Tagged: Toronto

Hot Docs

There are hundreds of film festivals around the world each year. There are many fewer documentary film festivals, those that attempt to “document” reality. The first doc festivals began in Europe: in Leipzig (1955), Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland (1969), Paris (1978), Munich (1985) and Amsterdam (1988). Hot Docs, founded in Toronto in 1993, was among the first documentary film festivals in all of the Americas. There are now 21 such festivals in North and South America, including the DOXA Festival in Vancouver and the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal, both begun in 1998.

Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, running from April 24 – May 4 in Toronto, is showing 202 films in 11 different venus. The full gamut of subjects is on offer: activism and protest, aging and the elderly, art and artists, children and youth, crime and punishment, disabilities, ecology and the environment, education, family issues, fashion and style, film and filmmakers, gender and sexuality, health, labour and working people, love and relationships, music and musicians, myths and legends, politics and political intrigue. For those who like to use film festivals as a cheap way to travel, there are many films on cultures and issues in Africa, America, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Also films dealing with immigration, multiculturalism and race, indigenous cultures and LGBT issues. The screening schedule is available at the Hot Docs website.

I have lived in Toronto for over 40 years and this is the first year that I have really plugged into Hot Docs. April is always a busy month and, in the past, Hot Docs has slipped by without my realizing it. My friends knowledgeable about film think that is a big mistake. Hot Docs is more low key than TIFF, and the quality of the films varies as with any film festival. But Hot Docs includes many world or North American premieres and, as the film-makers tend to stay for all their showings, the Q & A periods after the films are consistently interesting. Tickets are more readily accessible, online or at the box office in the lower level of Cumberland Terrace, 2 Bloor Street West. Festival passes include free tickets for late-night screenings (after 11:00 pm). Subject to availability, seniors (60 and over) and students (with valid ID) can attend daytime screenings (starting before 5:00 pm) free of charge, by picking up their tickets the same day at the screening’s venue. Box offices at the venues open one hour before the first screening of the day.

Because we are out of the city for part of the festival, I’ve limited myself to five films. The first is Bintou, describing the life of an enterprising young dressmaker from Burkina Faso (in sub-Saharan West Africa, where I once worked as a teacher). At TIFF there are often films from or about Burkina Faso but not this year, so I will make up for that at Hot Docs. My second film is The Secret Trial 5 about Canada’s security certificates used to imprison five Muslim men without charge for almost 30 years, while the evidence against them remains secret. I know a couple of the lawyers who represented these individuals; they are among the most skilled and respected in the profession, but the procedure is still secret. This is a huge anomaly in our legal system. My third choice is Silenced where three of the world’s most famous government whistle-blowers discuss their experiences. My fourth is Everything Will Be, described as “a heartwarming and cinematically stunning ode to a community in transition,” which was Vancouver’s Chinatown. My final pick, Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me, is billed as an “award-winning and somewhat controversial” documentary describing conflicting points of view on post-apartheid South Africa and “Mandela’s… sainthood status.” South Africa and Mandela have been the focus of much of my attention this past year. Hearing alternative perspectives may complete the picture.

My choices would not be your choices. That we have so many choices is a gift not to be overlooked.

P.S.: I understand that Dawson City Yukon hosted a Short Film Festival recently. At the Bell Lightbox in Toronto, TIFF joined the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies to open the Just For Cats Cat Video Festival which is also scheduled for Saskatoon, Montreal, Vancouver and Regina.  I invite anyone who can report on these festivals to share with us in the Comment section below.

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Happy First Day of Spring

Monday (April 7th) felt like the first day of spring in Toronto. After the longest, coldest, most miserable winter in recent memory, spring is finally here… nearly three weeks late. At 7:00 in the morning, the sun was shining, the air warm, the birds singing, there was no wind and it just felt like spring. So much so that, for the first time in months, I actually left my car at home and walked through Little Italy to the Y. Ah, the joy of walking again in the early morning. I saw my first robin, and the crocuses are coming out in the community garden at the corner. A mother rode by on her tandem bicycle with her child peddling along behind. My comment: “Great pace.” Her reply: “Feeling great.”

