Montreal and Toronto: the politics of change over status quo

Contrast the Montreal civic election, held yesterday, November 5th, with the last Toronto election held in November 2014, and you will understand why party politics is the only answer to the dysfunction with municipal politics in Ontario.

Valarie Plante, the new mayor of Montreal

Yesterday Valerie Plante became the first woman mayor in Montreal’s 375 year history. Not only that, her party, Project Montreal, took the majority of seats on council. Plante and her party ran on a platform of change. She advocated an expansion of the subway system, and a large investment in social housing, among other issues.

Denis Coderre, the incumbent mayor, took the election for granted. He appeared arrogant, ignored the mistakes of his administration, and brushed off the attacks from the opposition until the very last days of the campaign.

What is remarkable about the Montreal election, from the point of view of a Torontonian, is how the party system in Montreal facilitated fundamental change. Coderre, and his status quo political party named after himself, was decisively swept from power. The Montreal electorate wanted change and the election delivered it. That is a sign of a vital democracy.

That simply could not, and will not, happen in Toronto, and the reason is there are no political parties in this city. Every municipal candidate runs as an individual. They are ward healers in the worst sense and incumbents win over and over again.

I have written about this in my book, The New Urban Agenda, and more recently in an article called, “Toronto Politics and the Possibility for Change,” published in a book called The Rise of Cities, edited by Dimitrios Roussopoulos. Let me repeat some of the arguments I made because they are very relevant for those of us concerned about our city.

Since Toronto was incorporated in 1834 there have been 72 mayors. 45.8% of the mayors have been lawyers or other professionals, 43.2% were from business, the rest journalists and one a union organizer. On the present council only 31.8% are women. Despite the fact that today over 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities, only five, or 11.4%, are come from visible minority groups. Toronto council is not a good representation of the social characteristics of the city’s population.

But the most striking factor in who gets elected municipally in Ontario, Toronto included, is incumbency. In the 2014 Toronto election only one incumbent councillor was defeated out of the 44 members. Once a politician is elected it is very rare that they are defeated. Incumbent politicians have so much advantage over other candidates, that they have to do something very drastic to be defeated.

As a result, Toronto city council has become static, even ossified. Councillors tend to be old, white, male, and their votes on issues reflect their conservative political views. This does not signal a healthy democracy. Council is adverse to taking risks, or promoting new ideas. They vote in favour of development, and support cars over cycling. They are very reluctant to increase property taxes. They claim to support subways and transit, but only if another level government will pay for it. They admit that poverty, and affordable housing is a crisis, but they will not spend money to solve or ameliorate the problems.

Contrast Toronto politics to the dynamic change that happened yesterday in Montreal, and it is obvious that political parties at a municipal level make a difference. A political party, and the policies that they promote, give an identity to a group of politicians running for office. Voters are able to make a real choice based on their perception of the leaders and their policies.

In Toronto we have none of that, and so we have a politics that is uninspiring and unable to face change. It is a dysfunctional politics that will never provide the leadership we need.

(Thanks to Andre Picard, of the Globe and Mail, for his coverage of the Montreal election.)

Democracy, Neoliberalism, and Participation

In my latest book, Democracy Rising: Politics and Participation in Canada, I argue that our representative democratic form of government is failing us. Elites, particularly wealthy corporate elites, have captured the political system to promote their own interests.

Not only does government favour corporate development and profits, in the belief that this will increase the country’s wealth and employment, but we have a tax system that benefits the wealthy. The off-shoring of wealth to avoid taxation has become a serious problem. An economic and political system has been developed that benefits the 1%, while the rest of us languish.

All of this inequality, and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, is justified by the ideology of neoliberalism. This is a self-serving theory that promotes rapacious capitalism, inequality, low pay for workers, poor working conditions, and attacks the welfare state as unnecessary and unaffordable. Neoliberalism goes so far as to argue that competition is the natural state of the human condition. It is good for the country and economy because it leads to efficiencies and innovation.

