Category: Municipal Politics

Mastering the Paris Transit System

The highlight of our recent visit to Paris was, for me at least, two bus rides I took towards the end of our five-week trip. As a student in Paris over fifty years ago (is it really fifty years?), the Paris subway system seemed marvellously extensive and, to my mind, had to be one of the best in the world. Then, it was so easy, and I took it for granted.

Not this trip. This time, I found that using Paris public transit in my mid-seventies was a significant challenge and a disturbing mark of my aging. As the weeks of our visit passed, my mood was affected by my reaction to Parisian public transit. I found myself dreaming about crowded buses and endless trips on the Métro. And thinking that this city was too big for me.

Unlike in Toronto (where public transit has become child’s play for politicians, sabotaged by years of political interference), public transit in a truly world-class city like Paris is a rapidly expanding complex venture which is constantly changing and appears to be based on a rational assessment of public needs. In Paris, now, there are 16 Métro subway lines, five RER rapid transit train lines, two trams, and endless bus routes. All snake across the city, intersect at some stations but not at others, and are accessible using some tickets but not others. All are well-used. Learning how this system works and how to use it safely is a major challenge.

We initially decided to use the buses which ran up a major street not far from our 14th Arrondissement apartment. We know that buses are slow, subject to the congestion of the streets, and often crowded. But they seemed to go more or less directly to places that we wanted to visit. And since we were visitors with no particular deadlines, when we arrived was of little concern, and we could enjoy the sight-seeing en route.

Alas, different buses on the same street have different stops, and the official schedule (which is indicated at each stop) is more aspiration than reality. When one must wait too long, there is no choice but to take a cab or search for the nearest Métro stop. On one bus ride, there was some sort of demonstration on the street and, without prior notice, the bus driver just abandoned his route and dumped all the riders several blocks from where we wanted to go. As we walked to the Musée d’Orsay that morning, my husband swore that he would never again take a Parisian bus.

Buses also seemed to be dominated by older people, many with disabilities, some in wheelchairs and many young mothers with children in strollers. There is a reason for that. The subway system is comprehensive, relatively reliable, and in the process of being upgraded everywhere with the occasional rolling sidewalk, new security doors, escalators, and signage.

Notwithstanding these obvious improvements, we became acutely aware of the demands that the Paris Métro makes on its users. The Métro is built using long tunnels linking one line to another and using many steps, often on several steep staircases. For someone with mobility issues, using a cane or walking stick, or pushing a baby stroller, the Métro is decidedly difficult. We became very conscious of which Métro stations had escalators and where they were located. Elevators appeared to be non-existent. The stairs on the Métro became a factor which favoured the buses.

Another complexity of the Paris Métro system is the size of the stations and the variety of exits (sorties) provided. At Châtelet-les-Halles, for example, there are at least ten different sorties, some of which are accessible not in the station itself but via the nearby Les Halles shopping mall. The direction of the sorties is marked but finding them may require consulting the maps posted on the walls or help from one of the many English-speaking “volunteers” there to assist visitors like us. Going out the wrong sortie can put you a long distance away from where you want to go. Nobody wants to walk outside at length under a hot summer sun.

Since the RER lines were built after most Métro lines, RER stations will not necessarily be at exactly the same place as the Métro station with the same name. Everything is marked, but visitors have to be alert to the signage and take the time to follow it precisely. Miss the correct signage, and you will find yourself going on the wrong subway line, or the wrong direction on a Métro or the RER.

Learning to use the more modern and accessible light rail RER lines is a major step forward. The RER lines extend across the City and far into the exurban suburbs. The RER line we used when we lived in France thirty years ago goes from Saint-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse in La Vallée de Chevreuse to the west of Paris all the way to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the east. A “new” (to me) RER line now extends to Versailles Rive Gauche, a short walk to the palace and its gardens.

In the city, the RER lines act as an express train, stopping at fewer stops than the Métro and crossing the same area much more quickly and comfortably. So long as one’s route is in the city, the same ticket applies and there is no additional cost. It is more expensive if one is using the RER to go out of the city. To go from downtown to CDG airport, for example, costs about 10 Euros each way, but that cost covers all your Métro transport on that trip within the city itself. To get from downtown to St. Rémy costs 5.8 Euros. To go to Versailles costs 3 something Euros. If you are spending the day travelling the RER and the Métro, a day pass is cheaper than two one-way fares.

Clearly, those familiar with Parisian public transport use the RER system a lot. On our last day there, we used the Métro and the RER to go all the way from CDG to the Tuileries (near the Louvre) and back using a day pass. Each trip took less than 45 minutes (even with one change between the Métro and the RER and the need to use a long moving sidewalk at the exchange). Most of the way, it was comfortable and uncrowded.

In addition to the buses, the Métro, and the RER, Paris now also has at least two tram lines which are modern and accessible. I travelled on the T3A line from Pont du Garigliano near the Bois de Boulogne in the west to Porte de Vincennes in the east, and then on the T3B line from Vincennes to the new symphonic theatre at Parc de la Villette in the 19th Arrondissement in the northeast. That line extends further around the north of Paris all the way west to the Porte d’Asnières near Clichy. These are comfortable new light rapid transit lines which are above ground, have frequent stops, connect at no additional cost to the bus system, and provide public transit to more distant suburbs where the density of population does not warrant underground Métro service. They are also designed to accommodate crowds and wheelchairs.

The Paris trams are precisely what was planned and funded for Scarborough eons ago. In Toronto, they got scuttled by Rob Ford and other politicians of all persuasions who continually put their own interests above the needs of the public. Toronto imposed an extra 1% tax on everyone to pay for the extended Scarborough line and still squabbles about the nature of what should be built. While we have nothing, Parisians enjoy the use of their modern new trams in a timely fashion. 

The final weekend I was in Paris, I mastered the bus system. After visiting the new L’Institut du Monde Arabe, located near the Seine and east of Nôtre Dame, I found a bus stop (#89) right there which went to the Porte de France, a station on the new tram line. I knew that the bus which runs right near our apartment (#62) also went to the Porte de France. So I caught the #89. For my single ticket which cost 1.9 Euro, I rode to the end of the line, discovering many interesting new developments east of the massive National Library en route. I then transferred free of charge onto the #62 to take me back to the apartment. For much of the time, I had the bus to myself. When I didn’t, I was obviously the only non-local on the bus, and my fellow travellers were very helpful ensuring the I got off at the correct stop. I felt that I was back in the Paris that I once knew well.

It was apparent throughout all our use of the Parisian public transit that the French will always give up their seats (on the bus, Métro, RER or tram) to anyone who is disabled, using a cane or even just older. On the single occasion when this did not happen almost instantly, I was in a very crowded tram, confused about where to pay using my ticket (rather than the passes locals use) and rather abruptly asked a young teenage boy for his seat. He got up complaining about “the pushy American” who thinks she can take his seat. A French woman watching the incident admonished him that his complaints were totally unjustified; as a Frenchman, he should have given up his seat voluntarily. 

A related incident occurred at the beautiful Sainte-Chapelle on Isle de la Cité. I was sitting beside several young anglophone tourists who occupied five of the twenty or so chairs set up down one side of the chapel. An older, grey-haired French woman stopped in front of them and in polite French asked if she could have a seat. The girls stared blindly, did not move, and the senior went on her way. The youngest then turned to her companions and said that she did not understand what the woman had said. When I told them that she was asking for them to give her a seat, the five were embarrassed, got up and left. Clearly, it takes a village….




