“All in favour?”
As hands shot up around the council chamber, a rare enthusiastic consensus was reached in the place where there is often protest from the public.
With a shrunken Toronto council following the surprise, mid-election-campaign cuts by Premier Doug Ford’s government, neighbourhood associations from across the city met collectively for the first time at city hall Saturday. They talked about everything from the benefit of handing out paper flyers in the community to building a citywide network with a stronger collective voice than their individual groups.
The question came from community activist Dave Meslin, who organized the Toronto Neighbourhood Summit, about moving forward with a bigger purpose.
“I’m moving a motion to this informal legislative body of neighbourhood heroes to give me a green light,” Meslin said.
“Not to create a new federation, but to bring forward a proposal at a future summit of what an urban league or a federation of community leagues could look like in the city of Toronto — arm’s length from the city, run by us — with the sole goals of empowering our neighbourhoods, amplifying voices, building bonds between neighbourhood groups, sharing resources and learning new skills.”
The resounding approval — hands raised in the air and much applause — came from representatives from North Toronto to the waterfront and Etobicoke to Scarborough who packed the chamber.
Ahead of the non-binding vote came sessions to learn about how to start a group, how to hold a good meeting and lessons from established city networks like the Urban League of London (Ontario), which acts as an umbrella organization for neighbourhood groups.
Meslin has argued recently, at a new city committee formed to tackle governance issues in the wake of the smaller 25-ward system, for a way to increase citizen participation in decision-making.
Montreal, for example, has 19 elected borough councils, he pointed out in a deputation and New York City has 59 community boards — a lower tier of government responsible for dealing with local issues.
“What we’ve been doing is consistently shrinking the opportunities for citizens to engage in the political process,” he said at the committee in February of the current situation in Toronto. He urged them to explore a lower-tier option.
Attending the summitSaturday, Mayor John Tory pitched those gathered to make room for others in order to build affordable housing and reduce the disparity between communities.
“On one hand we have developers telling us, ‘We just can’t build midrise housing … and on the other hand, we have people in residential neighbourhoods — stable, wonderful successful residential neighbourhoods — who, often very proximate to transit, will say, ‘we really just can’t have any development nearby that transit because it’s too close to our neighbourhood and it will change the character of our neighbourhood,” Tory said.
“Somewhere between those two poles lies the ideal situation and in fact the necessary situation.”
Paul Farrelly, president of the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association, said sharing knowledge of things like development fights or other successful advocacy is also a big reason to come together under one network.
“We can speak more powerfully with one voice … We don’t currently have that,” said Jane Auster, vice-president of the South Eglinton Ratepayers’ and Residents’ Association.
Both said groups need to work to find ways to include renters, who have not traditionally been well represented in associations dominated by homeowners.
The summit came out of a project started by David Topping (now the Star’s newsroom director for newsletters), who created a map of active neighbourhood associations — the Toronto Atlas of Neighbourhood Groups and Organisations (TANGO). It is now managed by Meslin and Rebecca Love.