Jack Layton: Downtown Canadian

Where the two main roads of Hilton Beach, Ontario meet at an angle in front of the Hilton Beach General Store, there is a floral planter (maintained by the St. Joseph Island Horticultural Society) with a flagpole in the middle. The flag is at half-mast.

Hilton Beach is the smaller of two villages on this island, possessed of a general store, LCBO, a large, modern marina, and a couple of waterfront patios that cater to island cottagers who come in for a meal, and the big-city crowd that boats down for the day. The big city is Sault Ste. Marie. This is where we are.

The flag at the crossroads is at half-mast for Jack Layton. It’s hardly the only flag at half-mast up here. I’m not even counting the poor Legion Hall in town, whose flag barely gets a chance to reach the top these days. The Husky truck stop at the edge of Sault Ste. Marie – a truck stop! – the kind with the flag the size of a football field, has lowered theirs too.

I want to shake these people. I want to say: Do you have any idea who you’ve lowered this flag for? Do you know where he lived? Do you know how close that place was to the CN Tower? Have you lost all sense of parochial grievance? If so, what do you have left that qualifies you as Canadians?

The fact that Layton achieved a national breakthrough in life while coming from exactly the wrong place for electoral credibility is just as remarkable as the outpouring of national emotion after his death. It’s worth remembering that his success this spring came – perhaps not despite, but at least while being – exactly the kind of person who is not supposed to win elections in 2011.

Never mind the fact that the guy was from Toronto, that great receptacle of negative emotions. The guy was from downtown Toronto. The guy was a socialist from downtown Toronto. The guy was a socialist who lived in a brick house in downtown Toronto with his socialist wife and spent his time pursuing a day-to-day socialist agenda of eating Chinese food and installing solar panels and worrying about the homeless. He rode a bike, for crying out loud. A bike! He wanted other people to ride bikes. He put little places to park bikes on the sidewalks and run bike lanes down the roads. He was a fussy downtowner who fussed about downtown.

Twenty-two years ago, U of T was trying to do one of those things it does, and demolish some stately Victorian houses so it could build a luxury hotel on campus. A group of students – some of whom lived in those houses – decided to try to put a stop to it, so they called Jack Layton.

Layton had an idea. To rally the community to their cause, the students needed to give a sense of what a tower would do to the area. So, at his urging, a group of students congregated on what was then a field south of Bloor, and started blowing up black balloons filled with helium. They tied the balloons to 150-foot long tethers, and tied them at intervals around the perimeter of the proposed tower, creating a virtual tower, billowing in the sky. Then they called the media.

If you dig through the archives of the student newspaper at that college, you’ll find a special edition they printed when city council killed the project, a picture of a young Layton on the cover, holding forth in chambers. (The OMB eventually overturned council’s decision, but by that point the market had soured and the deal fell through.)

It’s a small-potatoes story, but I’m fond of it because years later it would become my college, and my college paper. And all small potatoes are very big potatoes indeed for the people who own them.

Jack Layton was a city councilor. Maybe he never stopped being a city councilor. Even once he was leading the NDP, you could still get him to call you for an earful about U of T or the industrial zoning snafu in Riverdale.

And this is the stuff a national leader is made of?

Well, yes.

Somehow, Jack rolled on past the tiresome identity politics that define this and every other country. As he became a national figure, nobody was ever able to tag him as a Toronto Elite, even as everyone south of Eglinton got tarred with that brush. Even as he remained proudly and intimately entwined not just in his city’s affairs, but in its way of life.

He was a downtowner. He lived the way that people live in downtown Toronto. We know what this means; it involves bike helmets and whatnot. In the last year, there’s been all kinds of political sport made of demonizing people who live like this, in goofier and goofier terms: Socialists became Toronto Elites became “not real” Torontonians became bike-riding pinkos became communists became communists who are plotting a takeover. And as easy as it is to write this all off as unhinged grandstanding, rhetoric seeps its way into reality. There was a warning beneath the silliness: Downtowers can’t connect with real people, and certainly won’t win elections.

Well, sucks to that.

Jack never ran away from his downtown background; neither did he run on it. He wasn’t an obnoxious urbanite (and we all know the breed). He didn’t go to Ottawa as the Honourable Member for Universe-Centre. For all of his activism for cities, the urban agenda – perhaps frustratingly – wasn’t at the core of his electoral pitch. I’d like to think he represented the best of downtown, not its occasionally-myopic worst. He was cosmopolitan in the sense that he wasn’t just a citizen of the whole world, but also of his whole country. Downtown Toronto was the place he came from, not the place he wanted to turn the country into.