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Response to the Political Scene in Ontario

Thanksgiving has come and gone, the leaves are in glorious colour, and the air is crisp. It’s a new school year, a new season of theatre, concerts and ballet, a Jewish new year. Like many others, it is also time for me to think of new directions ahead.

For months I have been overcome with an all-pervasive gloom which has left me anxious, dispirited, and anything but effervescent. I attribute it in part to the dismal political scene. The United Kingdom is in an existential crisis which has no obvious solution. In the United States, Trump and his Republican toadies continue undermining traditional American values, conventions and institutions in the name of what? Social conservatism? The wealthy who benefit from his tax cuts? The drama of dysfunctionality? The mid-term Congressional elections loom with the possibility of some improvement, but who knows?

Most discouraging has been the irrational Trumpism demonstrated by Doug Ford’s vindictive interference in the current Toronto municipal election. I come from a province which has had some wacky premiers. W.A.C. Bennett comes to mind, and Bill Vander Zalm. But even they never showed such contempt for the conventions of our democracy, nor for the opinions of voters, as did Ford in his recent actions.

To list what he did is to cringe:

1. an irrational and unfair interference in an ongoing municipal election

2. a total failure to consult with the voters involved

3. enacting legislation that contradicted the wishes of the City determined after several years and millions of dollars of consultation about appropriate ward sizes

4. demonstrating an abysmal lack of understanding about the role of the courts in Canada’s constitutional democracy

5. forcing an all-night legislative session trying to pass a Charter “notwithstanding clause” which former Ontario Premier Bill Davis and most other reputable politicians denounced. That Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney, supposedly thoughtful Conservative cabinet ministers who should have known better, supported his madness adds to the sorry nature of his enterprise

A week after Judge Belobaba accepted the argument of the plaintiffs that Ford’s Bill 5 violated s. 2 of the Charter, the Ontario Court of Appeal “stayed” his decision. In their view, Ford’s law may have been unfair, but it was likely not unconstitutional. This meant that Bill 5 creating wards in the city similar to those of M.P.s and M.P.P.s (unlike every other municipal jurisdiction in Canada) and reducing the number of councillors to 25 prevails for the election next week. The Court of Appeal (and perhaps even the Supreme Court of Canada) will consider the case in greater detail only after the election is long past.

The result was not surprising. But that the law permits the voters in the largest city in Canada, the economic engine of the province, to be treated so cavalierly is totally devastating. In my view, if our Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not extend to municipal governance, a huge lacuna cries out to be filled. A constitution which does not recognize how important municipal government is in the daily lives of contemporary voters is woefully out-of-date.

Mike Harris’ Conservative government in Ontario forced amalgamation on Toronto against the overwhelming wishes of the people in 1998, twenty years ago this year. Amalgamation has proven an expensive mistake. Within four months of assuming office, Doug Ford has used the same bullying strategy to impose on Toronto a City Council structure which was explicitly rejected by the city because it is unfair and will not work. He created a crisis where none existed. And the city will bear the cost for the foreseeable future.

This will be the last post that I write on politics for some time. The issues take too much out of me, and leave me too upset. In my self-interest, at an age when time is precious and good health is at a premium, I will focus on the good things going on in the world. Good news would be a welcome change.

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Justice Belobaba’s Decision in The City of Toronto et al v. Ontario

This is a brilliant decision which everyone must read.

I commend it to you. Check it out.  It can be found on the internet.

My comments will follow once I have finished the two further films I am seeing today at TIFF.

The Fight against Doug Ford’s Attack on Toronto has Begun

On Monday, the Toronto City Council continued its debate on their response to Doug Ford’s changing the ward boundaries and cutting City Councillors from 47 to 25 in the midst of a municipal election campaign. The law which purports to authorize Ford’s actions was not yet introduced at Queen’s Park when the debate on what is an existential issue for the City of Toronto had already begun.

“Bill 5, The Better Local Government Act, 2018” (who says?) was introduced for first reading only on Monday afternoon. Tuesday, second reading was delayed by an Opposition amendment. It is now scheduled for second reading tomorrow, Thursday, August 2nd. The expectation is that the government will use every effort to push the law through as quickly as possible without any Committee hearings or any consultation.

I attended the City Council debate on Monday and was struck by how much time the hard core of councillors who supported Ford’s actions spent pontificating about the advantages of reducing their number to twenty-five. “Twenty-five reps works well for the province and the federal government;” they said, “it can work well for municipal government as well. It’s “a welcome move,” “taxpayers will be happy,” “a first step to ending the chaos at city hall,” “there is no need for any referendum; that occurred on June 7th,” “the province has all the power, we can do nothing about it, move on.”

Another group of councillors supported reducing the wards and the number of councillors but were very unhappy with the process and timing. They made it clear that their constituents did not like arbitrary change mid-way through an existing election.

The majority of councillors were adamant that this was an arbitrary interference with the fundamental governance of City Council without consultation and in the middle of a municipal election, according to the existing law and set for October 22nd. Reflecting a multi-year Ward Boundary Review undertaken by the City in recent years and conducted with significant public and professional consultation, the existing law provides for 47 wards and 47 councillors. These numbers provide approximate voter parity and reflect changing voter populations in different parts of the city. Numerous diverse candidates from communities not previously represented at Council have already registered as candidates “for the right reasons.” Now no one knows what is going on. And the City Clerk has made it clear that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate the proposed changes in preparations for the current election.

Several councillors spoke about the unique governance structure of the City of Toronto, the multiplicity of community councils staffed by local councillors, committees, commissions, boards, and institutions which now require councillor participation and already have trouble finding a quorum. Others spoke about the work of city councillors where they must be responsive to personal, local concerns, development applications, the desires of multiple Business Improvement Areas, residential associations, community groups, the nitty-gritty of city life which puts more demands on local politicians than on federal and provincial representatives. If immigration is the primary preoccupation of M.P.s, provincial M.P.P.s are preoccupied with education and health care issues. Everything else falls to the municipalities.

Others noted that the actions of Doug Ford were directed only to the City of Toronto. If the number of municipal councillors is to be determined by using provincial and federal constituencies, many Ontario cities would be reduced to one councillor, or perhaps a councillor they would share with another town. Councillor Shan noted that Scarborough, with a population of over 600,000, now has six Councillors and would be reduced to three under the new rules. Markham, with a population of 350,000, has twelve. Already under the existing rules, Toronto has more constituents per councillor than any other city in the province; under the new rules, the numbers would double. So much for voter parity which is supposed to be a fundamental principle of the right to vote in Canada.

Many councillors were particularly articulate about the significance of Ford’s attack on the city and what must be done. See Gordon Perks on YouTube. He is absolutely right. If we value our municipal government, and the work that city councillors do on our behalf, we have to respond.

