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With sweeping service cuts looming at City Hall, hundreds of people gathered Saturday to draft a "People's Declaration" against Rob Ford's cost-cutting agenda in the most organized mass community action since the mayor's budget process began.
Torontonians from across the city spent five hours in Dufferin Grove Park devising a list of priorities for their communities and then combining them into the declaration, the message of which was simple: city services like daycares, libraries, and HIV/AIDS outreach are vital to the life of citizens, and they need to be maintained.
"We reject all hikes to user fees and all cuts," the declaration read. "Our city is growing and service levels are already insufficient. We demand that city council do their job and lobby higher levels of government to ensure stable funding to expand services in this city."
In a summer that has already seen the "people's filibuster" at an all-night meeting of the executive committee at City Hall, Saturday's Stop Ford's Cuts rally was another milestone for a progressive movement that has been galvanized by the mayor's seeming willingness to make drastic reductions in services next year in order to fill a projected $774 million budget shortfall.
"Today was an amazing success," said Jenny Peto of Toronto Stop the Cuts. "People came together and had real discussions about the issues, and came up with some really great demands to city council. This was a historic meeting."
Although organizers had complained that the city parks department decided to shut down recreational programming in Dufferin Grove while the event took place, in the end that had little effect on how many people turned out to the meeting or to simply to enjoy the late summer sunshine in the park. Estimates on the number of attendees varied, but Peto said her group had distributed all 1000 information packages they had put together.
Over the course of the afternoon, participants divided themselves into 19 groups according to their neighbourhood or area of interest, such as public health, transit, libraries, and immigrant services. Each group then sent one delegate into a smaller group to draft the declaration.
Unlike previous anti-Ford events, this wasn't just a collective venting of anger at the mayor's policies, but a large-scale and inclusive attempt to articulate an alternative vision.
"I found it was really powerful and really well organized," said Suzanne Narain, who participated in the working group representing the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. "We joined with the Rexdale group and talked about the issues that are facing both of our communities, because we're some of the most marginalized in the city."
Narain said her group was most concerned with potential cuts to libraries, youth programs, and social housing.
Toronto Stop the Cuts will present the "people's declaration" to the mayor at the executive committee meeting on September 19, and there is a large rally planned at City Hall on September 26, the day council will convene to debate Ford's budget. A final vote will come in January.
Since Ford began releasing results of his core service review in July, councillors have been asked to consider cutting costs by doing everything from eliminating Toronto's water fluoridation program to ending $47 million in community programs, scrapping the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, closing libraries, and selling the zoo.
The mayor has so far refused to commit to any specific cuts, but on Monday morning at the Scarborough Civic Centre his budget chief and city manager will finally release a report that is expected to reveal which services the mayor intends to give the axe.
While there has been a growing public backlash about the budget process, it's unclear if Ford has lost the support on council that he will need in order to push it through. Progressive councillor Mike Layton made an appearance at Saturday's rally, and he believes councillors who have supported the mayor before are thinking twice about giving him their votes again.
"I think his support is dwindling. His campaign promise of no cuts has been broken," Layton said. "There is a sense that people are slowly dropping off. The murmuring in the halls is, we didn't sign up for this, and our constituents aren't impressed and they won't elect us again if we go along."