It is a theory that has been adopted by the corporate and political elite in virtually all of the developed countries. Today Donald Trump is the leading advocate, but Canada suffered from the ideology for almost ten years with the Stephen Harper government. Justin Trudeau is leading a government that is pushing back neoliberalism, but the conservative assault on minor tax reform measures shows just how ingrained this ideology has become.

To challenge this ideology in Canada, we have to begin by developing a different ideology, one that stresses co-operation and participation. Competition is not the natural state of the human condition. It was co-operation that led to the development of our civilizations, and working together in a co-operative way is the way we interact at work, politics, public institutions, and private corporations. Humans have a remarkable ability to work together to achieve collective goals.

We have to challenge the neoliberal ideology of selfishness and greed by promoting a participatory culture. I see it emerging everywhere I go: environmental groups, trade unions, co-ops, community groups, clubs, and sporting associations. Democratic organizations are everywhere in our society. They are run democratically, and they provide the way that people can participate. (Last weekend I attended a public meeting about Toronto’s Waterfront called “Waterfront for All.” Well over 300 people were there to talk about the new neighbourhood that is emerging in the city. It was inspiring to see how citizens want to participate in the task of rebuilding our city.)

We need to reform our parliaments and create a workable system of proportional representation, but above all we have to challenge neoliberalism and advocate that we need co-operation, engagement, and participation in all aspects of our lives. That is the only way that we will develop a caring, egalitarian society where everyone has the chance to develop to their own potential.

Nuclear disarmament and city politics

Many Torontonians like to think that we are light years ahead of other Canadian cities on progressive issues, but as this posting from CATCH News clearly points out, our friends in Hamilton are away ahead of us.

Personally, I am distressed that our Liberal government in Ottawa instructed our representative to vote against a UN resolution, “to prohibit the development, testing, production, manufacturing and possession of nuclear weapons.”

All of the countries who have nuclear arms voted against this resolution. The Canadian government fell in line with the Americans as did all of the NATO counties except Holland. Despite this, the motion passed by a large margin in the UN General Assembly.

Read what happened in Hamilton and you will understand why I think Steeltown is a leader in progressive politics.

Bill Freeman

CATCH News – August 14, 2017

Ban on nuclear weapons

They gathered last week celebrating last month’s United Nations treaty banning nuclear weapons, mourning Canada’s refusal to support it, solemnly remembering the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and affirming in unison their commitment to real security. The Dundas councillor brought greetings from “peace mayor” Eisenberger, noting Hamilton is officially a nuclear-free city, all while two presidents rattled their bombs in an international competition for who is most willing to bring an end to life on earth.

The Hamilton Mundialization Committee’s annual reminder of the consequences of nuclear weapons took place in the city’s municipal service centre in the old Dundas town hall. It heard a specific message to Hamilton from Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima attack 72 years ago and a peace activist who was unable to attend in person as planned. Her statement pointed particularly to the UN decision “to prohibit the development, testing, production, manufacturing and possession of nuclear weapons” that was approved by a lmost two-thirds of the world’s countries on July 7.

“For the first time nuclear weapons have been unconditionally stigmatized as standing outside the international humanitarian law,” she stated. “In no uncertain terms this treaty declares to the world that nuclear weapons are illegitimate, illegal and immoral.”

Canada joined all nine nuclear-armed countries in boycotting the UN vote as well as the three years of conferences leading up to it. Japan and all NATO countries, except the Netherlands, also didn’t participate with the latter casting the only ballot against it. Iran, Sweden and Switzerland voted in favor as did Mexico, Cuba, Ireland, Iraq, Egypt, and most African and Latin American countries.

North American media largely ignored the UN action. The United States, France and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement declaring: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons.”

In June Prime Minister Trudeau characterized the initiative as “sort of useless” if it doesn’t include countries that actually have nuclear weapons. An NDP motion calling on Canada to participate generated a lengthy House of Commons debate on June 8. The Liberals argued the treaty is “premature” and will be “ineffective”.