At the Y, everyone felt the same way. Dana, our noted aquafit instructor, put us through our routines, did our stretching exercises, and then bid us enjoy “the first day of spring.” In the change room, one woman mentioned that she had given up the T.T.C. and come on her bicycle for the first time since last fall. Another was wearing long dangling Spanish-style earrings. When I admired them, she said that since it was now really spring, she could give up her hat and wear her earrings instead. We all had a spring in our step (I know, a terrible cliché), a smile on our faces, and were inexplicably friendly one with the other. How we have all longed for spring to come.

Walking home, I had a chance to rediscover the neighbourhood after its long winter hibernation. There seem many more stores with windows covered in paper, a sign of shops come and gone. But there are many new pop-ups as fifth- or sixth-floor additions to the older buildings on the blocks. These have large windows and big balconies and must be new luxury condos or rentals, built to take advantage of the downtown location and the great views. I knew there were such new residences built over the medical-dental building at the corner of Euclid and College, but I hadn’t before noticed the equally large dwellings built above the popular Chiado restaurant further west. They add to the residential densification which city planners are so anxious to promote. When luxury properties sell for many million dollars, and rents are several thousand dollars per month, is it any wonder that landlords along College Street are looking to capitalize on the value of the air rights above their properties?

Further signs of spring were everywhere. The corner of Clinton and College was once rated by Utne Reader as one of the hippest corners on the continent. In the winter, you wouldn’t notice the difference. In the spring, it resumes its status as the pace-setter for the neighbourhood. Sure enough, there was music from speakers nearby, and the Café Diplomatico and Red Sauce across the street had set out their tables and chairs in the hopes of attracting a patio crowd. The forecast may have been for rain in the afternoon, but hope springs eternal (ouch!!!). And children in the Clinton school playground were blowing bubbles. What better harbinger of spring is there? 

By the afternoon, it had clouded over, the winds picked up, a heavy rain warning posted. And the temperature was dropping to a low of 4 degrees. As they say in Vancouver, at least we don’t have to shovel it. And maybe by the time this post goes public, spring will last all day. Hope springs… etc.

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Toronto Municipal Elections: Have you heard of the Ranked Ballot Initiative?

I pride myself on knowing something about Toronto municipal politics. My blog has given me an excuse to attend City Council meetings and write of the Ford affair. Until last week, however, I knew absolutely nothing about the Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto, also known as RaBIT. Have you heard of it? I asked several knowledgeable friends also interested in municipal politics. Their response was like mine: the newspaper reports last week were the first they had heard of it.

So what is RaBIT? It’s a non-partisan, grassroots organization in Toronto which has been pushing for reform of our municipal election system for at least a year. Their webpage features a Steve Paikin Agenda interview (dating from April 2013) with activist Dave Meslin describing the proposed reform, information about its advantages, the experience elsewhere, and the support it has. RaBIT proposes a timeline for implementation that would see the enabling legislation passed in the spring of 2014, ranked ballots to apply to the election for mayor in 2018, and to the election for councillors in 2022.

And what is a ranked ballot system, also known as instant runoff voting? Instead of voting for only one person as mayor or councillor as we now do in the first-past-the-post system, electors would indicate three choices for each position, first, second or third. On voting night, if a single candidate obtains 50% plus one of the first choice votes, he or she wins. If no one obtains a majority, the candidate with the least number of first place choices is dropped, and the second place preferences of those voters distributed among the remainder. This allocation continues until one candidate for each position obtains a majority vote. This system is used in major U.S. cities, in state and federal elections in Australia, and also by Canadian political parties choosing their own leaders.

According to the website, the system has broad support across the political spectrum, and in the media. Andrew Coyne and Chris Selley of the National Post, Jerry Agar of Sun News, Edward Keenan of The Grid, Royston James and Catherine Porter of the Toronto Star, and the Toronto Star itself, have all endorsed the proposal. Given this high-powered media support, how come this reform has not been discussed more widely in the media?

The question is particularly apt as Toronto City Council actually voted, by a margin of 26 to 15, on June 11, 2013, to request that the Ontario government amend the Municipal Elections Act to authorize the use and establish the framework of Ranked Choice Voting to permit Toronto City Council to use ranked ballots and instant runoff voting in municipal elections. Since the current City Council has endorsed the proposal and formally asked the province for the power to implement it, why is the province not acting on Council’s resolution?

