Knowledge is the cure for our municipal chaos

Knowledge is the cure for our municipal chaos

I don’t blame you if you’ve tuned out city politics and given up on trying to understand the political roller-coaster we’ve been on in Toronto.

Since the dog days of summer, when the provincial government announced plans to cut the number of Toronto’s city councillors in half, I’ve bumped into people from a variety of backgrounds who have thoughts on the size of the city’s municipal government.

When our knowledge about what goes on at city hall is reduced to political talking points, it’s easy to fill the void with misinformation, Shawn Micallef writes.
When our knowledge about what goes on at city hall is reduced to political talking points, it’s easy to fill the void with misinformation, Shawn Micallef writes.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star file photo)

A fair number of them held an opinion somewhere on the spectrum between “that’s no big deal” and “yeah, Toronto probably has too many councillors.” Both sentiments could very well be true, but when I’ve asked them if they’ve ever been to a council meeting or watched one, most had not. Without any personal knowledge of city hall, the “dysfunction” and “gridlock” talking points stuck with them.

Many people see city council in passing, perhaps catching a particularly yelly interaction on the council floor, or bit of councillor grandstanding or perhaps yet another clip of Toronto’s endless transit debate that has been going on for, let me see, 184 years now.

All of this can be frustrating. But without knowing what goes on at city hall beyond those few snippets, it’s easy to fill the void with misinformation, allowing cynicism to grow. Make no mistake: one person’s cynicism is another’s political opportunity.

Everyone’s had a time when they’ve been frustrated with the city. It could be a pothole not being filled, a long wait for the bus, or difficulty signing up for a parks and recreation program. Whatever it is, when somebody says the city is dysfunctional, we’ve each got a built-in emotional trigger that’s caressed. What keeps that trigger from being pulled all the way, of wanting to burn it all down, is an understanding of how the system works

Few of us, however, have the time to follow all of what our three levels of government do, day to day. Work, families and just getting by can fill up a day and then some. Unless you’re a political junkie, where following along is a hobby, it’s work to get an accurate picture of what city hall does.

Even if halving the number of councillors is a good idea, there was no local process followed in coming to this decision, unlike the change from 44 to 47 wards that was supposed to occur this fall. That had years of study and public consultation, but it doesn’t matter when cynicism rules the day. We should all be open to entertaining arguments for reforming and tweaking any level of government, but it absolutely must come from a place of knowledge. That’s where civics comes in.

Right now, Ontario’s high school curriculum only mandates a two-month, half-credit civics course, not nearly enough time to impart a lifelong grasp of government and politics. I teach a first year municipal civics course at the University of Toronto and even with the luxury of eight months, we only scratch the surface of the complexity of it all.

Indeed, it’s my job to understand the city but I often have to research or ask about city hall particulars. It’s maddeningly complex sometimes, but it’s complex, in part, because each of us, and our various needs, makes it complex. Trying to fully understand it will be a lifelong education for me.

With a basic understanding of how it works, a fact-based foundation is created to centre our own decisions on, and we’ll more instinctively know what’s right and wrong. At an early age, we are imprinted with an understanding of how the world works, and kids can grasp complex sports and video games. If we started teaching civics earlier, just as students are beginning to engage with the wider world in early primary school, and sustain it throughout their education, a solid foundation will be laid.

The political roller-coaster we’ve been on is dizzying. I have to keep reminding myself that the rules and playing field of a democratic election, in Canada, were changed midway through. I further have to remind myself that the provincial government was willing to use the “notwithstanding” clause to suspend some of our Charter rights in order to push through what it wanted. Toronto was thrown into chaos, but it’s all perfectly legal under an antiquated system that places Canadian cities under the total control of their respective provincial governments.

A cure for chaos is knowledge. In trying to think beyond this, of how to not let this happen again, I keep coming back to civics. Let’s advocate for a robust program of civics, starting young, and continuing throughout public education.

This should be in everyone’s interest, regardless of political affiliation. If there is resistance to teaching civics, ask why having a clear understanding of how government works and what it does isn’t in the public interest.

Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef

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