It’s Toronto International Film Festival time again, and the city is buzzing. They turned King Street from University to Spadina Avenue into a pedestrian precinct for the first four days of the festival. This is the geographic heart of TIFF, the home of the TIFF Bell Lightbox with its several very comfortable high-tech screens, the Ticket Center at Metro Hall, the large venues at the Princess of Wales Theatre and Roy Thomson Hall where the big galas take place, and the activities at David Pecaut Square. In addition to the red carpet entrances provided for the big stars at the gala venues, the Lightbox has become the honey pot for movie star groupies who congregate to see their favourites in the lobby or at the “stage door” entrance outside. Eating places and watering holes expanded onto the street, assorted games and industry curiosities amused passers-by, and TIFF volunteers sporting their bright orange t-shirts seemed to abound. People streamed to the street, revelling yet again in walking a public space freed of traffic. What Toronto Star columnist Christopher Hume yesterday termed “the festivalization of Toronto” is one of his “reasons for optimism” for the city, one of his “eight reasons to love Toronto.” I agree.
Closing the street caused some controversy. The King streetcar line is one of the busiest in the city, serving thousands of commuters to the Bay Street core of the city every day. As diverting these streetcars around the King Street TIFF scene would slow the commute, there was a concern that inconveniencing commuters to accommodate movie goers would not go down well. After all, inadequate transit, traffic congestion and, if you are “Mayor” Ford, anything which interferes with the free flow of cars (let alone streetcars of any kind) are major themes in the current municipal election campaign. Toronto streetcar riders, however, are resilient, infinitely patient, and as starstruck as anyone else. The media consensus seems to be that the pedestrian-only experiment was an outstanding success which should be repeated in the future.
It helped that, the weekend before TIFF began, the Toronto Transit Commission launched the first two of their fleet of 240 modern, readily accessible, air-conditioned streetcars on the Spadina line which crosses King. It may be several years before the new streetcars become the norm on all lines, but the actual appearance of the new streetcars, after a transit draught spanning decades, has provided a glimmer of hope. Whatever “Mayor” Ford may say, the people in inner-city Toronto love their streetcars and are thrilled with concrete evidence that streetcars are here to stay.
Getting back to TIFF. Another change this year was the new TIFF policy that galas featured during the early days of the festival (“prime time” apparently) must be real “world premieres,” not reruns from a prior festival such as Cannes, Sundance or Telluride. TIFF regulars were fearful that major new movies would be deterred from coming to Toronto. Such has not been the case. The galas have been as big and spectacular as ever; if anything, the new policy has meant that big new films which may have opened elsewhere are now spread throughout the ten days of the festival which makes it easier for fans to fit them into their schedule.
I had intended to write about some of the movies I’ve seen at TIFF, like the new biopic about Stephen Hawking, called The Theory of Everything, which I saw yesterday. It is a wonderful movie and well worth seeing. Another time. And look for further posts on the Toronto municipal elections and other issues that have come to my attention over the summer. Having left the Alsek River, it is time to move on.
Vancouver’s Mayor, Gregor Robertson, was the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Ottawa last month. Robertson brought to the national scene the experience of the Vancouver City Council: Mayor’s Roundtable on Mental Health and Addiction, a coalition of 140 community leaders to target the homeless with severe mental health and addiction issues. See their report, released October 22nd, and discussed by André Picard in the Globe and Mail.
For all its natural beauty, Vancouver has a continuing problem with the homeless, some of whom are hard-core street people with untreated mental illness and chronic additions. In the wake of an increase in violent attacks, emergency room visits, and Mental Health Act nonconsensual hospitalizations, Vancouver police report that they now spend 25 percent of their time dealing with severely mentally ill street people. Where psychiatric facilities are closed, local community services underfunded or cut back, and a “law and order” justice system no more than a revolving door, more homeless is inevitable. Vancouver is not alone. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, an estimated 300,000 Canadians live in the 1,096 shelters and on the streets across the country each year. They cost $1.4 billion in additional health care, justice and social services costs, annually. Vancouver has decided to do something about it. And homelessness is the key.
Reading Picard’s account of the Vancouver initiative, I recall similar attention and similar strategies in Toronto not so long ago. Homelessness was a big issue in Toronto. Apart from the Toronto Community Foundation Vital Signs Report, I haven’t heard much about it in recent years. Does that mean the problem has been solved? Or only that it has been drowned out by other issues and by other styles of municipal governance?
How Robertson went about dealing with the homelessness issue is what I want to focus on. He identified a big problem, gathered together all the affected agencies and institutions, researched the current situation, learned from the experts, and developed a comprehensive strategy to address it. He recognized the extent to which it is a national problem and is now seeking a national strategy, and federal funds, to deal with what has now seen as a “public-health crisis.” His is a model for the development of intelligent and effective public policy.
Compare the current Toronto scene where transit has been identified as the key public policy issue of the day. Globe and Mail municipal reporter, Marcus Gee, has produced a video on the history of how transit policy has been made (or not) in Toronto in recent years. It is hilarious and, alas, totally true. Maybe as a public service, the Globe and Mail should post the video on YouTube. It would go viral. You can click on the hyperlink and see if you agree.