Adrian Morrow, in the Globe and Mail on February 24th, suggested that Premier Kathleen Wynne is keen about the idea, but doesn’t want the issue to become a hot potato in the 2014 municipal election. She is also said to be concerned that, if it were a government bill, the support necessary from the other parties to pass the bill might not be forthcoming. Her solution is apparently to go forward with a private member’s bill called the Toronto Ranked Ballot Elections Act, tabled on February 26th by MPP Mitzie Hunter who represents Scarborough-Guildwood, and scheduled for discussion at Queen’s Park on March 6th. The hope is that a private member’s bill could be the subject of a free vote and garner support from the NDP and Tories.

Hunter’s proposed bill would give Toronto City Council statutory authority to adopt a ranked ballot system. The caveats are that Council must hold public hearings before they do so, that any bylaw they pass would require provincial approval, and could go into effect only in 2015. NDP MPP for Davenport, Jonah Schein, has also tabled a private member’s bill giving Toronto City Council authority to adopt “an alternative voting system” (without specifying the ranked ballot alternative). That both the Liberals and the NDP are interested in municipal electoral reform is hopeful. Is it possible for them to work together to fast track this initiative before any provincial election?

I would have liked to see such an initiative apply to the upcoming 2014 municipal election. It would create the conditions for a fair, open and friendly election campaign which might actually focus on the issues. The reform discourages negative attacks on individual candidates, and requires candidates to broaden their appeal to as many voters as possible. These conditions are necessary now, not four years down the road. The incremental timeline favoured by RaBIT is probably more realistic. Given how little public discussion there has been about the proposal, that timeline is probably necessary for consultation and working out the details.

This proposal has prompted some interesting discussion. My friends and I have many questions about how it actually works. Since the proposed bill would require public hearings and a further decision from Toronto City Council, it strikes me that it is a good first step towards potential election reform. If you agree, you might want to add your support to the change.org petition found on the RaBIT webpage. The petition is to Premier Wynne and the provincial Opposition Leaders requesting that they respect the wishes of Toronto City Council and pass the enabling legislation now. Without the enabling legislation, there will likely be little discussion about the issue (witness the last nine months). With the enabling legislation, we can at least have the debate. That would be a very good thing.

IT’S NOW FRIDAY, MARCH 7th, and RaBIT has communicated with all those who signed their petition to announce that Mitzie Hunter’s Bill 166, the Toronto Ranked Ballot Elections Act, passed second reading yesterday and has gone to the Standing Committee on Social Policy for clause-by-clause review. RaBIT has circulated the names of the Committee members and their contact information so that supporters can communicate their desire that the Bill pass as expeditiously as possible. As a reminder, the Bill is only to empower the Toronto City Council to commence a consultation process about the ranked ballot issue for the 2018 election.

The Committee members are Chair Ernie Hardeman, Vice-Chair Ted Chudleigh, Members Bas Balkissoon, Mike Colle, Vic Dhillon, Cheri De Novo, Rod Jackson, Helena Jaczek, Paul Miller. The Committee Clerk, and presumably the staff person, is Valerie Quioc Lim at Tel. 416-325-7352. You can communicate with the Committee using her email address: valerie_quioc@ontla.org.

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The World’s Greatest Aquafit Instructor

I have taken aquafit classes on and off for years. Never before have I met an instructor as skilled as Dana Pelham at the College Street West End YMCA in Toronto. He is a master of his craft, with a large following of fans including the 30 or more (many seniors and an increasing number of men) who faithfully attend his classes, several times a week. His energy, enthusiasm and good spirits leave the group smiling and upbeat after a workout which is surprisingly rigorous. 

Dana Pelham, photo  by Rafael Montoya

His is a model for creative and effective teaching. Unlike many instructors, Dana breaks down his movements and concentrates on having them done correctly before he begins counting. He starts with the basics, adds variations, and then offers a challenge. It is fun mimicking a marionette, jumping over a candlestick, or jumping in circles, first to the side, then to the back, then three-quarters, then all the way around. Crunches and lunges are less tedious done in the water. That he names them for what they are makes us realize that we are doing a classic exercise, but we have the added benefit provided by water resistance. I will take his word for the claim that his dreaded snake exercise strengthens every muscle in the body. It certainly feels like it. He does exercises for balance, and for the brain, particularly important for the seniors in the class. And he works on our breathing.

