Tuesday, October 26, 2010

guest blogger: "common sense, yo. Let's get into it."

hans on the rob ford victory and what it really means for torontonians:


If Facebook had an application that could measure the proportion of anger and rage being expressed in its newsfeeds, last night it would have been on overload. The number of furious curses bewailing Rob Ford’s election as mayor that I saw on my newsfeed was quite staggering. If I were a yoga instructor, today I’d be advertizing special post-election discounts on deep breathing exercises to help Torontonians come to terms with the outcome (and then I’d rope them into 4-year contracts by convincing them it’s the only way they’ll survive till the next election. See I’d be a really great capitalist if I ever had the time to be at it).

Many of those Facebook entries asked the question: “Why, Toronto? Why?? How could you?” (as though 47% of the population had just collectively cheated on the other 53%)

The bigger problem with Monday’s election is not what Toronto did do, but what it didn’t. The very simple reason Rob Ford was elected was that hundreds of thousands of hard-working Torontonians didn’t vote. Not because they didn’t bother, but because they’re not allowed.

Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural cities. Exactly half of its 2.5 million people are not originally from Canada (the percentage is almost as high in the 5.5 million GTA). In 2004, the United Nations reported it had the second-highest foreign-born population of any large city in the world. Such distinctions would normally sound good on a city, indicating its welcoming, cosmopolitan nature. Unfortunately, since Toronto’s public policy has lagged so far behind other multicultural cities, it’s resulted in a city with a two-tier population: one tier of largely Canadian citizens who are fairly well off and get to vote and set city policies; and a second tier of immigrant residents who live predominantly in poverty, work the actual jobs that keep the city functioning, and are not permitted any real say in how the city is governed or how the policies are set which affect their lives (and keep them in poverty).

And ‘poverty’ is not an exaggeration. According to a 2001 study, poverty rates among Toronto’s immigrant population have risen by about 12% in the previous ten years, while average earnings for immigrant workers have dropped by about 21%. And this is despite the fact that the immigrants of today are far more educated and skilled than their predecessors: 59% of immigrants accessing food banks in Toronto had a university or college education, as opposed to the mere 12% of immigrant food bank users with such skills in the mid-1990s. Another study indicated almost 50% of the African, Caribbean and Vietnamese community in Toronto are living at or below the Low-Income Poverty Line. These are the workers struggling through three jobs a day to survive, being exploited by Toronto’s notorious temp agencies that pay them sub-par wages and ignore labor regulations (because the government has cut back on labor enforcement staff/resources), and being killed by companies that ignore safety regulations. They’re the ones most directly affected by public policy, and yet also the ones who can’t vote to change any of it.

In the Facebook fallout following the election, I noticed Smitherman supporters berating Pantalone supporters for not having voted for the candidate with the best chance of defeating Ford. Pantalone supporters angrily shot back that even if they’d all voted for Smitherman, he still wouldn’t have had enough votes to beat Ford.

What nobody seemed to consider, was that if the immigrant resident population of the city was allowed to vote – those who live and work here, but were not born here and don’t have ‘citizenship’ – they number more than the total number of people who voted for ANY candidate, Ford included. The problem is not who people voted for. The problem is who was not allowed to vote.

Would they have made a difference? Probably. Much of Ford’s support came from middle/upper class voters (both Canadian-born as well as those immigrants affluent or lucky enough to be able to get ‘citizenship’). Ford’s campaign was focused on cutting public services and public government. These mildly well-off voters are not the ones who will be affected – as directly – by those cuts. The ones most immediately affected will be those who are living in or near poverty, and who rely on accessible public services simply to survive, not to mention raise their families with a decent standard of living. And they – the most vulnerable and the most affected - are the ones who cannot vote.