City Council has voted its opposition to the reduced numbers, and has requested the provincial government to conduct a binding referendum before proceeding with the legislation or, alternatively, to permit the City to put a question on the 2018 ballot. It has also requested the City Solicitor to consider the validity and constitutionality of any provincial legislation, including its potential violation of the rights of the citizens of Toronto to fair and effective representation, the practicality of conducting the election, the Clerk’s capacity to implement the changes, and any errors or flaws in the legislation and to report back to City Council at a special meeting… on Monday, August 20, 2018 with options for City Council’s consideration. (Passed 31:10)

Former mayor David Miller, lawyer David Butt in the Globe and Mail, and I have called for litigation to challenge what Ford is doing in court. There is jurisprudence which describes the nature of the “right to vote” under the Canadian Charter, but my lawyer son tells me that that the Charter “right to vote” does not apply to voting at the municipal level. Previous efforts to use the courts to stop the amalgamation of the City of Toronto were unsuccessful. This case, however, is unprecedented. How the province has proceeded, the lack of any consultation with those affected, and the timing of the change of the law (in the middle of a current election campaign) all distinguish this case from prior jurisprudence. If ever there were a fact situation that demonstrates the most arbitrary provincial action against a major city within its jurisdiction, this it it. It would make an excellent test case.

In the meantime, we have to follow Councillor Perks’ advice and make sure that the provincial government (including the alleged “adults in the back rooms”) know that what they are doing is beyond the pale. As Councillor McMahon said on Monday, “It is simply wrong.”

Tomorrow, those who want to show their opposition are invited to attend Queen’s Park and be present in the public gallery when the government seeks to go forward with second reading. There is also a rally scheduled for the lawn of the Legislature at 11:30. See you there.





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Canada’s Donald Trump in Action

We were right. Doug Ford is a Donald Trump. He is so enamoured with his own self-proclaimed expertise in business that he thinks he can run the government as if it were his private company. Notwithstanding the apparent advice of more experienced politicians around him, he has DECLARED that Toronto’s current ward system for municipal government is obsolete and that Toronto’s amalgamated City Council will be cut from 47 to 25 councillors.

Let us put aside the pros and cons of a reformed City Council. Many may agree that reform at the city level is required. I would agree to that. But there is absolutely no consensus on what kind of City Council we require. How many constituents are best served by a single Councillor? What is the relationship between the overall City Council and local Community Councils? How can a reduced number of councillors serve on the local councils and all City committees as well? All these are issues for empirical data and for discussion.

DOUG FORD HAS PREEMPTED ALL THAT. Just as Mike Harris did in December 1996, when he announced that the City of Toronto would be amalgamated by provincial fiat.

In the face of the public outcry that followed, even the Mike Harris government was forced to have public hearings at Queen’s Park on the issue. As I remember, over 600 individuals, experts and groups made submissions to the Legislature; only four spoke in favour of amalgamation. But Mike Harris’ majority government went ahead anyway, and we have been living with the consequences ever since. Whatever one thinks of the amalgamated City of Toronto, there is no doubt that amalgamation did not save money.

BUT DOUG FORD HAS GONE A STEP FURTHER. In the midst of a municipal election cycle, after most candidates have already registered to contest Council seats in existing wards, are already raising money and putting together their campaigns, and on the precise day nominations were to close, Ford HAS CHANGED THE RULES OF OUR MUNICIPAL ELECTION SET FOR OCTOBER 22nd.

As reported in the press, he has “thrown a bomb into our current municipal election,” so that whether the city can actually conduct the upcoming election is highly problematic. No advance notice. No opportunity for consultation with affected parties and the public. No discussion of the pros and cons of the new system. No reference to recent reforms to make our ward system more democratic. No consideration as to how the change of rules can even be implemented. None of this.

The simple answer, for a simple man unschooled in the subtleties and sophistication of politics, is that the municipal affairs of the City of Toronto will be governed using the constituencies established for federal and provincial purposes. An easy answer… to save taxpayers money.

Oh yeah? Not if I can help it. The last time I was this angry was when Mike Harris made his similar arbitrary announcement about the amalgamation of the City of Toronto. The provincial government, especially with a majority, may have the legal power to change the laws affecting how cities are run. But legal powers exist in the context of legal conventions, many of which are not written.

Canada’s administrative law applicable to all governments and government agencies (over and above the Charter) recognizes that people ought not be deprived of their rights except in accordance with “principles of fundamental justice.” What are “principles of fundamental justice”?

  • the right to know the case against you
  • the right to make representations on your own behalf
  • the right to a fair hearing
  • the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure
  • and, more broadly, “principles of fundamental justice” also include the right to fairness and to freedom from arbitrary action

If these rights are applicable to persons accused of offences before the courts, and to other individuals in civil conflicts with the state, they are equally applicable to candidates in current municipal elections and to voters who expect that our current election will be conducted according to the rules in effect at the time the election cycle begins.

There is nothing fair about changing the rules of our upcoming municipal election less than three months before election date. Doug Ford’s announcement is the epitome of arbitrary action. He doesn’t yet have legislative authority for what he intends to do, and already the upcoming election is thrown into chaos.

Fairness and freedom from arbitrary action are conventions in our political and legislative process which are unwritten but important nevertheless. What is most disturbing about Donald Trump is that he is unaware of existing political and governmental conventions, or ignores them at his pleasure, and does so with little public or political protest.

Doug Ford’s arbitrary and unfair interference in the current City of Toronto municipal process is analogous. I, for one, will not stand by and let it happen. Nor should anyone else. Our fundamental rights as a democracy play out in the context of process. Process is important. The issue is not reform of the Toronto City Council. The issue is the arbitrary and unfair actions of a provincial government which thinks it can change the rules without any input from the people affected.

I will be at City Council Monday morning to hear the continuing debate on what the City plans to do about this matter. I would urge you to take whatever action you can to require that the current election proceed according to existing rules.





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Drama on the Seawalk

Squawking gulls and cranky crows are a sure sign of trouble. Moving briskly west on the seawalk below my Vancouver cottage, I was focused on using my Nordic poles to pick up the pace of my early morning walk. The idea was to extend the stride of my step and the length of my arm pull to enhance the benefits of the walk. But the noise of the seagulls and the crows diverted all my good intentions and I stopped to see what was the matter.

Sure enough, at the water’s edge where the tide was retreating from the rocks coated with kelp and rich green algae, a bald-headed eagle was standing on the biggest stone around. Not as large as others I’ve seen, his shiny black feathers and snow-white head still stood as a beacon to the eyes. He stood there as if glaring at the hoards of smaller birds advancing towards him.

At least three large well-fed gulls and three more black crows took up positions around him, all squawking madly as if in a fit of frenzy. A couple of gulls approached, flapped their wings and swooped just above him. Then two cocky crows dive-bombed him from two different directions at the same time. They repeated these actions over and over. It all appeared as a well-choreographed attack, perhaps to protect the favoured feeding grounds of the smaller birds. Eventually, the eagle lifted his large wings and flew away across the bay and high in the sky, the crows and one seagull in hot pursuit.

It occurred to me that this may be an example of allied interspecies coöperation against a common enemy. I would have to ask a naturalist about that. As a friend and I had seen a similar incident about the same time yesterday morning, it probably is a daily ritual at a particularly rich feeding site on the shore. 

Still later on the seawall, I narrowly avoided being hit by a snail-shell dropped by a crow descending over the sidewalk onto the rocks. As there was a live snail inside, we threw the snail onto the seashore for the crow to recover. Alas he was two slow. Another crow which I had not seen must have been watching and waiting. Just as soon as the snail hit the sand, the second crow was on it for his breakfast.

Later on this same walk, I spied a tall heron fishing in a shallow pool between the rocks. He was standing silently and stately, moving slowly and stealthily in search of his food. A bevy of gulls and Canada geese grazed nearby, and a squadron of crows sat on a log watching over the scene. Obviously, these birds coexist peacefully. I guess only the bald-headed eagle is considered a threat.