His teaching is eclectic, drawing from different sports to engage the participants and make them work harder than otherwise they would. He uses boxing, running, soccer, dance, water walking, tai chi, cross-country skiing, yoga, basketball, tennis, and whatever else he draws from his bag of tricks. One day we were to imagine ourselves dribbling a ball as we ran and pivoted in the pool. Another he suggested we use our noodles to earn an “aquafit twinkle toes award.” Another he challenged us to do a steeplechase. Racing back and forth on the side of the pool, he created the scenario of us running a Canadian national championship, four laps with three short jumps and one big jump on each lap. He started us at 56th in the pack, moved us to 45th, then down to 39th, then down to 28th, then 15th, 14th, and 12th, then down to fourth, third, and finally second… sometimes he fantasizes that we win. Fantasy is fun, and it makes the time for a fast sprint in the water fly by.

He really mixes up his classes, so they are never boring. Sometimes he makes us run across the pool at increasingly faster paces. First to the count of ten, then to the count of nine, then eight, etc. Other times, he has us water walking on the noodles the length of the pool. This is not easy, but it is good exercise and the ride on the noodle is a treat.

There is no Olympic gold medal for World’s Greatest Aquafit Instructor. And, of course, my experience in such classes is not universal. But how could anyone be better than this superb instructor with his comprehensive command of movement, his excellent communication skills and his enthusiasm? His grin and his good humour are infectious. No matter what the pace, participants try harder. When I take his classes, Dana makes my day.  Thanks, Dana.

Dana Pelham doing "The Snake," photo by Rafael Montoya

Dana Pelham does “The Snake”     Photos: Rafael Montoya.

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The Toronto Ice Storm

Since Mel Lastman called in the army to dig Toronto out of the snow, our winters have seemed relatively benign. Not this year. The solstice brought an ice storm which started Saturday night and continued until mid-day Sunday. “The Nightmare before Christmas,” as the newspaper called it, is continuing, particularly for those who still have no power.

What started as rain on Saturday quickly turned into ice: ice on the sidewalks, on the overhead electric wires, on the trees and bushes, on the streetcar tracks and cables, on the transit rails. Go Transit was out, streetcars were immobilized, branches of trees fell from the overhead canopy, electric power lines (still live) were down on local streets and sidewalks, traffic lights did not function, Sunnybrook and Toronto East General hospitals were operating on generators. Apparently a newly-constructed water filtration plant was knocked out.

It is the lack of electric power which has particularly affected hundreds of thousands in the city and beyond. The power outages seem to be random, the effects of fallen trees and downed power lines in localized areas. The western part of the downtown core where I live seemed unaffected, until my husband went to Fiesta Farms, our large local supermarket on Christie Street south of Dupont, and found the store (packed with pre-Christmas shoppers) operating on a generator, with no heat, no lights, and half their stock unavailable in the freezers.

My initial telephone calls to local friends confirmed that they were okay. Then I got calls from others, and the stories began to emerge. One friend in North Toronto had a houseful of relatives staying overnight Saturday in anticipation of a big family Christmas celebration the next day. When they awoke Sunday, their power was out and remained out all day, coming on only as they sat down for dinner of purchased dishes and barbecue around 5:00 pm. Their response? To be glad the power was back on, and to phone around to see if anyone wanted to use their house when they left on vacation the next day.

Another friend lives just a block south of the first. She was calling from out of the city. Her neighbour had phoned to tell them that there were so many trees down on the street that it was initially impassable. A city crew cut a path so people could walk in and out, but there was no vehicle access and no electricity. An acquaintance at the YMCA dropped in for a shower. He had no power in his east end home and was busy caring for aged parents living in different apartments in Etobicoke. His father had no elevator service and had to climb nine stories to his apartment. Another friend told of packing up her two cats and bunking in with her in-laws and their dog overnight. She has now learned that power has been restored to her East York home, but she doesn’t want to return too quickly lest it goes off again. Another friend shivered through Sunday night without heat or hot water, and stayed in a hotel last night. She is decamping today to the home of a friend, and is planning to change the venue of her Christmas dinner tomorrow if necessary.

One of our sons reported driving into the city on Monday morning with little traffic, and no functioning traffic lights all the way from the 401 to downtown. Several of his colleagues still had no power. Our other son flew into Pearson airport late last night and saw from the sky a patchwork of lights here and darkness there, all across Mississauga and the city.