The NDP motion only won support of the Bloc Quebecois and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. The Liberals and Conservatives combined to defeat it 245-44. Petition cards urging Canada to ratify the treaty were distributed at last week’s meeting and can also be endorsed on-line.

In the gathering Councillor Vanderbeek spoke on behalf of Mayor Eisenberger, noting that he joined Mayors for Peace in 2006, a group committed “to the total abolition of nuclear weapons and the attainment of lasting world peace, and to the solution of such problems as starvation, poverty, the plight of refugees, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in cooperation with the United Nations.”

She also recalled that Hamilton “has been declared a nuclear-free zone which means that no nuclear weapons are to be located in Hamilton or to be moved through Hamilton.” The meeting also heard a letter from the mayor of Nagasaki and one from Hiroshima read by a student who had participated in Hamilton’s fifty-year-old exchange program with Japan started by Dundas. The mayors of both cities are urging the Japanese government to ratify the UN treaty.

The meeting concluded with recitation by the attendees of an anti-war “Pledge of Nagasaki” and a community affirmation that read in part:

“We declare that we are at peace with all people of good will. We require no leader to tell us whom to call ‘enemy’ or whom to call ‘friend’ or what to call ‘security’. Instead we affirm that our earth’s security rests not on armaments, but in the fairness of adequate housing, food and water; in the justice of safe and renewable energy; in the legitimacy of meaningful education and work; in the integrity of economic order that gives everyone access to our earth’s abundance; in the honesty of political process to which all people contribute; and in the decency of human relationships nourished by cooperation and love.”

More on Red Hill

This is an article published by CATCH News, a Hamilton citizen online newsletter. Red Hill Expressway has been a controversial local issue for decades. It illustrates how local citizens understand the consequences of projects like these far better than the traffic engineers.

Bill Freeman

CATCH News – July 17, 2017

Red Hill and Trump

The Red Hill Parkway was born in controversy and continues that history, most recently focused on the large numbers of crashes on the valley expressway and the even greater numbers of trucks. All of this appears to be connected and may shed some light on current US events.

More than any other Hamilton road, the valley parkway is political, steeped in decades of angry debate between multiple factions long before it was opened ten years ago. The idea for an east end expressway across the escarpment arose in the 1950s, but where to put it generated an epic debate where passion and politics overruled engineering and road construction know-how.

That gave Hamilton an ‘expressway’ that follows a route largely determined thousands of years ago by the landscape-carving effects of the waters of a meandering creek. That meant not only more curves than engineers prefer for major highways, but a lot of ups and downs to move motorists from the valley floor to the intersecting roads serviced by interchanges on top of the steep challenge posed by crossing the escarpment.

Additional politics determined that there are six of those interchanges along an eight kilometre stretch – Dartnall, Greenhill, King, Queenston, Barton and the QEW – with each of the latter five sited barely a kilometre apart. That’s also far more than road engineers recommend and has meant that on-ramps from some interchanges complicate drivers’ attempts to take the subsequent off-ramp.

Media attention has focused on pavement quality and lighting, but the basic layout required to build a road down a creek valley may be much more significant. It certainly is more difficult to change. So is the simple fact that most traffic comes off of either the QEW or the Linc – both with higher posted speeds.

Drivers doing their usual 120 km/hr are presented with what seems to be a continuation of the highway. Not surprisingly they tend to try and maintain their speeds with unfortunate consequences. Changing that ultimately that may require stoplights at either end of the valley and other measures beyond signage.

That’s further complicated by thousands of heavy trucks utilizing Red Hill and the Linc as a shortcut between the QEW and Highway 403, as well as a way to avoid the frequent high winds on the skyway bridges. Some city councillors seem surprised by this activity and have ordered staff to do a count, but it was obvious the trucks would be attracted to a route that’s a full nine kilometres shorter than via the skyway.