Update on the litigation between CN Rail and the District of West Vancouver.

In February 2017, I published a post describing CN Rail’s efforts to have the public using the seawalk declared “trespassers.” Their aim is to monetize to the maximum whatever leasehold interest they can enforce against the District. Diane Powers, spokesperson for the District, advised me last week that the Canadian Transportation Agency held a two-day oral hearing in October 2017 on the District’s application for a declaration that it has a “right of way” on whatever the interest held by the railroad. The CTA agreed that they had jurisdiction to deal with the issue but adjourned their decision until the British Columbia Supreme Court ruled on the earlier lawsuit started by CN alleging that the public were “trespassers.”

Ms. Powers told me that it may take another three to five years for the matter to be concluded. In the meantime, the District has refreshed notices to the public indicating that so long as the litigation is ongoing, the District can only do maintenance on the seawalk that affects health and safety. They can change lightbulbs that affect lighting, remove trip hazards, and engage in any storm cleanup. “Cosmetic maintenance” is suspended for the duration. The gardens at 19th Street and 24th Street that mark the boundaries of the seawalk, and the narrow green areas at 21st and 22nd streets, are designated park areas at the foot of District streets. The District will still tend to them. Like most North Shore residents, I have a visceral personal interest in this dispute, and will monitor what happens.

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Toronto’s Christmas Present: A New Subway Extension

It’s Boxing Day, that treasure from our British past which I cherish. For those of us who have no inclination to seek bargains, it’s a time to relax, sit around the fireplace, read a book, eat leftovers, and sink into the sublime serenity of a day with nothing on the schedule.

Before settling down to an evening of binge watching The Crown, I want to share with you my reaction to Toronto’s new subway extension. Last Thursday morning, I rode Toronto’s Number One subway line from Queen and Yonge Street downtown all the way up the old Spadina line to Sheppard West station (the end of the previous line at Sheppard and Dufferin), and then to the new terminus at Vaughan in York Region. It took me 51 minutes to make the trip. Without leaving the system, I then did a tour of each new station, to the extent I could see them without going out of the turnstiles. I did not see the exteriors of the new stations. But I took photos, talked to TTC staff and passengers, and left utterly exhilarated by what I saw.

The terminal station, Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, is a Transportation Hub which connects to the York Region Viva bus rapid transport north of Highway 7 and to York Region Transport (YRT) buses at the SmartCentres Place Bus Terminal. With seven knockout panels as part of the design, it is also intended as the centre of a planned downtown to feature a large park, condo towers, shopping and entertainment facilities to be constructed in the next decade.

I loved the spectacular colours of the upper level windows; such bright colours will lift the spirits on the most dreary of days. As in all the new stations, there are shiny new elevators making the system wheelchair accessible to all levels, glistening escalators which are lit at foot level and which go up and down (if not side by side, at least at different ends of the platform), and solid metal handrails in the middle of the staircases. For those of us who take stairs, such handrails will be a godsend. As an incentive, the SmartCentre which runs the local parking lot is free until January 1st.

Approximately five minutes south is the next station, Highway 407. Located just west of Jane Street, south of Highway 407 on the west bank of Black Creek, it connects with York Region Transport and Brampton Transit, and includes a commuter parking lot with 585 spots, plus a passenger pickup and drop-off area. Parking is free until April 1st, 2018; obviously an effort to entice commuters with cars onto the subway. An attendant told me that, since the extension opened last week, the parking lot has been full each morning by 7:30 a.m.

Commuters can also park at the third station, Pioneer Village, at Steeles Avenue West and Northwest Gate, to the west of York University. There, the parking lot can accommodate 1500 cars, and is free until April 1st. The ceiling lighting installation called LightSpell over the subway platform is already controversial. The design of the fixture is distinctive in itself. What I failed to appreciate, until I read about it in the Toronto Star, is that five keyboards on the platform allow passengers to type eight-figure messages that will be reflected in the lights for the edification and/or amusement of their fellow travellers. The TTC has apparently delayed full implementation of the fixture until they can develop software to prevent hate messages, an enterprise that has provoked complaints of censoring free speech. That the installation is provoking controversy already heralds a notable future for the site.

The fourth station, at the heart of York University’s Keele Street campus, is the reason for the subway extension in the first place. The platforms are busy with students using the new station. It breaks my heart to think of the hundreds of thousands of students and staff who have endured years of commuter time and inconvenience travelling to the university since the extension was first proposed decades ago. The lack of political vision, persistent partisan bickering, constant changes, and construction delays which have plagued extending the subway even to York University is a shameful history which we must remember but cannot dwell on. The extension to York University is finally built and everyone is exultant.

The York University station has an elaborate Information Centre on the concourse at the turnstiles. The walls are festooned with promos that would be of interest to students, the signage in the concourse specifically identifies York University sites of interest, and there are two pay telephones for those who need such amenities. (There is always someone.) Most engaging of all was the TTC customer service representative who was knowledgeable about the extension and keen to answer my questions. I may not have fully appreciated the “exciting” Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) artwork which the TTC touts at the station. For me, as for most students, getting to the campus quickly and comfortably is such a treat; everything else is superfluous.

The next stop is Finch West station, located under Keele Street, north of Finch Avenue West. This station will also feature a bus terminal, commuter parking lot, passenger pickup and drop-off, and secure bicycle parking. Again, the bright red of the corridors and brightly coloured windows at the concourse are delightful. Already, many people are using this station.

The last of the new stations is Downsview Park, the first stop west of the old Sheppard West station. An attendant told me that the station is in Downsview Park, very close to the rebuilt hanger called HoopDome, a gymnasium facility used for several years for basketball, indoor soccer, volleyball, and many other activities which attract athletes from across the city. The station is also a five-to-ten-minute walk from the entrance of the Downsview Canadian Forces Base to the east. Effective January 2018, the GO train on the Barrie line will stop at this station. Passengers will be able to transfer there onto the TTC and get a half-price discount on TTC fare.

There have been complaints that the subway extension does not include a washroom at each station. However, there are washrooms at: Sheppard East, the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, and on the top floor (the bus bays) of the Highway 407 station. TTC riders can access these washrooms without leaving the system. 

It’s been so long since the TTC has generated genuinely good news. And maybe even longer since it has won any awards as the North American “Transit System of the Year.” We’ve finally done it. The system is beautiful, shiny, new, accessible, well-marked, and efficient. I am very excited about what is a world-class extension of the system which can make us proud. Check it out for yourself.

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CN Rail versus District of West Vancouver: Another Corporate Cash Grab?

The front page headline in Thursday’s Vancouver Sun caught my attention: “CN fights West Vancouver Over Centennial Seawalk.” CN Rail is demanding $3.7 million dollars in annual rent from the district of West Vancouver for public use of the seawalk built on the CN right-of-way to celebrate Canada’s Centenary 50 years ago. Since the district has refused to pay such a sum, CN has terminated its lease on the property, and started a lawsuit against it in the B.C. Supreme Court.

CN wants a judge to declare that their termination is lawful, that the seawalk, gazebo, gardens and parking spots built by the district trespass on the railroad corridor and must be removed, and that the district (and presumably the public) must be restrained from further use of the right-of-way. Oh yes, they are also asking for damages for arrears of rent.

