In the final NOW Magazine of 1997, Glenn Wheeler reflected on a year of extraordinary, fierce and overwhelming grassroots activism. "With democracy suspended by the Tories, passion is the only tool left to citizens," he wrote. "It served Ontario well in 1997, drawing people of all backgrounds and persuasions to a movement so large that it defies definition."
The Progressive Conservative government at Queen's Park, led by Mike Harris, had been taking frequent advantage of its majority status to drive through deeply unpopular legislation. One such law was Bill 103 (City Of Toronto Act, 1997), which would forcibly amalgamate the six municipalities of Metropolitan Toronto into one new megacity.
Public opposition to the plan was immense; the fight against it was spearheaded by a group called Citizens for Local Democracy (C4LD). One of the organization's leaders was John Sewell, who'd been mayor of Toronto from 1978-80, and who in the 1990s was a regular columnist and feature writer for NOW. The other leader was Kathleen Wynne, a professional mediator and parent activist who was simultaneously heading up the parallel fight against the government's severe cuts and reforms to education.
Every Monday at 7:30 pm, C4LD would hold massive public meetings at the Metropolitan United Church at 56 Queen East. Wynne, the conflict resolution expert, would chair.
In late summer that year, Sewell decided against seeking a seat on the new megacity council. For the September 4th issue of NOW (whose cover depicted Sarah Polley, promoting The Sweet Hereafter at TIFF), Sewell explained his thinking.
He and Wynne had entered into a sort of pact, and together they concluded that they could accomplish more by working at the edges of the system than from within it. The above photo accompanied the article.
I began to think I might do better on the outside. That provoked serious talk with my colleagues on the steering committee of Citizens for Local Democracy, where we have come to rely on each other for advice.
What came through loud and clear in our discussions was that C4LD has a significant role to play in the coming months and years. A strong citizen organization is needed to help define issues for the November election, to help voters make reasonable choices when Harris supporters try to disguise their true colours.
And there is much to do beyond that election. The programs Harris has instituted must be ended and unravelled as quickly as possible. Some group needs to create a different agenda with a broad, nonpartisan approach, one that can challenge the Harris approach and replace it. Much work will have to be done with community and other leaders to find the common ground that ensures everyone works together.
C4LD seems like an appropriate group to help with that work. It has many eager people of all political stripes. I suspect they would be ready to help mediate common ground between normally competitive political leaders, and that's certainly needed to move away from the legislation being whisked through the legislature.
Being part of this new direction was enormously attractive to me.
What clinched the matter was the approach taken by Kathleen Wynne, who chairs the Monday meetings. Three years ago, she ran as a school trustee in North Toronto and lost by less than a hundred votes. She has continued her interest in education and in community organizing but decided against trying to gain a seat on the school board, given the way John Snobelen and Bill 104 have taken all power away from the local level.
I knew she had been wondering about running for the megacity council.
"I've come to the conclusion," she said over lunch, after I had returned from spending the month of July in South Africa, "that whatever is going to happen, you and I are going to be doing the same thing - working together."
We would either both run, or not run. It made a lot of sense. Others agreed with this direction and the decision was quickly finalized. The role for Kathleen and myself was not to run for council but to continue working to strengthen a citizen movement in ways that will see the Harris program superseded and replaced.
In the following municipal election, three years and two months later, Wynne handily took the Eglinton-Lawrence seat on the Toronto District School Board.
Another three years after that, Wynne defeated a PC cabinet minister to become the member of provincial parliament for Don Valley West - part of the Dalton McGuinty-led Liberal sweep that pushed the Tories out of government.