa. Peñalosa’s 2022 campaign, though eccentric, differed little from Tory’s. His pledges—from “investigating,” the laws around renovictions to cracking down on “outdated,” police horses—would do little to help workers and youth. And, they responded with due indifference.
Labour must lead
Similarly, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council has endorsed Tory’s resignation. But it has said little else. While noting that Toronto is facing an “affordability crisis,” and other “emergencies,” its statement offers few concrete plans to fight for workers:
“Toronto badly needs stable, democratic, and progressive leadership—right now…Working people are feeling squeezed right now. They want leadership they can trust to make Toronto a livable city for all. They want to know that they can get to work and school safely, that child care and recreation will be available when they need it, that Toronto’s deterioration can be reversed, that they can enjoy the pleasures of life in a big city, regardless of their household income. The Labour Council will continue to press all municipal leaders and aspiring leaders to commit to progressive solutions for these issues through transparent, democratic governance at City Hall.”
Despite what the council’s statement suggests, Toronto City Council is a remarkably stable body. As we’ve noted above, between Tory and his likely successors, there are very few appreciable differences. If these representatives of the status quo remain stable, we can expect rents and evictions to rise further, homelessness and poverty to increase and cuts to continue.
Labour Council’s demand, further, that city budgets should reflect the needs of all “regardless of income,” will never and can never be realized. Capitalism divides the city into capitalists and workers—those who live off profit and those who live by working. The capitalists increase their wealth by cutting jobs and wages, evading taxes, hiking prices, hiking rents, and more. They are rich because we are struggling. Workers, in Toronto and elsewhere, are struggling because the capitalists are free—and empowered by city council and the police—to hike rents, evict, hike prices and cut jobs and wages.
There is no way to serve both rich and poor “regardless of income.” And, the legacy of the “progressive,” Toronto mayoral candidates who have promised to do so, with the labour council’s support, offer instructive examples.
For example, former Toronto mayor David Miller—recently dubbed by CBC News as Toronto’s last “progressive,” mayor—was elected in 2003 with support from Toronto’s unions. Soon after, however, Miller partnered with Bay Street and set up an “Economic Competitiveness Advisory Committee,” to find new tax and spending cuts and user fees. “We’re Toronto’s financial capital and we need to grow that to be a financial capital that can compete,” he said.
In the summer of 2009, Miller attempted to place the burden of the city’s financial crisis on the backs of Toronto civic workers—forcing them too to strike.
Elsewhere, Miller massively increased Toronto’s police budget and endorsed a “surge policing” program in poor neighbourhoods, allowed TCHC housing to further deteriorate, and banned the city’s homeless from sleeping in public (via a “little nudge,” from the police).
In the long run, this paved the way for Rob Ford’s ultra-reactionary 2010 victory and for Tory’s reactionary reign thereafter.
The wealth exists
Toronto’s social housing units and transit lines are collapsing owing to years of austerity measures, workers are increasingly made homeless and left to die on the city’s streets, and more and more children are living in poverty. Supposedly, this is a result of a fiscal crunch or a lack of money for the programs workers need. At one of his last public statements, Tory warned the federal government that, owing to costs accrued “to deal with the consequences of the pandemic,” and a number of other structural factors, the city’s cupboards are bare. Accordingly, he warned, city council will have to consider “reductions to our capital budget which will eliminate thousands of jobs and threaten our economic recovery.”
This drive goes beyond Tory and his ilk though. Mayors and mayoral candidates endorsed by the city’s unions have used similar arguments to justify cuts before too. Most recently, in her failed 2014 campaign, former NDP MP Olivia Chow sought to appease Bay Street by vowing to accept the “free enterprise system,” and govern as a “fiscal conservative.”
One problem is that Toronto’s main revenue stream is, on paper, property taxes. Past agreements between federal and provincial governments and municipalities set this, for historical reasons, as the main means of funding services. Very often, the negligible differences between “left,” and right, at the municipal level, is limited to a debate between higher or lower property taxes.
But there’s no reason why the labour movement should accept these terms.
For one, these tax schemes leave control squarely in the hands of capital. These taxes do not stop private landlords from evicting, sabotaging and undermining the safety of their tenants. These schemes also fail to stop bosses from cutting jobs or wages. They ultimately cannot solve the crises of the system.
Property taxes are also effectively a flat tax, imposed on property values. With Canada’s massive housing bubble, property values are rising and a layer of speculators are becoming very rich.
But there are many working class and middle class people who also own property. They would take an effective pay cut if rates are to be increased to the massive level needed to fund housing, transit and other services. Or, if placed on landlords, these taxes can and are regularly passed on as rent hikes.
These terms should not be accepted.
Toronto itself has more than enough money. The city is home to 116,100 millionaires and 17 billionaires. The companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, on Bay Street, have a combined market cap of $4.3 trillion. Toronto’s Real Estate sector is also hugely lucrative, delivering billions in profits to landlords and speculators every year. The problem is that this wealth is not being taken and directed to fund the programs working class people need.
Fight for socialism
It is, to be frank, scandalous that the labour movement has offered no leadership in the fight to defend working class jobs, lives, and communities. With over 220,000 union members in the city, the organizations of the labour movement have the power to mobilize to lead a serious fight to defend working class communities.
This will require putting forward a socialist campaign and socialist representatives, rather than liberal, reformist or “progressive,” ones. There is no way, fundamentally, to represent everyone “regardless of income.”
The fight against the crises workers and youth face will mean taking the wealth of society that is currently being squandered by landlords, speculators, the financial sector and the bosses and direct it to the things working class people need.
The only way to fight the eviction wave, the housing crisis, the rising cost of living, and police terror is by putting forward a socialist campaign, open to workers and youth in all communities. That will mean a mass mobilization, beyond any electoral race, to overturn past austerity measures, including the downloading of services.
The fight to defend workers and youth is a fight for socialism.
This is the leadership labour must offer. John Tory is leaving, now is the time to bury his legacy.