But wouldn’t it be ridiculous to just give non-citizens the vote? Well actually no. Until World War II, half the US states extended voting rights to non-citizen residents; it was the combined effects of the Civil War and then the Cold War that fueled the wave of anti-immigrant hysteria which led to more restrictive voting laws in that country. Today, however, more and more countries are realizing how outdated and backward it is not to allow all residents an equal vote. Belgium, Austria, Finland, Denmark, Ireland, and dozens of other countries have opened up municipal elections to non-citizen residents. A growing number of other countries – including Chile, Portugal, Sweden, Uruguay and New Zealand – allow non-citizen residents to vote in national and regional elections too. If Toronto is indeed the world’s most multicultural city, it’s time for it to stop being at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to public policy and basic rights for its multicultural population.

Countries have come up with all sorts of reasons for denying people the right to vote over the centuries, and they’ve all been equally silly (and equally tragic). They all reflect efforts by people who’ve got a little tiny slice of wealth or power, and don’t want to share it with their neighbours. So they come up with silly reasons not to allow them to vote. People have been forbidden to vote because they’re black, because they’re Jewish, because they don’t have enough money in their bank account, because they don’t own property, because they’re women, because they’re married, because they’re Protestant, because they’re Catholic, because they’re aboriginal, because they’re not aboriginal, because they’re aboriginal but married to a non-aboriginal, because they’re Muslim, because they’re not Muslim, because they didn’t serve in the military, because they don’t own horses, and now, of course, because they were born somewhere other than the place where they live. THEY’RE ALL SILLY. If you live somewhere, and work somewhere, then you deserve the right to have a say in how that place is governed and how the place functions. That’s what we refer to as ‘common sense’ in the biz.

Mind you, Toronto isn’t the first large city to rely on having a second-class working population, deprived of basic rights, in order to make the city function for its first-class elites. They’re not the first, and sadly they probably won’t be the last. Rome required quite a large population of slaves to make the city function. The United States used ‘convict leasing’ (arresting blacks on trumped-up charges and then ‘renting’ them out as slaves) to rebuild the southern US economy after the Civil War (since slavery was considered technically illegal but economically vital). South Africa built itself on apartheid, and Canada pioneered the infamous ‘Live-In Caregiver’ program whereby predominantly Filipina women work in slavery-like conditions for middle/upper class ‘Canadian’ families. It’s little wonder the federal Conservatives are so terrified of refugees arriving, given all their efforts to create programs like the LCP, seasonal agricultural worker program, and other initiatives designed to bring foreigners to Canada to work in slavery-like conditions. And the more Canada comes to rely on, and legitimize the use of, a workforce of second-class residents deprived of basic rights, the more it lines itself up alongside the other infamous racist states of history that were built on a foundation of slavery and exploitation.

Is it dramatic to draw these analogies? Hardly. The Toronto Police openly admit to racially profiling Torontonians to keep its poverty-stricken (read: visible minority) community in line. Not much those people can do about it: they can’t even vote. There may not be chains and manacles. But to be denied a voice in the city you live and work in, is to be denied the basic freedom that we shouldn’t still have to be fighting for in the 21st century.

So Toronto, don’t berate yourself...at least not over things that aren’t the real problem. If Smitherman had been elected, things probably wouldn’t be any different for the hundreds of thousands of people of Toronto who are disenfranchised and deprived of these most basic rights. You think YOU were angry after you took the time and trouble to go out and vote, and then Ford gets elected anyway? Well imagine how it must have felt to those who had to sit back and watch the entire slow-motion train wreck which was the Toronto election, knowing the entire time that you wouldn’t even have the right to so much as cast a ballot.

I moved to this city barely a year ago and I was able to go out and vote for candidates I don’t have a clue about, on the basis of pamphlets that talked about things I’d never seen or heard about. Meanwhile, the neighbors on either side of me have lived in this city for over 30 years, own houses, run businesses, have families, and can recite municipal bylaws off the top of their heads. But because they're from Portugal and I'm from Newfoundland, I can vote and they can’t.

Common sense, yo. Let’s get into it.

So forget about ‘strategic voting’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Let’s spend the next four years working to ensure that all Torontonians have the basic right to vote. Then the people who are actually most affected by the policies that the rest of us spend our time arguing about, will finally have a chance to participate in that conversation too. And then maybe we’ll see some real change.

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