Friends of Red Hill Valley, one of the groups that opposed the valley route, not only loudly predicted this short-cutting, they even tried calculating the numbers. Volunteers (the author was one of them and also chaired the group at the time) did a 24-hour count at the Freeman interchange in Burlington and found that 4500 trucks a day were shifting between the QEW and the 403.

In 1950s several locations were possible for a north-south expressway but by the late 1970s when the municipal politicians selected a valley route, other potential options such as Centennial Parkway or Kenilworth Avenue (and later Woodward Avenue) featured established businesses and residences. Thus valley defenders were countered by groups based along those arteries and that intensified the politicization of the decision-making.

The provincial government unsuccessfully tried to broker a compromise 60 km arterial road using at-grade intersections and avoiding much of the creek valley. A federal environmental assessment of the project offered a final chance to flag safety issues but councillors spent over $4 million on court action to stop that from being completed.

So Hamilton got an expressway whose route was determined not by professional road engineers but by dueling citizen groups and the politicians responding to them.  South of the border we’re now seeing many other examples of decisions guided by alleged “common sense” trumping science and expertise.


CATCH (Citizens at City Hall) updates use transcripts and/or public documents to highlight information about Hamilton civic affairs that is not generally available in the mass media. Detailed reports of City Hall meetings can be reviewed at You can receive all CATCH free updates by sending an email to Sharing links are available on the can unsubscribe at

Participation and Democracy Rising

When I set off to write a non-fiction book, like Democracy Rising, I try to explore the subject as comprehensively as possible, but after the book is written, edited, printed, and in the book stores inevitably I come across material that I wish that I had included.

Sign and white blaze on a tree marking the Bruce Trail

Democracy Rising is a good example. The thesis, or major idea, of the book is that if we are to have a vibrant democracy the people must be engaged, and the most effective way for us to do that is through grassroots organizations that encourage the participation of its members.

The book starts off by describing the limitations of representative democracy and to show how elites have been able to dominate our political institutions for their own benefit. But the important material in the book is the discussion of how ordinary people have transformed our country through organizations such as the progressive movement, trade unions, co-operatives, the environmental movement, and community groups.

It is the participation of citizens in grassroots organizations that has strengthened our democratic practices and the book concludes by showing how we can make them more effective. We will never have an effective democracy until we have a truly participatory democracy.

This was an interesting book to write. I have been a community activist all of my adult life and Democracy Rising gave me the opportunity to write about those experiences and the organizations I have been involved with. Those who have read it have liked it, but the reality is that I did miss some opportunities. Here are some examples I could have included.

  • The Bruce Train is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. It was a group of keen hikers who came up with the idea of a walking trail from Niagara Falls to Tobermory along the Niagara Escarpment. They mapped out the trail, got permission from private landowners to cross their land, wrote brochures and articles describing the trail, set up a governing councils in different regions to look after the trail and advocated protection of the trail with the Ontario Government. It was a massive effort and it was all done by volunteers. Today the Niagara Escarpment is part of Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan. It is a remarkable story of how the participation of people can make a difference and change our political practices.
  • Another example is the growth of land trusts. Community land trusts are private non-profit organizations that acquire and hold land for the benefit of the community. In rural areas often land trusts are set up to protect land from development and hold it in a natural state indefinitely. In cities land trusts are usually set up to make land available for affordable housing. This is a growing movement that is having an impact on many communities across Canada. Again, it is all being done by volunteers.

Those are two dramatic examples of people participating in their communities, but think of the scores of different organizations that exist in Canada. These are some that I am familiar with: Jane’s Walks, food banks, athletic associations, volunteer social service agencies, and so on and so on.

Participation, engagement, the development of grassroots organizations, these are all things that contribute to our democracy because they encourage public participation in meaningful ways on issues of public importance. Social media is a very effective way to develop and promote organizations like that and engage in the discussion of issues.

But before we dismiss books in favour of social media as the tool for organizing and grassroots politics, let me give a last appeal. Writing a non-fiction book is a way to explore a subject or an issue in a comprehensive way. That’s what I tried to do in Democracy Rising. I did miss some things, but then that is inevitable. It is the ideas in the book that will stand the test of time.

