Toronto·Analysis

Toronto Mayor John Tory defends 2017 bold moves as election year looms

Mayor John Tory says Toronto's 'in a really positive place' as he gears up to defend his record in 2018's election.

In a year-end interview, the mayor warns that the wealth gap is sapping the city's strength

Toronto mayor John Tory will visit Guelph in March as a keynote speaker at the 2018 Regional Economic Summit. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

When it comes to city council, Mayor John Tory's hopes for 2018 are like his hopes for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He's liking their chances.

"The city is, I think, in a really positive place right now," he told CBC Toronto during a year-end interview.

Of course, Tory has to say both of those things — Leafs fans vote, after all, and he'll be running for re-election next October.

Tory says his biggest accomplishment this year has been winning major funding commitments from the federal and provincial governments, the latter of which will double the gas tax proceeds it gives Toronto after blocking a move to impose tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway.

The new money is mainly for building affordable housing and public transit. Both are key to Toronto's future success. But the lingering question is whether city hall will be able to use it quickly enough to make sure people aren't either priced out by sky high real estate prices or driven out by crippling congestion.

"The 'quickly enough' part is a challenge for us," Tory admits, "because you can't build housing overnight. You can't build transit overnight. These are things that take time. But the bottom line is that you have to start."

The TTC celebrated extending its subway line to Vaughan in December, but there are big transit decisions ahead. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The city has plans in place for both and Tory says targets are being met, but he knows there's a lot on the line. Leaving people behind, he warns, is "sapping the strength of the city."

Tory's immediate challenge will be passing the 2018 budget, which will involve finding some $40 million to pay for a series of anti-poverty measures like a discounted TTC pass for low-income people.

He vows it will get done.

However council critics have blasted this approach to budgeting, arguing it's not the way to build trust with marginalized groups.

Even the anti-black racism strategy, something Tory says he believes will lead to meaningful change at city hall, is currently unfunded, despite a year marked by tension between the black community and the police force, in particular.

Tory, who sits on the police board, says he knows there are issues.

"We have lots to do," he said.

He says his hope is that there's a thoughtful, constructive way to deal with these matters in the coming year, calling what has been happening at police board meetings "disruptive."

Tory also spent 2017 condemning a number of ugly incidents of hatred.

He says it's vital to "stand up and speak up and take action when these things happen so that people understand it is not part of who we are."

Election attacks likely from left and right

Tory says it's business as usual until election season officially opens in May, but journalists who covered his first run for mayor have already been noticing old campaign slogans slipping into announcements and news conferences.

Tory says the city will have to consider more 'bold' solutions like the King Street pilot project in the future. (John Rieti/CBC)

During our interview, it's clear Tory's gearing up to defend his record against criticism from both sides of the political divide.

"I think those who attack, you know, any kind of change we make in the city are those who want to try and turn back the hands of time, which I've figured out you can't do," he said.

"You can't go back to a timid, small, non-growing Toronto."

He makes this remark as the conversation turns to two bold changes council has approved this year, the Bloor Street bike lanes and the King Street pilot project — which aim to improve the trips of cyclists and transit users, respectively.

Those moves have angered several right-wing councillors, as well as some drivers and some business owners. Doug Ford, who has declared he's in for a rematch, has blasted both, calling the King project a disaster just days into the pilot.

Doug Ford has already announced plans to run against Tory for a second time. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Tory's response: "We had no choice."

"We had a situation on King Street where people were walking faster than streetcars were going … and it's not as if cars were moving along fast either."

Meanwhile, Tory is frustrating councillors on the left as well.

He recently drew scorn for not asking Ottawa to open the armouries to the homeless and instead trying to add shelter spaces to an already over-capacity system.

Tory says he's just following the advice of city shelter staff, and will be ready to act if the situation gets worse.

That's done little to allay the concerns of some councillors, but so far no left-leaning candidate has announced plans to run for mayor.

And then there are the mega-issues with billion-dollar price tags that are constantly asked about at city hall: most notably the Scarborough subway extension, but also the eastern Gardiner Expressway rebuild.

Tory backs both. He'll have to defend those choices, too.

The mayor says he's confident that while Torontonians may find change difficult, voters will "strongly reject" those who want it to hold still. 

About the Author

John Rieti is the senior producer of digital at CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country. In Toronto, he's covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. Outside of work, catch him cycling in search of the city's best coffee.

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