This morning, 115,000 Toronto residents are still without power, and another 80,000 in the GTA. Now the temperature has dropped again, and the winds are picking up. Snow is falling on the layers of ice. There have been instances of carbon monoxide poisoning from heaters and barbecues operated indoors. And officials are warning it could be several days before power is fully restored.

This time, there is a genuine problem. Behind the scenes, there is tension over whether or not to “call an emergency.” “The mayor” refuses to declare “an emergency.” If he did, his powers would default to the Deputy Mayor as set out in the Council resolution passed last month. The province is providing assistance without any official designation. Police divisions have opened as warming centers. Hydro, forestry, public works and transit crews are working overtime and on their holidays. The hospitals and most city transit are back on stream. Tonight is Christmas Eve; tomorrow Christmas. People are resilient, will rally, and celebrate as best they can.

Merry Christmas everyone and all the best for a happy and healthy new year.

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Neighbourhood Noshing

Holiday open houses and summer street parties are welcome neighbourhood events. Progressive dinners and potluck suppers among friends are not so unusual. The annual Beaconsfield Village Travelling Dinner must surely mark the ultimate in neighbourhood noshing.

Beaconsfield Village was incorporated in 1910 in honour of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, whom Queen Victoria named Lord Beaconsfield. In the Toronto west end, the streets were first laid out in the l880s and l890s. The village runs from Ossington in the east to Dufferin in the west, Dundas in the north to Queen in the south, with approximately 2610 households, and a population of over 6200 people. For many years, overwhelmingly a Portuguese neighbourhood centred on Rua Açores on Dundas Street, it has increasingly become the home of the arts community focused on Queen Street West. This is the catchment area for the Travelling Dinner which was originally organized by some residents living on Beaconsfield Avenue, and this year included 120 individuals from 60 households.

Anyone in the area who signs up for the dinner in time is welcome to participate. A week prior to the event, participants are informed which course will be their contribution. This year, 15 houses provided appetizers, 15 soup and salad, 15 entrées, and 15 desserts. The hosts supply the appropriate alcohol. Six participants attend the host home for each course. Each course is expected to last 75 minutes or so. The participants then move on to another host, and so on throughout the evening. Never are the guests at one home the same in the next. The participants are all mixed up, all the better to get to know as many people as possible.

My friend described the wonderful camaraderie which developed through the evening. Eight people is a small enough group that people bond quickly. Moving from one house to another, people travel on foot, greeting fellow participants on the street in passing. As the evening progresses and liquor flows, new groups bond with each course, and the warmth multiplies. Particular dishes such as Mark’s trio of soups served in shooter glasses, or Jordan and Lisa’s Crack Pie in honour of Mayor Ford, become the talk of the town. The evening this year concluded with an “after party” at the Guild, a local bistro on Dundas, where the majority of the participants gathered until the wee small hours of the morning, all the better to dwell on a warm and delicious experience. This was the sixth such event; the date for next year has been set already.

In the big city, friends and family are often far-flung. Residents may (or may not) have contact even with their neighbours next door. People who live down the street or around the corner may be unknown. Eating together is a traditional mark of hospitality and sharing. Yet we do it so seldom. That is why the Beaconsfield Village Travelling Dinner is such an attractive model. Such an event requires initiative and considerable organizational skills, but what could be more worthwhile than building community between strangers in the city?

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Christmas Choral Music

It’s the holiday season, the air is crisp (if not downright cold), and music abounds. For Christians, those who come from a Christian tradition, and those who just love music, one of the greatest treasures of the season is the plethora of glorious choral music at this time of the year. Shoppers may be subjected to saccharine “holiday” music in the mall. Those who love choral music can choose from a smorgasbord of delights offered up by all sorts of choirs. 

For readers in the Toronto area, the invaluable resource for all musical events is The WholeNote magazine, free of charge on stands in the community or digital on the internet. In addition to its timely articles on the musical scene, it lists all concerts in Toronto, the GTA, and beyond. Toronto tenor and lutenist Benjamin Stein has written a Choral Scene review which focuses on December concerts including those of several children’s choirs, ethnic choirs, the choral music of the masters (apart from Handel), and other significant upcoming choral events. Check these out.

Sing-along opportunities abound. The two Toronto Star Christmas Carol Concerts at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor Street are a tradition for many. These concerts feature the Salvation Army Canadian Staff Band, several community and church choirs under the direction of Dr. Giles Bryant, and ample opportunity to sing favourite Christmas carols accompanied by the choirs, the band, and the magnificent church organ. Some 2600 tickets are available free of charge, but only to those (or their delegates) who line up early in the morning on the appointed day several weeks in advance to pick them up. The concerts are a fundraiser for the Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund and typically raise over $45,000.00 for their Christmas box campaign.