Housing, assets, and affordability

The housing market, particularly the affordable part of that market is suddenly going through  major changes. I was skeptical that the efforts by the Ontario Government to cool the market last month would make any difference, but it looks like I was wrong.

I have been hearing various rumours that prices were dropping. Just yesterday a friend, involved in buying, selling and renting property, said that prices in Toronto have dropped at least $100,000 and they may go down even further.

This morning in the Globe there is an article saying that prices have dropped so much that, “the most panicked buyers are trying to back out of deals.” (Carolyn Ireland, June 2, 2017, “Stressful times as real estate compass twirls”) This, along with the uncertainty of the market, could well make new buyers very cautious and that could lead to further drop in prices.

Not everyone, of course, will like the drop in prices. Those who own houses have felt some satisfaction in the rise in their net worth with the inflation of real estate prices, but those who want to get into the market, particularly families with modest incomes will be delighted.

The real problem with housing is around affordability. Those with upper incomes can look after themselves. It is those with middle and low incomes that are caught because they simply cannot afford to get into the market. In a country like Canada, where the major asset of most people is the house they own and live in, being shut out of the market means they lose the opportunity to build financial security.

I am talking about myself here. Home ownership was burned into me by my father when I was young when he told me that the major asset the family owned was the house we live in. That simple explanation stayed with me.

I bought my first house when I was in my late 20s. Over my lifetime I was out of the market for periods but I always scrambled to find ways to put the money together to buy another house. Today, it is the major asset I own with my partner, and I attribute that good fortune to the lesson my father taught me decades ago.

A lot of people lose that opportunity when house prices are high. But there are other options.John Lorinc has an article in the Globe about developers who are building affordable housing for people with modest incomes. (John Lorinc, June 2, 2017, “Developers take a new look at ‘affordable’”) The best known is a developer called Options for Homes which builds affordable condominiums. They take a low down payment and recoup the money when the condo is sold.

The Daniels Group is involved in the redevelopment of Regent Park and Tridel is a partner in the rebuilding of Alexandra Park. As Lorinc explains, other groups are getting involved in the effort to provide affordable housing, and the provincial government will require private developers to set aside units in their buildings for those with modest incomes.

But the pessimist in me continues to worry that this will not be enough. Housing is an essential, a fundamental right, but it is more than that. Those with low incomes will still be not be able to purchase houses and that means they will be unable to accumulate an asset that will see them through hard times.

Housing affordability is inextricably connected to income inequality.

May 30th: An Evening in Toronto with Dimitri Roussopoulos, workshop and book launch


6pm Workshop:
The Rise of Cities: Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Other CitiesEdited by Dimitri Roussopoulos
Although the city is the foundation of democracy and citizenship, it is widely misunderstood as a geopolitical space. However, it is playing a growing role in shaping the 21st century whilst at the same time being beset by serious social and ecological crises. The Rise of Cities  explores three major cities of Canada through lengthy overviews of well known authors Shawn Katz, Bill Freeman and Patrick J. Smith as well as a major introduction by the editor: political economist and veteran urban activist Dimitri Roussopoulos.
Black Rose Books 250pp ISBN: 978-1-55164-334-2 (paperback) $19.99; 978-1-55164-335-9 (hardcover)

When: Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Time: 6:00 – 8:00 pm

Where: OISE 252 Bloor St W
Room: 7th floor Peace Lounge (fully accessible)


At the meeting Dimitri Roussopoulos will talk about the history of Milton Park Housing Co-operative.

Please join us for an engaging evening on the history of the largest non-profit housing cooperative project in Canada: the Milton-Parc Community in Montreal, presented by community organizer and publisher Dimitri Roussopoulos. His workshop on establishing grassroots housing co-ops will be followed by a public discussion.