What he did was remind us that if you want to put your fingers to the pulse of the country, to understand what makes its people tick, and work to capture their imaginations and their votes, then you can come from a fishing village; you can come from a prairie homestead; you can make it in Calgary, or represent the low-lying beauty of Lake Huron’s north shore, where I sit now.

Or, you can make your home in Chinatown in the shadow of the tower and in the midst of all that is good and great about the city, and work from there.

Everyone comes from somewhere. Jack came from downtown. The flags are at half-mast across the country, and for a moment, it’s almost as if we’re Canadians.

David Miller’s Toronto

David Miller did not found Luminato, or Nuit Blanche. He did not spark a “cultural rennaissance” by funding the rebuilding of the ROM and the AGO and OCAD. He did not give Toronto its banks that withstood a global meltdown unscathed. He did not create a condo boom that’s pushed the city into the skies.

He didn’t rebuild the Distillery, or build the opera house, or plan Dundas Square and fill it with tens of thousands of revellers over and over again. He didn’t even start Spacing Magazine, even though he kept showing up at their parties.

In fact, the list of things that David Miller didn’t personally do is really very long. (Also: founding Rome; colonizing Australia; writing Dan Brown’s novels.) Yet when one thinks of David Miller’s Toronto, these are the things that come to mind: A city bigger, a city fairer, a city covered in the tokens of prosperity and the evidence of enthusiasm.

We’ve just come through an election campaign that was fought on the premise that Toronto is broken, its leaders on the wrong track, its citizens divided by class. But the fact that Rob Ford won, and won big, doesn’t necessarily make that an immutable truth. Because the contradictory fact remains that, between 2003 and 2010, Toronto flowered.

Of course, anything would look like a blossom next to the atomic winter of the late Lastman years, when Toronto’s post-amalgamation governance was giving gong shows a good name. Mel Lastman was at the height of his weirdness. The police were bouncing from one corruption scandal to the next. Millions of tax dollars had been bilked in a computer-leasing intrigue that unravelled with the saddest-sack love affair ever to have its cell-phone records read in court. The city was littered with the decaying corpses of fiberglass moose.

It seemed, at the time, that the only power driving the city was its unweildy system itself. The city belonged to neither downtowners or suburbanites back then, but rather to opportunists who had stepped up to take advantage of it.

This was why the bridge to the island airport, of all the parochial squabbles, became an winning issue for Miller in 2003. The public imagination was not ignited by an airport few cared about, on an island full of uppity cottagers even fewer had much sympathy for. But a candidate willing to halt a bridge being rammed through by an unpleasant agency on behalf of a private company – well, now you’re cooking with gas.

So we stepped into the Miller era, an era that abandoned rudderless damage-control in favour of earnest city-building. We know what David Miller did do: Re-equip the TTC and rebuild the waterfront, fix the city’s waste fiasco and preside over bold new plans to revitalize the city’s low-income, high-risk neighborhoods. He installed a police board and chief that – until the heartbreak of 2010 – restored public trust in the force.

He set up a 311 service to provide better (yes) customer service to Torontonians. He won us the Pan-Am games. He rewrote the City of Toronto act, and used his new powers to plug the city’s budget gap with taxes that – surprise! – turned out to be less than crowd-pleasers.

He established an integrity commissioner, and ran his office with integrity. Million-dollar scandals became a thing of the past. By 2010, Kyle Rae’s $12,000 cash bar seemed a ripe target (and fair enough). It is not too much to say that David Miller cleaned up City Hall. But this laundry list – obscured as it often was by Miller’s oftentimes furrowed, droning performance as a communicator – doesn’t capture the essence of the 2000’s as we lived them.

David Miller was as much a product of his era as he was responsible for it. He presided over a time of intense interest in Toronto, by the people who live in it and who love it. Toronto in the 2000’s was a place not just to be inhabited, but celebrated; a place not just to be managed, but an immense public work, a never-ending project of commerce and community.

A city that had survived decades of architectural self-immolation followed by political self-destruction had emerged into an era of celebrating itself. David Miller’s Toronto was a place where millions thronged the streets on a regular schedule of public festivals through the year. A place where people who wanted to work for progressive ideals weren’t tacking into the wind. A place where people who write about cities and think about cities and talk about cities flourished at small presses and business schools alike. Say what you will about Richard Florida; he’s here.