The district has responded by applying to the federal Canadian Transportation Agency which resolves public transportation disputes. The district says that nothing is owed to CN Rail at all because of the long public use of the right-of-way, the lack of any damage to CN’s property, and the district’s ongoing and expensive enhancement of the shoreline which provides added protection to CN’s tracks at no cost to the corporation. To settle the matter, the district has offered an annual rent of $12,500.00, indexed to future inflation. Apparently, that’s not good enough for CN Rail who want a rental value based on the very expensive real estate in the area.

My Vancouver rental “cottage” is very close to the seawalk and the gazebo in dispute. I have written about the seawalk in prior posts, and am one of the thousands of locals who use the seawalk every day. The 1.7 kilometre seawalk may be the single most popular attraction on the entire Vancouver North Shore. Tourists and residents from all over the Lower Mainland flock to the short walk along the seashore that links Dundarave Pier with John Lawson Park, Ambleside Park, and the Capilano River to the east. Beside the seawalk is a separate “dog run,” unique in the area, which allows dogs to pace their owners leash-free without interfering with other users of the seawalk, including many seniors with mobility issues.

I only have “the facts” as set out in the newspaper article, taken from documents filed by the district. Here’s the history. When the seawalk was built in the 1960s, the government-owned Pacific Great Eastern Railway also owned the right-of-way. The PGE became BC Rail, also owned by the government. In 2004, the B.C. government sold its railway operation to CN Rail but retained ownership of the right-of-way which it then leased on a long-term lease to CN.

I gather that the government-owned railway must have leased the right-of-way to the district when the seawalk was first built. The district paid an annual rent beginning at $25 and increasing to $300. BC Rail requested rent increases up to $9,523 in 1999, but the district paid nothing at all after 1994. BC Rail made no further demands for any payment after 1999. When CN Rail purchased the rail line in 2004, it would have taken its own lease subject to the pre-existing lease to the district. Apparently CN Rail made no demands for rental payment from the district until September 2015 when their officials met with the district “to regularize the lack of a written agreement, deal with compensation and risk allocation.”

Without the benefit of hundreds of hours of costly legal advice which, undoubtedly, CN Rail has available and which the district will have to incur on behalf of the taxpayers, the issue seems pretty straightforward to me.

Why is CN Rail doing this? It seems that CN Rail wants to play hardball with the district of West Vancouver like CP Rail did for fifteen years with the city of Vancouver over its abandoned Arbutus Corridor which runs for nine kilometres from False Creek to Marpole on the south side of the city. There, residents had used the right-of-way as a community trail and created community gardens which CP Rail then bulldozed as leverage to force the city into buying the property. CP initially said that the land was worth $400 million. The city ultimately paid CP $55 million to buy it. 

But the Arbutus Corridor situation is entirely different from the West Vancouver seawalk. There, CP Rail actually owned the land, no trains had run on the right-of-way for fifteen years, and no public money was spent to enhance the value and use of the right-of-way. Here, the right-of-way is still owned by the province. The railroad and the seawalk have co-existed for nearly fifty years. I have no idea how much the district of West Vancouver has spent on the seawalk, its protection and amenities but it must be a lot. The seawalk is stunning and the anti-erosion enhancements have been substantial.

Who is CN Rail? CN Rail is the largest railway in Canada, with 32,831 kilometres of track extending from coast to coast and even into the United States (both to the Gulf of Mexico and to Alaska). According to the internet, the largest individual shareholder of CN Rail in 2014 was Bill Gates. The latest internet CN Rail Ownership Summary shows that the largest institutional investors in CN Rail are the Royal Bank of Canada, Massachusetts Financial Services, the Wellington Management Group, the Bank of Montreal and TD Asset Management In. The President and C.E.O. of CN Rail is Luc Jobin. He joined CN Rail as a senior executive in 2009, responsible for, among other things, “strategic planning.”

Some strategy. The court and/or the Tribunal should throw the Greedy Grouts out of court, and impose all possible legal costs against CN Rail and in favour of the district. What’s CN going to do? Impound all the cars from the parking spots? Tear down the gazebo? Bulldoze the seawalk? Their position is ridiculous, if not shameful, and will only serve to waste scarce public resources better spent on something else. What kind of corporate citizenship is that?

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6Degrees Citizen Space 2016: Report #1

The world is a circle, smaller than we think, and we are all related, probably more closely than six degrees of separation. That is the premise behind a new initiative I attended last week: the first gathering of 6DegreesTO Citizen Space. Sponsored by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, under co-chairs former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, the focus was on migration, refugees and the issues of inclusion, exodus and prosperity.

The participants came from across Canada and around the world, a gathering of exceptionally experienced people who are working with the issues in many ways. Three mayors talked about how cities are dealing with inclusion: Naheed Nenshi of Calgary, Madeleine Redfern of Iqaluit, and Rabin Baldewsingh of The Hague… three different perspectives in three different contexts. Mexican political scientist and journalist, Denise Dresser, who has three million followers on her Twitter account, is a high-profile activist in a country which is our NAFTA partner but which we know little about. Author Pico Iyer, an acclaimed travel writer and the author of a recent biography on the Dalai Lama, spoke from the perspective of a perpetual outsider. Senator Ratna Omidvar, founding Executive Director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson; Eliza Reid, Canadian-born First Lady of Iceland; Doug Saunders, columnist for the Globe and Mail; Kweku Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela; Yusuf Muftuoglu, former advisor to past Turkish president Abdullah Gül; James Orbinski from Doctors Without Borders; Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, correspondent for Al Jazeera and frequent commentator on CNN, NBC and BBC… and the list goes on.

Journalists, academics, community organizers, front-line service providers, business leaders, government workers, media types, immigrants who have adapted, and refugees now adapting, to new lives in Canada… all brought to the table particularly well-informed perspectives on migration and diversity. The world has more displaced persons now than since World War II and this reality is projected to continue.

How to respond? What should governments be doing? Businesses? Community groups? Individual citizens? What does Canada bring to the table? Why is Canada considered a world leader in this area? How can we live up to our reputation?

What do migrants bring in return? Increased levels of entrepreneurship. New innovation. Openings to the broader world. Energy and a passionate commitment to success for themselves and others. The 6Degrees Fellows Program generated two substantial reports released at the session. The first: on “New Canadian Entrepreneurs: An Underappreciated Contribution to Canadian Prosperity?” by Bessma Momani and sponsored by the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation. The second: “Open for Business: Immigrant/New Canadian Entrepreneurs in Canada” by Ricardo Cohn and Eric Adebayo, with the support of Vancity. Both are available from the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

The event was held in the exceptionally beautiful Centre for Learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario. This facility is flooded with natural light, has break-out rooms with walls of glass, a large mingling area for meals and mixing, and an auditorium at the foot of a glass staircase which can be used “in the round.” To facilitate discussion, “as if at a dinner table,” all the many participants in the event sat in a circle around a raised centre stage. Some of the experts, called “framers,” sat on the stage; others, called “intervenors,” sat in the first row of the circle. The format was less a panel discussion than a conversation between all of them, with questions, comments and observations from the rest of the participants on the floor. It was a remarkably fruitful format which provided ample scope for the exchange of a range of experience.

One theme was the importance of the language we use to describe events. The truth is that particular language shapes perceptions, that perceptions shape actions and non-actions, and that what happens is often a direct response to how the events are described. The question is: does better language result in better thinking? In an age when the media is no longer limited to professional journalists, when everyone has access on the internet to all the information the world has to offer, and when social media and blogging give a voice to anyone who chooses to use it, how do we encourage an engagement with the issues? A good question. Over the next months, I will return to what I learned at 6Degrees several times. I hope you will find these reports of interest.