In the 1960s, speculators wanted to destroy a downtown Montreal neighbourhood to build ‘the City of the 21st Century’, massive condos, office towers and shopping malls. For over ten years, residents of the Milton-Parc neighbourhood fought back with petitioning, occupying the developers’ offices and squatting. The community eventually won, creating North America’s largest urban land trust thus liberating the buildings and land from the market and abolishing speculation. Today, 21 non-profit housing organizations, of which 15 are cooperatives, collectively own six downtown city blocks, housing 1500 people in this remarkable urban village.

Members from Milton-Parc have presented on their accomplishments around the world, but this will be the first presentation in Canada outside of Quebec!

When: Tuesday, May 30, 2017
Time: 6:00 – 8:00 pm

Where: OISE 252 Bloor St W
Room: 7th floor Peace Lounge (fully accessible)






Reactions to OMB Reform

The reaction to the Ontario Government’s announcement of its intended reforms to the Ontario Municipal Board were swift and predictable. Leaders of citizen groups and municipal politicians welcomed the news while spokespeople for the development industry condemned it.

High rise condos on Toronto’s Waterfront

This is the news release from the government:

The Globe and Mail:

Toronto Star:

Suburban sprawl in the GTA

Toronto Star editorial:

Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro on Toronto City Hall reaction:

My reaction, for what it’s worth, is that this is to be welcomed because it strengthens citizen involvement in planning and enhances local control. It is a major development in participatory democracy in Ontario.

For too long developers have been able to use their financial ability to get what they want. The expense of OMB appeals has been a financial burden for municipalities. Developers have literally been able to outspend municipalities on legal and planning experts to get what and that means increasing profits.

But the real problem is that a small group of unelected, OMB officials have been able to overrule local politicians. Politicians are not perfect, as everyone knows, but at least they are accountable to the people.

This has led to inappropriate development all over the province, from high rise in downtown Toronto to urban sprawl in the suburbs. The OMB reforms will help to rebalance interests and strengthen citizen control of their communities.

Nationalists and Globalists

Now that the French presidential election is over, and Macron, the pro-EU candidate won convincingly, it is time to look more deeply at what this means for politics, participation and democracy in the developed countries.

In the past electoral politics has been shaped along the left-right axis. Nowhere has this been so clear as it was in France and the United States, but in the recent election in France the candidates for the two major old line parties, Les Republicains and the Socialists, did not even make it into the final run off for president. In the United States Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, advocated policies that many Republicans rejected.

There is a realignment of political parties and priorities that is fundamentally changing politics in the developed world that reflects new concerns. The left-right polarization is fast fading. The new polarization is between nationalists and globalists.

The nationalists, politicians like Donald Trump, Marine le Pen and others, are anti-immigration, oppose free trade, advocate tariffs to protect local businesses and workers, and support a number of reactionary policies like being hard on crime, and the rejection of the liberalization of abortion and same sex laws.

The globalists are liberals. They also are pro-business, advocate free trade, international trade agreements, and low tariffs. In Europe and the U.S., they tend to favour a free movement of people. Diversity is a strong value for them.

Immigration is the area that most clearly demarks the difference between the nationalists and the globalists. In both Europe and the United States a significant percentage of the population sees immigrants as a threat to their jobs and security.

On the issue of immigration, the views of Canadians are quite different than virtually any of the other developed countries. Polling shows that about 80% of the people believe that immigrants are a benefit because they help to create new jobs and promote economic development.  The ideal of ethnic and racial diversity is strongly supported. The majority of Canadians are clearly in the globalists political camp and that is why there is strong support for liberal politicians and political parties.

But much of this new political polarization designed to capitalize on the fears of people to gain votes. The truth is that immigration is an advantage because they bring young workers to rapidly aging countries in Europe, and globalization does bring risks to many workers and rewards to the economic elite.

The real question is how can people shape their government and create the type of country that reflects their views. The only way we can do this is by promoting a participatory democracy and participatory practices so the people can create the type of policies that that reflects their needs and not the demands of the elite.