Every year, I attend the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir Sing-Along Messiah at Massey Hall the Sunday before Christmas. Over twenty-seven hundred choristers crowd into the Hall, arranging themselves into voice sections as Sopranos, Altos, Tenors and Basses (and the assorted others), filling every seat. Ivars Taurins, dressed in the garb of George Frideric Handel and affecting his accent and mannerisms, leads the orchestra, choir, soloists, and the assembled masses as they work through the highlights of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. The soloists sing the recitatives and the airs; the rest of us stand to join in the choruses. It is a splendid experience. 

My friend, with whom I have always attended this event, sings in several choirs, is an accomplished musician, and has no problem singing the alto part with confidence and gusto. I once sang in a church choir, know little about reading music other than to know when the notes go up and down, and how long they are to be held (sort of… ). To participate in this event, I do my best to keep up, and lip synch a lot. Over the years, I’ve become better at it, thanks largely to my strong singer friend. It is a sublime experience to sing the Hallelujah chorus in such company not once, but twice… as the event always ends with a repeat of the Hallelujah chorus, “to raise the roof.” For those who can’t join this event live, there is a DVD of the Sing-Along Messiah available from Tafelmusik. Originally produced for Bravo, the film is also sometimes seen on local or public television. It’s a great way to mark the season.

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Christmas Traditions

Hallowe’en has come and gone. The Santa Claus Parade was two weeks ago. And now it is early December. Even those of us who refuse to get caught up in the commercialization of Christmas are getting into the mood of the season. Although the dark comes earlier, the city lit their lights last weekend, and the neighbourhood is aglow with the decorations which always make me feel warm and cosy.

Christmas baking has been a traditional harbinger of the season. When our children were growing up, I and several friends used to start the season with an all-day Christmas baking bee. Each person would bake double recipes of their favourite family treats, we would cook them together in a marathon session, and then we would spread them out on the dining room table, tally them up, and divide the product of our day’s labours equally among us. Our time together was always great fun; lots of white wine, and a chance to catch up on all the news as we decorated the gingerbread. filled the tarts with mincemeat, or cut the shortbread. Because there were five or so families involved, we always left with a great variety of goodies which we packed away into our boxes. Some people used the baking for gifts; others stored it away in the freezer to keep the family supplied with sweets throughout the season.

Over the decades, we marked the fact we were getting older by the number of recipes we baked. Initially, we actually did three double recipes on our baking day. Those days stretched late into the evening. Then we reduced our expectations to two double recipes. A few years later, we changed to bringing one recipe already baked, and only baking one together. Then we could not believe that we had once actually done all that baking on a single day.

Our all-day baking bee is no more. Friends have passed away. Children have grown up. Health issues put a damper on eating fancy sweets. Treasured family recipes seem obsolete beside the light cuisine now in favour. The time has come to create new traditions, preferably ones that don’t involve food. 

The West End YMCA Walking Club, organized by Lori Myers out of the College Street (West End) YMCA four months ago, typically walks to and from lesser known attractions in the city. On Sunday, we visited the opening of the Allan Gardens Christmas Flower Show. Allan Gardens is a downtown park, between Carlton and Gerrard, Jarvis and Sherborne, in the heart of Toronto. It features, among other things, a complex of glass Victorian greenhouses, including one that was moved from its original site at the University of Toronto. The conservatory is filled with lush tropical plants, ferns, orchids, violets, succulents, cacti, all manner of greenery to warm the soul when the weather is cold or damp outside. As of yesterday, the greenhouses are replete with colour: poinsettias, azaleas, anthurium, kalanchoe, cyclamen, croton of all shades and varieties, people fashioned from plants, a Christmas tree decked with oranges and cloves, wreaths of evergreen with the freshest holly, tropical plants blooming chartreuse, orange, yellow, and the reddest of reds.

Sunday there were horse and carriage rides, Victorian carollers, hot cider and cookies to mark the beginning of the season. On December 7th and 8th, 14th and 15th, 21st and 22nd, the conservatory will be bathed in candlelight from five to seven o’clock. I cannot imagine anything that could be more magical than to visit Allan Gardens by candlelight in the dead of winter. We had an absolutely lovely visit to the Gardens. Maybe this is the beginning of a new tradition.

