REFORM MOVEMENTS usually come and go at city halls much like those troupes of ethnic dancers always being welcomed in the mayor’s office. The reformers begin with a polka of fast protest, then tend to slide into an elegant political gavotte to the right and finish by waltzing with the Establishment. However, in Toronto a reform coalition is taking shape that for once seems determined to win power on its own uncompromising terms. This group is young, toughminded and avowedly radical. Its strength is rooted in vocal community organizations at the ward level. And while so far it has tasted only moral victories — and precious few of those — its confrontation tactics are beginning to have the old-guard politicians rattled.
On specific issues, the re-
form cause can pick up the support of as many as twelve aldermen in the city’s 23man council. But the radical thrust of the movement comes from Aldermen Karl Jaffary, 34, and John Sewell, 30. They make an odd couple. Sewell, moustache drooping toward turtleneck, crusades for his convictions with evangelical zeal. Jaffary, suave and Savile Rowed, is much more cautious about what he says and does. Yet there are striking similarities in their backgrounds and social philosophies. Both are lawyers. Both are newcomers to council. Both represent Ward 7, which contains the peeling section of the city core called Cabbagetown (so named because for years many of the residents, predominately Irish immigrants, raised cabbages in their front yards for food, and some still do).
Both were leaders of active and aggressive citizens’ associations before graduating to City Hall. And both are united in the belief that the people who elected them should have some say in how their city is being run.
Jaffary, a veteran NDP supporter, was drawn into city politics after he bought a renovated house in the Don Vale section of the ward and then discovered the district was scheduled for urban renewal. He didn’t like the way the scheme was being pushed through without adequate consultation with the local residents. He and others formed what is now the Don Vale Association of Homeowners and Residents with Jaffary as president, and the group began to make angry noises.
“At a good meeting we’d have 300 people or more,”
recalls Jaffary. “We succeeded in getting city council to set up a working committee with Don Vale residents. The planners sat down at block meetings to discover what the people wanted. Eventually we evolved a new urbanrenewal scheme that provided financing for people who wanted to fix up their houses. Council approved the plan but the federal government couldn’t accept it. In the end we merely talked the city into taking Don Vale off the urban-renewal schedule.” During that fight, one incident occurred that did more than anything else to turn Jaffary into an urban radical. It involved one of his neighbors, Albert Fortier, a station-
ary engineer in his 60s who has difficulty reading and writing English. Fortier mistook a city assessor for a social surveyor the residents’ association had warned people to avoid, and refused to let the assessor in. The trouble was Fortier had just repainted the front of his house. The assessment department assumed from this that Fortier’s entire house had been renovated — as had seven of the other 10 houses on the row — and increased his assessment to about $7,000 from approximately $2,000. That meant a jump of about $500 in Fortier’s taxes.
“What bugged me,” says Jaffary, “was that the politicians agreed it had all been a terrible mistake yet refused to change the assessment. We had taken the issue before a county court and won a judgment. Instead of giving in, the city appealed the decision before the Ontario Municipal Board. We won there, too. But it all left a lot of us convinced that we couldn’t get through to the politicians, and that City Hall really was out to screw the people.” Meanwhile, Sewell, a politically independent community organizer, had been helping to win a similar urban-renewal battle in another part of the ward, Trefann Court. “In Trefann we forced a reappraisal of urban renewal all across Canada,” he says. “We think we established the point that a municipality shouldn’t tear down people’s houses without giving adequate compensation or without consulting them about what sort of redevelopment would go up.”
Sewell now is trying to make the same point, this time with a private developer, on behalf of a 100-member Cabbagetown organization called the South of St. James Town Tenants’ Union. The tenants, who were mainly low-income transients, organized themselves after the giant Meridian Group of developers served eviction notices on residents in many of the 173 houses it owns in the area. Meridian built the 5,099-unit (1,674 of them public housing) St. James Town highrise complex, and plans to extend the project
farther south. Alderman Sewell intervened and wound up as tenant-in-chief for 21 of the houses Meridian wanted to demolish rather than bring up to the city’s minimum housing standard. The Sewell-Meridian deal eliminated the middlemen who, tenants complained, had been charging exorbitant rents. Now the tenants pay Sewell who pays Meridian.
“The tenants are fixing the houses up and managing the whole thing on their own,” says Sewell. “Rents have been cut by about one third. Admittedly, the houses are shabby and should come down sometime. What we have now is a lever to try to get Meridian to produce a better development for family living — perhaps closely packed lowrise buildings and only one tower. I’d support the rezoning application that would require. Meanwhile Meridian is willing to let its architect sit down with the tenants’ union.”
During the last 18 months similar confrontations have been cropping up all over Toronto. Under a new cadre of well-informed middle-class leaders, old associations have been radicalized and new groups formed to meet specific emergencies — a street-widening here, a threatened park there. These
galvanized groups have been able to bring unprecedented pressure to bear on elected representatives.
The traditionalists in council, those who believe that once having been elected they should be left alone to make the decisions, have reacted with outrage. Mayor William Dennison has compared the activities of one large residents’ group to those of Mao’s Red Guard. Alderman June Marks, considered a reformer when first elected in 1966, now refuses “to go to any more meetings that have to do with People Power or confrontation.”
“I can understand why June feels that way,” says Jaffary. “There are at least 13 pressure groups in my ward and they keep me on my toes. Not long ago I attended a meeting called by the Riverdale Community Organization — it claims to speak for 10,000 residents — to discuss pollution from a local incinerator. The organizers had really done their homework. I arrived early to find a speaker was warming up the audience by telling them, apparently correctly, that the incinerator was being used to dispose of the humane society’s dead dogs and human limbs from a nearby cancer hospital. The crowd was in a pretty ugly mood by the time I, explained why their idea for an alternative incinerator wasn’t feasible. The site they proposed was just as close to their homes.” Despite such awkward encounters, Jaffary and Sewell are convinced that strong ward organizations are essential. They even urge that some groups should be supported by public grants. “Because of these pressures from below,” says Jaffary, “after the 1972 city elections, certainly by 1975, there’ll be a reform majority on council.” And what will the reformers do then? Fight, they say, for a fairer tax deal from the provincial and federal governments. Adds Sewell: “Can’t you imagine turning the water off in Queen’s Park or a delegation of 5,000 people led by the mayor going up to Ottawa? The people can regain control of the city.” □
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