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The Story Behind Toronto’s New City Hall

Have you ever wondered how Toronto got its “new” City Hall? Fifty years old last year, the iconic Toronto civic structure has become the heart of who we are and what we aspire to be.

Filmmaker Michael Kainer, in collaboration with archivist Karen Teeple, has produced a documentary, “Finn With An Oyster: The Story Behind Toronto’s New City Hall,” which tells the story. It’s a fascinating tale of backroom deals, a failed referendum, a student uprising, the world’s largest international architectural design competition, and then the choice which symbolizes the city today.

Building a new city hall that would propel Toronto into modern times was not easy. The assembly of land in the early 1960s required demolishing The Ward, an entire neighbourhood of low quality housing stock and several important historic buildings. Deciding to hold an international design competition and not “going Canadian only” upset nationalists. Selecting the vision of the young and relatively obscure Finnish architect, Viljo Revell, seemed unduly daring. Even the artwork, including Henry Moore’s sculpture The Archer for the square, provoked criticism. Nathan Phillips, Toronto’s first Jewish mayor, with his competition advisor academic Eric Arthur and architect Viljo Revell, persevered.

Once completed, the question became what to do with the old City Hall. The Eaton family, scions of the establishment department store across the street, proposed demolishing the old City Hall and building a new shopping mall directly across from Nathan Phillips Square. The proposal became a lighting rod for opposition from all those people who, in supporting the modern design of the New City Hall, had come together and learned that they had some power. They rallied to “save the Old City Hall,” were successful, and then turned their energies to “saving the downtown” from the proposed Spadina Expressway. Toronto’s “quality of life” reform movement had begun.

“Finn With an Oyster” is the fifth film produced by lawyer-turned-filmmaker Michael Kainer. The native of Regina came to Toronto with his wife Mary in the early 1970s to pursue their professional education. Michael was interested in photography and applied to Ryerson at the same time that he applied to law school. When the law school accepted him first, law became his profession.

After 30 years in practice, he began to turn his attention to planning for alternative forms of creativity in retirement. His first efforts were two short films: in 2006, “Innocence on Ice” (a co-production), and in 2008, “Succo Pomodori,” depicting the making of tomato sauce in the back lanes of Little Italy. That same year, he wrote and co-produced “Skate to Survival,” a 44-minute documentary on the harrowing life and amazing artistry of Canadian figure skating coach, Ellen Burka. That film has been widely screened on OMNI 1, at various film festivals, and on Air Canada Inflight films. In 2014, he directed and wrote “Patron Saint,” a 70-minute documentary about the Polish-Canadian psychiatrist, politician, and art patron, Janusz Dukszta, who commissioned 100 portraits by 40 of Canada’s finest artists over 60 years. That film premiered at the 2015 Reel Artists Film Festival at the TIFF/Bell Lightbox in Toronto. “Finn with an Oyster” has screened at the City of Toronto Archives, Bloor/Hot Docs Cinema, the London Ontario Museum, the Architecture+Design Film Festival in Winnipeg, and in the Toronto Arts and Letters Club Film Series. His next film will be a history of the Toronto Islands.

You can see “Finn with an Oyster” tomorrow and Sunday in the Council Chambers of the New City Hall, 100 Queen Street West. The 71-minute film will play continuously 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. as part of Doors Open Toronto weekend. I intend to catch it first thing tomorrow. Perhaps I will see you there.

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The Ranked Ballot for 2018 Municipal Council Elections?

Bill 181, the Municipal Elections Modernization Act, 2016, passed first reading in the Ontario legislature on Monday of this week. 

The Bill has several very interesting proposed reforms. One is to shorten the nomination period for municipal elections (now January 1st to the second Friday in September) to only three months (from May 1st to the fourth Friday in July). Undoubtedly this is a response to the interminable mayoralty election endured by Toronto in 2014. Another is to require nominations for councillor to be endorsed by a minimum of 25 eligible voters. This should cut the number of vanity candidates who typically clutter up municipal ballots. A third is to enable all municipalities, not just the City of Toronto as now is the case, to prohibit corporations and trade unions from making contributions to candidates for city council. Together with new proposals regulating third-party advertisements, this elaborates the regulation of municipal election financing.

Another high-profile reform is to create a framework that allows the province, by Regulation, to authorize all municipalities to have Ranked Ballot Elections for offices on municipal council. The basic principles are that electors would vote by ranking candidates in order of their preference, that votes are distributed to candidates based on the rankings marked on the ballots, and that the counting of votes is carried out in one or more rounds, with at least one candidate being elected or eliminated in each round. This would replace our present ‘First Past The Post’ system. Provincial Regulations may set out the details of the scheme, including standards and procedures for the conduct of ranked ballot elections, rules to govern ballots, voting, and the counting of votes.

All municipal councils will have authority to pass by-laws with respect to Ranked Ballot Elections for council offices. In doing so, they will need to follow the standards and procedures for public consultation about the proposed by-law set by Regulation. No ranked ballot election can be conducted unless the municipality has passed a by-law, as required by the Bill.

How long it will take to pass the legislation and draft the detailed Regulations will determine whether the Act can be in effect by the 2018 election cycle. Nevertheless, Katherine Skene, co-chair of the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto (RaBIT) hails this reform as “huge… (providing) municipalities… the choice to be more democratic, more inclusive and more diverse.”

When I first wrote about ranked ballot reform two years ago (on March 4 2014), the City of Toronto was the primary advocate for the system. Toronto City Council in June 2013 had passed a motion requesting that the Province amend the Municipal Elections Act to authorize the use and set up the framework for Ranked Choice Voting to let the City use ranked ballots and instant runoff voting in municipal elections. The vote in favour of the motion passed 26:15. Today, the situation has changed.

The province has proposed the necessary statutory authority, at least for the purpose of elections to city council. But, last October without any particular fanfare, the Toronto City Council elected in 2014 voted against ranked ballots. More precisely, they voted 25:18 that the City recommend to the province not to approve ranked ballots and that, if it does do so, that the use of ranked ballots be optional for the City of Toronto, and that the City be permitted to implement it only after holding public consultations and a referendum.

Clearly, the province has ignored the change-of-heart from the City of Toronto. All municipalities will have the right to choose whether to adopt Ranked Ballot Elections or not. If they wish to do so, they must hold public consultations and then pass a by-law adopting the new regime. Although it is not yet clear what “standards and procedures for public consultation” will be required by Regulation, there appears no statutory authority for a referendum on the issue. 

So, why the change at City Council? I will explore that issue more fully in another post. For the moment, it is important that Mayor Tory and our City Council at least open the issue up for public consultation. Given the importance of electoral reform, it is intolerable that “the expression of Council opinion” from last October, without any public input or consultation, should be the last word on the subject. If you agree, make your opinions known to Mayor Tory and your local councillor.

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Lessons from the Irish Referendum for Canada

It strikes me that Canadians have much to learn from the Irish about how and when to use referenda. Apart from the Quebec referenda, our experience with referenda, as illustrated by the history of referenda in British Columbia, has been totally pragmatic, political and unprincipled. Under legislation unique among Canadian provinces, voters in British Columbia have voted in five referenda since 1991; on a recall and initiative process (1991), on treaty negotiations (2002), on electoral reform (2005 and 2009) and on the Harmonized Sales Tax (2011). Citizens themselves initiated the latter referendum, and forced the provincial government to back away from adopting the Harmonized Sales Tax and to stick with the Provincial Sales Tax as it had promised to do in the prior re-election campaign.