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Poinsettias, etc.

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Fuchsia

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Cyclamen

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Barrel cactus & kalanchoe

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Globe and Mail: “Why We Should Listen to Vancouver’s Mayor”

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.

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Chickens Come Home to Roost Week

The title was coined by a friend commenting on the current state of Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford and of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Prime Minister’s role in and reaction to the ongoing Senate scandal has preoccupied the nation for days, rightly so. As it applies to him, I think her analogy is more than apt. My focus here, however, is on the melodrama surrounding Mayor Rob Ford.

On October 31st, Rob Ford was the subject of two very significant public revelations in a Hallowe’en nightmare come true for the mayor. The first was Chief of Police Bill Blair’s press conference announcing that the police had in their possession a digital file which showed “what had previously been reported in the press” and which made Blair “disappointed.” The second was the release, pursuant to a Superior Court judge’s order, of the redacted contents of the Information To Obtain (the ITO) used by the police to obtain a search warrant in a lengthy drug-dealing investigation involving the mayor’s “part-time driver and friend,” Alessandro Lisi, and others.

Chief Blair’s announcement proved that the notorious video first described by the Toronto Star last May did, in fact, exist, contrary to what Mayor Ford had previously said. The existence of the images does not mean that charges can, or perhaps ever will, be laid against the mayor. To prove possession of crack cocaine, there must be a witness who took the video and a certificate of analysis confirming the nature of the substance. If the police have no such evidence, they cannot lay a criminal charge.

The redacted court documents are now being studied in detail and described by the press. See The National Post, November 2, 2013, p. A10. Telephone records show a pattern of many calls between Lisi and the mayor, including calls immediately after reports of the video first broke. Police surveillance reports show Mayor Ford in the company of Lisi, and numerous rendezvous between them, in sketchy circumstances. Regardless of any potential addiction to illicit drugs, the video and the ITO corroborate long-existing reports of his impairment by alcohol. And Lisi, already charged with dealing in drugs, has now been charged with extortion.

Most important, the ITO and the initial video images show a pattern of behaviour by the mayor which has shocked the city. All four daily newspapers (including the Toronto Sun) are calling for Ford to step aside. The Toronto Board of Trade has issued a statement asking him to take a leave of absence. His Council colleagues have expressed “great concerns” and are also calling on him to step down “so that he can deal with his personal problems.”

And Mayor Ford’s reaction??? Thursday, he was adamant that he had no reason to resign. Yesterday, his lawyer was demanding public release of the video. To what end? Release of the video will add nothing to the issue. Today, who knows? Those who know him well say he may do what he has done in the past: plow forward, always on the offensive, and brazen it through. If he does that under these circumstances, there will be no more powerful proof that he is incapable of being mayor of Toronto. Modern mayors understand that they must be accountable, transparent and, most important, must not bring the city and the Office of the Mayor into disrepute. Ford strikes out on all counts. He has lost his legitimacy as Mayor of Toronto.

If no powers presently exist to remove or suspend him from his office in these circumstances, then there is a hole in our law the size of a football field. Cities, even a metropolis the size of Toronto, are creatures of the province. As we saw in the Divisional Court decision on appeal of his conflict of interest case, cities cannot act beyond their statutory authority. Rather than muddling through, it should be incumbent on the City Council to petition the province to amend the Municipal Act or the City of Toronto Act to deal with this situation as soon as possible. Is there any political party in this province which would not support such an immediate amendment?

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365 Days to Next Toronto Election… & Counting

October 27, 2014. One year from today will be the next Toronto election for mayor and councillors. Those elected will run the city until 2018. Mayor Ford has put Toronto on the map, but not necessarily as many of us may have wished. The existing show has been just that: one debacle after another. High profile pronouncements reversed, and reversed again. Important public policies bandied about by politicians of all stripes purely for political advantage, without regard to expert professional advice. A promise to weed out an alleged “gravy train” degenerating into a tawdry record of ignoring the rules, coaching football on city time, shutting out the media, etc., etc., etc.

 Soon the ball will be in our court to decide the future of this city.

