(I Can’t Get No) CivicAction

It's influential. It means well. But what does it do?


On a warm spring day late last month, 650 “civic leaders” packed the subterranean ballroom at the northeast corner of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for CivicAction’s 2015 summit, the day-long Better City Bootcamp. Business people, activists, government officials and labour representatives come out on a search for solutions to some of the region’s most pressing issues: seniors’ housing, mental health, childhood nutrition, infrastructure needs and the availability of public space.

I’m here seeking answers to a simpler question: What does CivicAction… do?

The organization, founded in 2002 as the Toronto City Summit Alliance, certainly seems to have a lot of clout and has served as a launching pad and way-stop for political careers. Mayor John Tory chaired it from 2010 until he entered the municipal election in February 2014. Scarborough-Guildwood MPP Mitzie Hunter served as its CEO from late 2011 until she won as the Liberal candidate in an August 2013 by-election.

It’s connected and respected. And by all appearances, it means well and advances worthwhile causes.

But none of those answer the question, and on this morning, the elite-studded ballroom is a hazy nebula of power and good intentions.

Certainly, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt doesn’t know.

“I did take a look at your agenda before I came in, and I know that you’re expecting the balanced-budget, low-tax talk,” she opens her remarks, “which you will get, trust me, that’s okay, just hold on for it.”

I may not be precisely clear on what CivicAction does, but I’m fairly confident that no one came to the summit to hear Conservative talking points. Nevertheless, the Halton MP launches into a shapeless partisan ramble about the excellence of the federal budget and how other parties would hurt taxpayers by opposing Conservative measures. By the time she raises “the threat of jihadist terrorism,” it’s not at all obvious where she thinks she is, and it becomes embarrassing for everyone.

“And now to the part of the speech that separates my party and my government from the rest of the opposition parties,” Raitt says after 15 minutes of talking up the budget.

People groan, yet she keeps going for another six minutes, Elizabeth May sadly not around to drag her off.

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Jonathan Goldsbie

Mayor John Tory and Councillor Joe Cressy were the only members of council to attend.

In a media availability with Mayor Tory, Sun reporter Don Peat finds a polite way to put the question of what it is, exactly, that his former group does.

“How do you explain to people,” Peat asks, “how CivicAction actually helps their everyday lives?”

Tory’s answer runs almost 300 words, as Tory’s answers often do, but he essentially explains that it’s a forum where governments, corporations, unions and academic institutions can put aside their differences and work together to advance issues that affect them all.

“CivicAction is an organization – because it’s non-partisan, because it is not involved in business, it’s not involved in politics, it’s not one party or another, it’s not a labour union – [that] actually has developed over time the credibility to bring all those people together and actually sit down together and have a talk.”

He cites an occasion when he “sat at the same table as an anti-poverty activist, a banker, a university professor, a CEO of a business” to discuss transit.

“And because CivicAction is trusted as a group that has no axe to grind,” he says, “they can bring those people together, and out of that can come really terrific progress on these issues that confront us, whether it be mental health, whether it be transit, or whether it be housing.”

CivicAction undoubtedly does the discussion part well. As I pop my head into each of the various afternoon break-out sessions focused on the five key issues, I indeed see groups as diverse as promised sitting around tables and hammering out ideas.

Jane Farrow, the activist and former broadcaster, facilitates one of these sessions, and helpfully explains to me that CivicAction views the event as a sort of crowdsourced strategic planning session. The summits are held quadrennially and shape the organization’s direction through the intervening years.

It’s a legitimately creative method for deciding how to steer the group’s organizational heft, and has produced such initiatives as the Race to Reduce, a “friendly corporate challenge” to encourage a reduction in energy consumption by commercial office towers, and the confusing Your 32 campaign to promote dedicated funding for regional transit projects – the “32” referring to the minutes of daily commuting time that each person would theoretically save if the province’s 25-year Big Move transportation plan were fully constructed. 

Through its Emerging Leaders Network, CivicAction also runs the DiverseCity Fellows program (spun off from a partnership with the Maytree Foundation) that connects, trains and provides mentorship for “emerging leaders who reflect the diversity of the region.”

Good stuff, if not exactly in line with the regional-mover-and-shaker image the group cultivates for itself.

CivicAction claims in press materials that its highest-profile success, the annual Luminato arts festival launched in 2007, “attracts 1 million tourists each year.” Surely we’d notice, however, if Toronto’s population swelled by a third each June from visitors apparently drawn to English Canada’s premier showcase for, uh, experimental oratorios. Like CivicAction as a whole, Luminato is characterized by a reputation and resources that are disproportionate to the average person’s ability to explain its mission.

CivicAction’s most promising recent initiative, for example, is one of which you’ve likely never heard. 

Escalator: Jobs for Youth Facing Barriers connects marginalized young people to employment by leveraging partnerships with LinkedIn and NPower to expose hidden job markets and offer technology training, respectively. In attempting to wring a social-justice benefit from the LinkedIn platform, Escalator is perhaps the most CivicAction thing CivicAction has ever done – daring you to be cynical in the face of a potential, and unexpected, force for good.

But at the Better City Bootcamp, it’s tough to drop the cynicism for too long. 

While Mayor Tory may have to recuse himself from Island-airport-related matters at Council, there’s nothing to prevent him from drawing the winner of a contest for a free roundtrip flight on Porter Airlines.

The lucky recipient? A former CivicAction staffer now working in Mitzie Hunter’s office.

jonathang@nowtoronto.com | @goldsbie

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