Say what you like about the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, but never suggest that Cathy Crowe and her band of homeless advocates don't know a thing or two about hijacking political agendas.The TDRC activists have become masters of the art. And they put their talents to good use at City Hall this week soon after the cops had stormed Tent City Tuesday morning, September 24, to forcibly evict more than 100 squatters living in the contaminated shantytown near the intersection of Lakeshore and Cherry.
It was supposed to be a big day at 100 Queen West as council's planning and transportation committee began a marathon meeting to hear deputations on the city's controversial Official Plan. More than 100 Toronto residents (none of them denizens of Tent City) had registered with the city clerk to make their feelings known to politicians concerning the visionary planning document that's supposed to lay the groundwork for 30 years' worth of growth and development in these parts.
But a few names on the speakers' list were getting some special attention from the crowd, and members of the media gathered in the chilly council chamber.
Jane Jacobs, the 86-year-old urban philosopher who's long been considered a planning guru hereabouts, was in the number-four slot. Barbara Hall -- former mayor of the old city of Toronto and perhaps future mayor of the new one, had drawn the number-13 position. And, lo and behold, if Mayor Mel Lastman didn't put in an extraordinary appearance before the committee to laud the work that chief planner Paul Bedford and his staff have put into the OP over the course of the past four years.
"I've had my differences with Paul Bedford and I've had my differences with other staff," the mayor confessed. But in spite of all the disagreements, "I'm here to tell you that I strongly support this plan," Lastman said.
The mayor then launched into a speech that may rank as one of his best in recent memory. He talked about his new-found appreciation for public transit. He focused on the need for managed municipal growth and the protection of established neighbourhoods. He went on about environmental responsibility and good corporate citizenship and the need to create decent housing for the hundreds of thousands of people who will come here to live in the next three decades.
"Council should support this Official Plan because it's the right thing to do," Lastman said.
The mayor even took the opportunity to acknowledge Jane Jacobs and to thank her for coming to the meeting. She responded by endorsing the "very sophisticated" Official Plan as "just about the most helpful thing that has happened to this city since the bad business of amalgamation."
Mel Lastman and Jane Jacobs reading from the same page in the urban planning handbook? Minds were boggled.
Alas, while the mayor was doing all he could to create himself a belated legacy of leadership, members of the Toronto police service were clearing the way for bulldozers to clean out the site where Home Depot wants to erect one of its big-box building-supply superstores. By the time Barbara Hall got her time at the podium, Cathy Crowe was leading a delegation of the suddenly displaced toward City Hall to confront Lastman and demand action on the homelessness crisis that he declared a national disaster more than four years ago -- about the same time preparation of the OP began.
The planning and transportation committee meeting was supposed to be something of a coming-out for Hall, who has long been "considering" another run for megacity mayor next year to avenge her narrow loss to Lastman in 1997.
"This truly qualifies as one of the most important crossroads in our history," she said of the Official Plan. But three times during a speech that ran about seven minutes, the would-be mayoralty candidate took shots at the folks who've had their hands on the municipal helm these past five years.
First, Hall asked: "Where is the thoughtful political leadership?" Later, she advised: "It's time for political leaders to step up and offer clear, thoughtful explanations." And she concluded: "The fulfillment of our city's evolution requires political leadership and strong citizen participation -- not just planning directives."
The gloves may not have come all the way off. But Hall came closer than ever to signalling that she's ready for another electoral battle.
Unfortunately for the former mayor, she had just walked away from the microphone when Cathy Crowe and her considerable crowd, having failed to get a meeting with Lastman, disembarked from the council chamber elevators and took up positions in the public gallery. Suddenly, concerns raised by well-funded ratepayers associations about townhouses and low-rise apartments being allowed on the same streets as detached houses seemed much overblown and very unimportant.
"One hundred people have just lost their homes, and you're planning?" Beric German, a TDRC spokesperson shouted. "Well, plan to get them a home."
Councillor Gerry Altobello, the committee chair, would have nothing to do with that request.
"This is a planning and transportation committee meeting, and we're dealing with the Official Plan," he said. "We have a list of speakers and we're going to continue going through that list of speakers."
But no such luck.
"Mel will meet with the Hell's Angels. Why won't he meet with us?" German wanted to know.
"Tell the police to back off," Crowe demanded as her delegation began to chant in unison behind her.
"Shame, shame, shame."
The protestors eventually agreed to leave the council chamber for a meeting with Shirley Hoy, the city's chief administrative officer, and the planning and transportation committee returned to its list of deputants.
But by then, the Official Plan had been reduced to a footnote on the evening news and the Tent City evictions were poised to get the big headlines in the morning papers.