Earlier this month, Rahul Bhardwaj, President and CEO of the Toronto Community Foundation, spoke to the Canadian Club about the TCF’s 12th Annual Vital Signs Report on the state of the city. The local press provided comprehensive coverage of their findings. The basic conclusion is that all that has made Toronto 4th out of 140 cities around the world on the Economist liveability scale is not sustainable in the current climate. 

What the press did not cover was Mr. Bhardwaj’s assessment of the local political scene. He did not mince words. He made a call for “network thinking” and for a City Hall that is not a “debating society for the deaf.” He referred to Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s vision of Calgary, and how even the Calgary Sun praised their mayor because “he gave us hope, made us proud.” Similarly the unlikely example of Bogota, Colombia, where the city is thriving. Why? Because both cities “have strong political leadership and a singular vision. Toronto has neither.”

Mr. Bhardwaj indicated that leaders who have vision achieve smart growth, do more with less, and achieve support for change. He said that there are five things Toronto needs:

  • connectivity, including transit that actually meets people’s needs
  • an affordable housing strategy
  • more public spaces that are “people-centred”
  • an integrated approach to youth unemployment (check out the German model), and
  • the need to “rebuild the Toronto brand” so that “the world knows what Toronto stands for”

He asks who will kickstart this? What he termed the “cringeworthy leadership in the city” shows a “complete unwillingness to take a risk. Real leadership depends on taking real risks” and a capacity “to heal the trust deficit.” He noted that the 2014 municipal election is October 27, 2014 and we “can’t indulge in magical thinking twice.” Nor can we wait for “somebody else.” “It is time for all of us to act as “somebodies” and “get engaged again.” He called for “network thinking, big time,” suggesting that each of us “create, nurture, and deliver our own networks” for the good of the city.

Maybe Rahul Bhardwaj should be our next mayor. If not him, who has the vision, the skills, and the credibility to move Toronto forward? That is the key issue.

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TIFF

The Toronto International Film Festival swept Toronto last month. Despite some unusual screening glitches, It seemed bigger, better, more energetic and more open to the general public than ever before. Perhaps this was due to the free public screenings, or maybe to the concentration of activities on King Street where the buzz in TIFF headquarters at the Bell Lightbox spilled onto the street.

When there are 455 odd movies on offer, choosing what to see is a big issue. Do I “waste” my TIFF tickets on movies that obviously will go mainstream? Do I treat TIFF as a cheap holiday abroad and see as many foreign films as possible? Do I seek out the “little gems” that will never make general distribution? Or do I just take my chances? The multiplicity of choices means that every one has a different experience, depending on what they see, which celebrities may be present, and who one meets in the lines.

I met a woman who told me she will have seen 81 movies during the ten days at TIFF. She is a member of the Patrons Circle and can access films without waiting in lines. That facilitates seeing up to six films a day. Most of us, however, are less frenetic, have less money, less energy, or are working. Unless, of course, you are like one of my colleagues who used to take her holidays during TIFF and see as many films as she could.

One of my retirement objectives was to re-engage with TIFF in a big way. I was also curious to see if I still had the stamina to see the movies, do the lines, and maintain the hours. Now that TIFF is over, I look back on it as a superb experience. I saw at least four movies that will likely be mainstream hits, eight foreign language films, six documentaries, three art films that will become classics, a musical from Scotland, and a South African rendition of Benjamin Britten’s classic opera Noye’s Flood. Of those, nine were world premiere screenings that featured question and answer sessions with the directors, producers and stars of the particular movie. These Q and A sessions with the professionals is one of the highlights of the festival, an opportunity to learn the scoop about production issues. 

Many people avoid TIFF because of the lines. The lines are notorious. The Toronto Star did a story on the self-preservation skills needed by people who wait in rush lines for potential tickets for up to seven hours. Even ticket holders who are assured entry persist in lining up to get the seating they prefer with their buddies. I don’t mind the TIFF lines. They are one of the few occasions when normally taciturn Torontonians actually speak to strangers. What films have you seen? What did you like? Easy openers that generally lead to exchanging good information. And you never know whom you might meet. This year, among others, I met a television producer from Puerto Rico, an ex-lawyer who has successfully given up law to write cookbooks, and who knows about the many others.

For a full listing of all films shown at TIFF 2013, with a description of each one, check out the website Tiff.net/the festival/filmprogramming and access the catalogue. This can be your guide to all these movies through the year. I will review some of the films I saw in future blogs.

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