I've heard it said before that Torontonians don't seem to care to talk politics. I've always found the opposite, with two caveats: it can't be with strangers, and it can't actually be about Toronto.
That's dangerous, because if average folk don't talk politics, then it's left to the politicians. And despite the rhapsodic press welcome offered to pols attending the third Toronto City Summit (Feb 26 and 27), they don't necessarily have much new to say, David Miller's sensible request for 1 cent of the GST notwithstanding.
In truth, if you subtract climate change guru Amory Lovins, who adds an infectious air of can-do optimism, most of the heavies here at the Metro Convention Centre are underwhelming. No wonder the daily reporters look bored as they trail Miller, MaRS chair John Evans and Stéphane Dion only to hear the same-old: the nation needs to invest in cities, cities need to invest in neighbourhoods, we need a "cultural renaissance." (Double your empty buzzwords, double your fun.)
Who needs a movement when you have spin?
But there are two summits; the other is under the radar, in the network of possibility threading among the 500-some attendees in small, guided free-form discussions or in clusters in the halls.
The format of open workshops following brief panels means the forging of odd alliances. It means, during a session called Investing In The Future, that someone like Don Drummond, chief economist for the TD Bank, ends up at a table not only with my scruffy self but also with Chris Winter of the Conservation Council, Chris Lowry of Green Enterprise Toronto and Tonya Surman of the Centre for Social Innovation.
The format also allows activists to get some insight from the other side on such questions as how to encourage more people to buy hybrid autos.
"They won't do it until the price point is right," Drummond opines before suggesting that the real question is how to make auto manufacturers see them as a real product, not a PR pitch.
"All the big auto parts manufacturers in the northern U.S. pay $12 to $14 an hour with no benefits," Drummond points out during his initial address. "How do you compete with that unless you ramp up your productivity?"
He happily doesn't suggest lowering wages, and of course neither does Labour Council head John Cartwright, from quite a different vantage point. In fact, Cartwright offers that Toronto's economic future lies not only in bigger pay packets but in better social services, higher corporate tax rates, extended producer responsibility legislation, local purchasing policies and worker control. Though he doesn't say it in so many words, the message is clear: wealth generation happens at the bottom, not the top.
But amidst talk of co-operation and innovation, it seems important to maintain some ideological radar. Hazel McCallion, Queen of Mississauga, would "love to have American businesses come up to Canada," but regrets that we "can't make deals." She means that municipal governments in Ontario can't give land or selective tax breaks to corporations. Talk about falling back on the ancient "solution" of wealth transference to the foreign rich.
Similarly, there's renewed, if somewhat hushed, talk of "public-private partnerships," which we used to call "privatization." While it's never included in any report-backs, during table discussions over regional transit funding, the shorthand "P3" is oft overheard wherever city staff or politicians sit.
"It is the rare public leader who can break out of the accepted wisdom without the help of private individuals," says Paul Grogran, CEO of the Boston Foundation, while addressing the final session on Strong Neighbourhoods.
Individuals? Really? I'm a private individual. So are you. I don't think we're who he's talking about, but I'm not sure.
Perhaps we should talk less of private and public and more of power and control. There's a huge difference between, say, Enron and Bullfrog, the latter a small private Ontario outfit that has as its main goal a local, sustainable power grid. I'd also take Bullfrog over the massive, ostensibly public, nuke-happy Ontario Power Generation any day.
If we commit first to taking things to the grassroots, public-private distinctions become much less relevant.
Just as pressing is the rupture forming in the accepted logic of governance, a fact in evidence here. As many point out, in the era of climate change and peak oil, the role of senior governments is changing, and everything is up for questioning (though in truth, of course, it always has been).
Those in power are acknowledging, even asking, the questions - but also framing them, hoping that sustainability generally can mean sustainability of their power specifically. We need to be the ones asking the questions. Or, as one participant puts it, "The time of saying, 'We know what your problems are, and we'll fix them for you' is long past."
So why aren't we all here? For each Toronto resident at the Summit there are over 4,000 somewhere else. That's not to fault the passionate organizers of the Toronto City Summit Alliance - only to ask the question on a fair number of attendees' lips: if this is the Toronto Summit, where's Toronto? Old white folk have a comfortable 10-to-one margin here. Similarly absent are the underprivileged who are supposed to benefit from any "investments" in "the future."
Two quick suggestions: move the summit from Bay and Front, and could we maybe try to fill the speaking roster with local activists before we start inviting Boston executives?
"We have to define 'cultural renaissance,'" says Trevor David, head of the proposed AfriCana Village waterfront museum, during a session. "Is it building a $5 million opera house? Culture should lift all communities. If we don't address the issue of race and culture, we are spinning our wheels."
Add the grassroots and we might just get traction.