The current Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit referendum is, in law, only “a plebiscite.” That means it is held at the behest of the provincial government “for advice only.” and is not binding. Christy Clark’s Liberal government made a pre-election promise that she would not allow new municipal “revenue tools” to fund transit for the Greater Vancouver Area except with the approval of local taxpayers. She set the timetable and the conditions for conducting the plebiscite and will use the result (whatever it might be) to justify her own position. That “referendum” ends May 29th, and we will learn the results. Whatever the outcome, there are many (including myself) who think that this transit plebiscite is primarily a political ploy to absolve the provincial government from taking responsibility for decisions their office requires that they make. In my view, using the referendum/plebiscite tool for this purpose is a cop-out.

There is one context, however, where a national referendum in Canada may be appropriate. The Supreme Court of Canada in the Reference re Senate Reform (2014 SCC 32, 2014-04-25) has indicated that the Senate is part and parcel of our Constitution and cannot be changed or abolished except as provided by our own Constitution. Abolition of the Senate requires the consent of the Senate, the House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of all Canadian provinces. Reform of the Senate, including consultative elections and senatorial term limits, requires consent of the Senate, the House of Commons and the legislative assemblies of at least seven provinces representing half of the population of all the provinces.

If there is an increasing consensus that the Senate should be abolished, or at least reformed, would it not be possible to convene a constitutional convention, draft an appropriate proposal (with a fall-back reform alternative), and put it to a national referendum? Wouldn’t it be refreshing for politicians of all stripes to rise to the occasion and decide, on a principled basis, the future of the Senate? Is it too much to expect all the political parties at both the provincial and the federal levels, in both the Commons and the Senate, to agree that they would vote as determined by the majority of each province in a referendum?  

Focusing solely on the Senate, and on a question (or questions) to be put to the public, would make a constitutional convention manageable. If abolition is not successful, maybe reforms can be achieved. At least, a referendum would focus the discussion and maybe, as has been the case in Ireland, once the referendum were held, put the issue to rest. Perhaps, in the upcoming federal election, we should consider which of the leaders, and which of the parties, would best inspire and lead such a constitutional convention. Lingering issues which seem insolvable can be addressed with the political will to do so. Ireland has done it for divorce and now for marriage equality. Surely Canadians have the political maturity to address our own constitutional issues.

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Canada Post Creating City Clutter

There is a revolution brewing, and rightfully so. Two years ago, Canada Post decided to cease all home delivery of mail, phased in over the next few years. Their decision was out of the blue, without any public discussion, with no apparent government input, and without any consideration of alternatives. It was an autocratic decision from on high to curtail all home delivery of mail in favour of community post boxes. “One size fits all,” says the post office. Everybody else in Canada is happy with “community post boxes,” why should the cities get any different level of service?

Now that Canada Post is beginning to roll out their program, the implications of what they are doing are becoming very clear. Initially, the objections were based on the need to accommodate the aged and the disabled, those for whom collecting mail down the street or around the corner would be a hardship. The post office said they “would try to accommodate them.” How? Who qualifies for accommodation? Who decides what accommodation? Will there be an appeal of an adverse decision? How quickly will the post office respond if one breaks a leg? The administration of adequate “accommodation” could be mind-boggling. Or non-existent, which is much more likely.

Then there was the “litter” issue, the inevitable debris which the community boxes will attract. TTC bus shelters are already repositories of refuse. Who is going to clean that up? Those city street cleaners who walk around with their bags, or ride around on their electric carts? How much will that cost? The existing state of TTC bus shelters is hardly encouraging. Is the Post Office going to employ janitors to monitor the public presentability of their community post boxes? To clean them of graffiti and clear the snow in winter?

The real issue is the nature of the “community post boxes” themselves and the Post Office’s apparent position that they have the legal right to put up boxes wherever they choose. Thomas Walkom, in today’s Toronto Star, hit the nail on the head. He quotes Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who has called for a moratorium on community mailboxes because “the planned community mailboxes would simply take up too much space.” He writes of a report done for the City of Montreal which “calculates that if all the community mailboxes required to service Montreal were laid end to end, they would stretch for 25 kilometres.” Apparently, the City of Montreal and three other Quebec councils are joining a legal action opposing the “community mailbox” decision.

Walkom also described how Hamilton has passed a bylaw that specifies the location of community mailboxes and charges a $200 licensing fee for each superbox. Canada Post has refused to abide by the bylaw and is now arguing in the Ontario Superior Court that the City of Hamilton has no legal authority to pass any such bylaw. No wonder Councillor Janet Davis of the City of Toronto has requested a staff report on the implications of Canada Post’s policy on the city. And that other city councils across the province and the country are upset with Canada Post.

I considered this issue as it applies to my city block. I live in downtown Toronto on a residential street west of Bathurst and south of Harbord. My street was developed first in the 1880s and then in 1904-1905. The houses are typically three stories tall, a mix of detached, semi-detached, and small three-story apartment buildings, on lots which are generally 18 to 25 feet wide. Many of the houses have been divided into flats, three per house generally, some more; some are rooming houses with who knows how many individual units. Ours is a typical downtown neighbourhood street with deep lots and narrow front footage. Municipal planning policies are encouraging even more density.

I walked down the one block of my street and counted 47 separate dwellings. To provide for all the separate flats, apartments, and rented rooms on the street, there would need to be at least double or triple that number of individual boxes at the “block superbox.” And that would accommodate only the current usage. The high cost of housing in Toronto encourages new owners to add a second or third unit to existing single family premises. The number of units on the street is constantly changing. The original configuration of the community box may well be outdated before it is even installed. How does the post office plan to keep up with the increasing density of the street?

And where is this “block superbox” to be located? Both sides of the north corner are sidewalks adjacent to a busy street which already has a dedicated bike lane on it, and is a bus route. Placing a post box on that corner would block visibility. The rest of the block includes small private gardens (treasured because they are so small), and sidewalks under a canopy of city trees. The only empty spot on the entire block is the verge of the parkette where there is a memorial stone honouring the namesake of the park and several trees. So now are we to have a wall of metal boxes blocking the vista between the parkette and the street? Not only on this block, but on every other block in entire neighbourhood? Hardly an aesthetic contribution to the neighbourhood. I don’t know about you, but if our very limited public space were taken up with an aluminum “block superbox,” I would consider it reminiscent of Stalinist Russia.

Canadians who live outside the big cities may not be sympathetic with our plight. My sister lives in Dawson City, Yukon, a community of 1400. There, everyone has a mailbox at the town post office. Picking up the mail is part of the daily ritual and the post office is a social center for the community. That’s how it has always been; that’s how it always will be. Similarly, my son and his family live in Whitby, in a recently-built suburban housing development. When they bought their home, they did so with the knowledge that the community mail box was right around the corner, built into the planning of the new community.

Neither scenario applies to the old city of Toronto. And if Canada Post thinks they can impose their “one size fits all” agenda on everyone willy-nilly, they’d better think again. In Toronto, that’s not how things are done. Here, the expectation is that all government bodies, agencies, businesses or organizations, anyone wanting to use city property for their own purposes must apply to the city, and get their approvals. If they want buy-in from the locals, they’d better go out and get input from the community in advance. Why should Canada Post be any different?