These were high-falutin’ ideas. They might not have had much resonance with those who just wanted to get to work and back with a minumum of traffic, taxes, and waste-management complications. But these citizens came out winners too, from their property values to the thriving city at their children’s feet.

There will always be a large and reasonable swath of the population for whom the municipality is a service-delivery organization, no matter how it fancies itself. And Miller’s administration, in asking Torontonians to adapt in the name of progress, managed to bungle the execution of its plans enough to overstep those bounds.

Does the 2010 election amount to a rejection of what came before? Rob Ford won his election fair and square. But he didn’t run against David Miller; he ran against two uninspired and inchoate politicians. He blew the horn for populists and small-c conservatives, he blew it exceedingly well, and his people followed him to the polls. (His opponents only managed a few forlorn blarts.)

You can fairly grouse that the garbage bin outside is one size too small; you might complain that the bike lanes are in shambles, which they most certainly are. You might have been hit with a tax on your car, a tax on your house. You might reasonably observe that St. Clair endured unending misery, and that the Bloor St. redo has turned into, if you’ll excuse me, a monsterous clusterfuck.

But that is to lose perspective. Toronto is a safe, prosperous, growing, and profoundly beautiful city. Since 2003, it has become more so. The past seven years have been in Toronto’s best tradition, not its worst. I cannot speak for 2.5 million people, but I know I speak for more than myself. Life in David Miller’s Toronto was good.

Stephen Harper’s interactive press release

And so the day came to pass: “Your Interview (-slash-Votre-Entrevue) with Prime Minister Stephen Harper” was broadcast on YouTube. It was broadcast an hour late, which turned out to be moot, since the whole thing was pre-taped anyway. It wasn’t a live town hall; it was a video press release.

Was it the gong show some of us had been predicting? No. Gong shows are fun.

It had all the trappings of a broadcast interview, though little of the content. Instead of Peter Mansbridge, we got Patrick Pichette, a nervous Google executive, fidgeting in his chair. (At least he brought a touch of that YouTube amateur-hour spirit to the proceedings.) “This is democracy at work!” he said, knees a-wiggle. Otherwise, it was as standard-issue an interview as anything a broadcast network might have churned out, but without the interesting content.

The event went on for a good 40 minutes; mostly, it consisted of Pichette serving up questions for Harper – some written, some taped – and then letting Harper answer at length, uninterrupted and unchallenged.

Much ado had been made of the exercise’s premise: Canadians were to submit questions on YouTube and then vote on them; the most popular would then be answered. “Unfiltered and immediate access to information” was what the PMO promised. But no sooner had the broadcast begun than Pichette casually announced that “We’ve picked, from the very top tier, a selection of questions.” So much for that.

If the goal was to engage youth or the politically disinclined, the video didn’t do itself any favours. The very first question was in French, and answered in French, without the benefit of any translation or subtitling. Also, it was about structural deficits. If you think listening to a politician run through his talking points about structural deficits is interesting in a language you understand, wait till you try it in a language you don’t.

The Prime Minister looked professional, composed, and grimly amused to be there. After he gave a lengthy response to a question about Senate reform that came from a viewer named Harvey, Pichette – almost involuntarily – burbled “Thank-you, and I’m sure that Harvey would be thrilled by this answer!”

It wasn’t even Pichette’s fault. The format was DOA. Interviews that consist of simply delivering a list of pre-written questions are guaranteed to be dogs. This is why journalists hate doing e-mail interviews. The best interview is a two-way conversation between two personalities that illuminates at least one of them. (Case in point: Craig Ferguson talks to Stephen Fry without an audience, delivering real content in the late-night void.)

You don’t get that when the interviewer is limited to reading a list of questions, even if they come from Bob in Whitehorse or sje7835 in Edmonton, because then the interviewee just reads off answers. It’s ironic that the most interactive of intentions led to the least interactive of interviews.

The format needn’t have been fated to fiasco. Google could have freed their interlocutor to act as a real interviewer – guided by user questions, but not reduced to parroting them – who could ask follow-ups, direct the conversation, and needle the Prime Minister when he needed to be needled, they might have been onto something. They could have broadcast live, and put the Prime Minister in a real town-hall setting, out of his comfort zone, into a setting that would catch people’s attention.

But they didn’t, and what we got was the dullest 40 minutes on YouTube. And that’s enough to turn engaged citizens into a bunch of sleepy kittens.