A tale of two cities

Every West Indian who visits Toronto should make the time to observe the marvel of self-imposed order that emerges each afternoon among the GO train commuters at Union Station. Unbidden, hundreds of people arrange themselves into neat lines that snake up and down the platform. They make little noise as they wait for the distinctive double-decker trains that will take them home to the suburbs. Once on board the trains, rules against cellphone chatter, or reserving seats for absent passengers, are observed more often than broken. This vision of civility is such a contrast to the bustle of the Manhattan’s Metro North that it’s easy to see why Toronto has been called “New York run by the Swiss.” How else to explain the fact that public transit in much of the Greater Toronto Area lets you travel without having to display a ticket? When inspectors do perform spot-checks they don’t expect to catch more than a handful of fare-dodgers.

Toronto’s reputation for good order and civility has taken a few knocks during the past week as the colourful private life of the city’s mayor has taken centre stage. Faced with growing evidence that the video of him smoking cocaine was not a malicious rumour after all, Mayor Rob Ford surprised everyone by owning up to a few personal “mistakes” and then conceding, casually, that these may well have included smoking crack while in a “drunken stupor.” Ford’s candour completely wrong-footed his critics. To their bewilderment, his reassurances that these lapses were behind him and that he intended to stay in office seemed to rally the troops. Despite unremittingly hostile media coverage and pointed criticism from the chief of police, the mayor’s approval rating has climbed from 39 to 44 per cent. Ford Nation, as his mostly suburban base is known, seems to have taken the scandals in their stride, interpreting them as another indication that the urban elites are after their man rather than as proof that he is unfit for office.

It is hard to watch the Ford saga without recalling some of the more dramatic episodes in the political career of Hugo Chavez. Although Chavez lacked a colourful personal life and leaned towards the far-left, his capacity for enraging opponents and outmanoeuvring them with shrewd populist rhetoric helped him through political embarrassments that would have sunk lesser figures. The devotion he inspired among the Venezuelan working class allowed him to outlast implacably hostile media and even a coup. As with Chavez, Ford’s supporters, which include tens of thousands of West Indians in the suburbs, chose an anti-establishment figure tailor-made to provoke the elites they disliked, and their loyalty so far has been unshakeable.

One of the main reasons why Ford became mayor is that he spoke for a suburban population that has never felt appreciated by Toronto’s traditional power brokers. Ever since former Ontario premier Mike Harris absorbed five extra municipalities into the city in 1998 — to dilute the political influence of his left-wing opponents — the resulting metropolis has always been an unwieldy construct, full of irreconcilable interests and culturally and ethnically dissimilar constituencies. The car-loving suburbanites who elected Ford have never had much time for the bike-enthusiasts who wanted to set aside special lanes in the downtown core. And for several years debates over mass-transit have generated far more heat than light. It is hardly surprising then to find one prominent commentator saying that the Ford saga is a good argument that it is “time to dismantle the Toronto megacity.”

After witnessing the calm of Union Station, it is always disappointing to learn that during rush hour Toronto’s buses and subways are no less crowded and unpleasant than their American or British counterparts. The disappointment deepens when journeys into the immigrant fringes of the city often reveal featureless, industrial landscapes that seem utterly remote from the heart of the metropolis. It is hardly a surprise then that this city remains as divided as any other and that its reputation for civility and good order doesn’t quite square with the facts. These discrepancies go a long way towards explaining the staying power of Mayor Ford. Despite his failure to deliver any real progress, and a signal lack of imagination and style, he isn’t a barbarian who has taken over the city of Toronto, he’s a symbol of the complex quarrels that have been taking place beneath its placid exterior for more than a decade.

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