Snail mail may be increasingly obsolete, but it is not entirely dead. Better to have less frequent delivery than have the city cluttered with “Stalinist superboxes.” Isn’t the federal government responsible for Canada Post? Where is Stephen Harper on this issue? How come Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair are not calling him to account? And if local governments do not have the authority to pass bylaws which can apply to Canada Post, then Kathleen Wynne’s majority government at Queen’s Park should see that they do.

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More on Marijuana from Vancouver

That marijuana is on the agenda for the upcoming federal election campaign behooves us to know more about the Canadian marijuana scene. Items in the Vancouver media this week are highly relevant.

The Vancouver Sun featured a front page story Wednesday on Vancouver’s annual (who knew?) 4/20 rally that has “evolved into a giant farmers’ market for marijuana” which attracted 20,000 people this year. The event occurs on the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery in the heart of downtown Vancouver. But the “unexpectedly large numbers” this year swelled into nearby streets and caused the city to close Robson Street on Monday morning to avoid accidents.

4/20 organizers consider the event a demonstration and run it without obtaining a city special event permit. The City has acquiesced to that position in the past, but the Downtown Business Improvement Association is now demanding that the rally be licensed as a special event. And now, Vancouver City Council wants to regulate marijuana activities in the city, as is done in Colorado and Washington States.

The non-profit organization, Cannabis Culture, that runs the rally says they “can’t get permits because it is an illegal event with hundreds of people selling marijuana,” they can’t afford the insurance required to get a special event permit, and “unless marijuana is legalized,” they can’t get large business to sponsor the events. To cover the costs of the rally, organizers solicited donations from about 100 vendors for advance booking space. Policing, traffic enforcement and major clean-up costs fall to the city, although organizers did help city workers clear the trash. The 4/20 organizers told the Sun reporters that they had wanted to move the rally to the grounds of the Vancouver Convention Centre, which is bigger and away from traffic, but the city refused their request.

In a sidebar to that article, Tiffany Crawford tells how “high-tech pot vending machines” are coming to Vancouver. Last year, the B.C. Pain Society installed Canada’s first marijuana vending machine at its East Vancouver site for members with doctor’s certificates. Another Vancouver-based cannabis company, Kaneh Bosm Biotechnology, now plans to install two more BioCanna ADMs at unspecified locations. These machines will automatically screen out people under 18 years of age, verify by the use of pin numbers that they are registered users, and limit the amounts that can be obtained each day. President Michael Martinz told Crawford that the company “chose Vancouver to operate its ADM pilot project because (the) marijuana market is entrenched here.” The city is “home to about 80 medical marijuana dispensaries… operating in a legal grey area…. The federal government overhauled the medical marijuana system last year to make only large-scale operations that are certified by Health Canada legal. However, the city and local police in Vancouver do not enforce these laws.”

In the B.C. edition of the Globe and Mail the same day, Laura Kane reported on the preliminary results of a national survey conducted by UBC PhD student, Rielle Capler, and UBC nursing professor, Lynda Balneaves, on the impact of changing federal regulations on medical marijuana users. The old Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) permitted certified users to grow their own pot or to find designated growers. The new Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) require medical cannabis patients to buy only from licensed producers. A court challenge to these new rules is pending in the Federal Court, and an injunction has been obtained to keep the existing program in place for already-enrolled patients. To date, only one-eighth of the 450 surveyed patients have registered in the new program. Problems with the new program include: the higher cost (four to five times the cost-per-gram of growing one’s own), lack of access in rural areas, and the inability of the larger companies to keep up a supply that meets the demand. The many medical marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver require doctor’s certificates and apply quality standards to their product. Medical cannabis patients continue to use them, but their lack of legal status adds to their stress.

Eight days ago, marijuana was not on my radar screen. Our visit to Colorado has changed that. In Vancouver, it is a pressing issue. The front page story in the Vancouver Sun yesterday was that Vancouver is about to become the first city in Canada where the business of selling marijuana will be regulated and permitted. Proposed regulations (including substantial fees for business licenses and administration costs) are before City Council for discussion next week, and will take several months to implement. Reporter Jeff Lee quotes city councillor Kerry Jang as saying that the city is “not getting into” the question of legalizing the sale and purchase of marijuana. “We are simply regulating an unregulated business, just as we would any other business.” Marijuana may be illegal in Canada, but the reality of a “dispensary explosion” is forcing municipal action to fill a legal void. Watch for further developments.

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The Vancouver Transit Plebiscite Heating Up

Vancouver’s “Congestion Improvement Tax Referendum,” now officially labelled the “Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite,” is gearing up for what promises to be a major struggle. Where December public opinion polls were generally favourable to the transit initiative, the latest polls show that the “yes” side is slipping and opposition to the proposed tax is increasing.

Although the plebiscite is at the behest of the province, and funded by the provincial government, the role of the government to date has been anything but helpful. The Mayors’ Council defined a ten-year plan for regional transit and transportation expansion which they incorporated into the ballot they proposed in December. The government then changed the wording of the ballot, ostensibly to “clarify” and “simplify” it. In so doing, it removed the explicit rationale for why the transit plan is necessary, and watered down the specifics of what has been proposed. Where before the ballot, for example, referred to 11 new B-Line express bus lines, the new ballot drops the precise number. Where before, the ballot referred to “light rail transit” in Surrey and the extension of the Millennium Line “tunneled along Broadway in Vancouver,” the new ballot refers only to “building rapid transit” in Surrey and along Broadway in Vancouver. The new ballot refers to extending the cycling and walkway network, but has dropped the objective of improving safety for pedestrians and cyclists. There is now some confusion, and no little cynicism, about the actual parts of the plan that the province will support. The change of name from “referendum” to “plebiscite” reinforces the uncertainty; a “referendum” under the Referendum Act is binding, a “plebiscite” under the governing transit legislation is not. As Stephen Hume noted in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun, “it’s simply a memorandum of advice….”

The province also insisted that the proposed 0.5% transit tax increase would be a separate transit tax. The small business community became alarmed that the new tax, over and above the GST and the PST which are built into existing systems at the point of sale, would impose unwanted administrative headaches. It was only this past weekend (just six weeks before ballots are to be distributed) that Transportation Minister Todd Stone clarified that the transit tax would be harmonized with the Provincial Sales Tax so that there would be no extra administrative costs to business.

The “No TransLink Tax”” campaign, headed by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, got off to a fast start a couple of weeks ago. They proposed that the municipal funds necessary for expansion of transit can come from the annual growth in municipal revenues which they project at 4.8% over the next decade, without the need for any new tax. Their strongest hand, however, is not their figures, but that they are playing to widespread public dissatisfaction with TransLink, the transit authority created by the provincial government. They say that the public should have no confidence in TransLink to implement the proposed improvements, given their past track record of high costs, slow delivery of services, lack of transparency, and significant technical problems. In their view, voters should send a message to TransLink, the province and the Mayors to get their house in order before they are given any new money. Even the mayors admit that “TransLink’s bad image makes transit tax a hard sell,” to quote a Vancouver Sun headline of January 19th. So far, the “No” side has set the agenda.

The “Yes” Coalition kicked off their educational campaign only yesterday. More on their campaign in a later post.

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