Tuesday, 4 October 2011

CodeBlueTO's History and a Model for Activism

Paula Fletcher stood up in the council chamber as the last speaker on item EX 9.6, a ‘consensus’ motion on Toronto’s Port Lands. As the local councillor for the Port Lands, Fletcher had been particularly busy for the past three weeks. In that time, City Hall- and the city at large- had become embroiled in a debate as to the best vision for Toronto’s Port Lands.

An undeveloped former industrial site close to the size of Toronto’s downtown core, the Port Lands was the apple of Rob and Doug Ford’s eye. Located on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, they knew it could attract a substantial amount of money if sold to developers immediately, and this money could then be used to balance the operating deficit, pay down city debt or eliminate the land transfer tax.

It was Doug Ford’s job to get this done, to muscle through Waterfront Toronto, the agency with the long-term plan and the authority. At the same time he had to convince Council and Torontonians this was the right thing. With slicked back hair, playful banter and the ability to put forward a vision, the older Ford brother comes across as a consummate salesman. Yet there he sat in front of Fletcher, leaning back in his chair and subdued. In what was supposed to be his triumphant day, Ford didn’t say a word on the item.

Fletcher, on the other hand, made sure to mark the moment. Dressed in a light blue suit and sporting a sharp navy button on her lapel, she gave context, “This is a Toronto moment and this is a Jane Jacobs city”.

While stopping the Ford Port Lands vision likely won’t share the same historical importance as Jacobs and Friends defeating the Spadina Expressway, here too was a group of highly engaged, vocal and organized constituents. Sitting behind Fletcher in the audience were a group of activists calling themselves CodeBlueTO, the name scrawled across Fletcher’s button.

As much as the Port Lands was a story about the Ford Team’s governance style or the Mushy Middle finding its backbone, there was something else. It’s a story of citizens successfully voicing their message, capturing the attention of politicians, and bringing them to their feet.

Ears to the Ground, Constant Vigilance

Cindy Wilkey knew she was going to be contacted imminently. For months she had feared this day was coming, and it was right around the corner. A lawyer and long-time advocate for the Lower Don Lands and Port Lands area that she calls home, Wilkey had heard troubling news through the grapevine.

Back in April, she knew something was going on as soon as Doug Ford accused Waterfront Toronto of being a ‘boondoggle’. When she received advance notice on Thursday, August 25 (see timeline here) that there would be an announcement about Waterfront Toronto from City Hall, she knew it was going to be bad and had a rough outline of what it was going to be.

When the notice went up on the City Hall website at 4:15 on the Friday before a long weekend, Wilkey was stunned by the breadth of the recommendations. From the transfer of power from the arms-length Waterfront Toronto to the city-run Toronto Port Lands Corporation to the cost critique of the Don River naturalization, everything involved in the Port Lands was under siege.

Since the Ford plan wasn’t a full-fledged surprise, Wilkey had a number of people to speak with who were paying as much attention as her. For instance, there was Dennis Findlay, a retired baker had taken an interest in the waterfront in 2005 when Toronto was considering a World Expo bid which would have an impact on the Port Lands.

A talkative and energetic man, Findlay had embraced city planning, engineering and the waterfront over the six years of his involvement with consultation and development plans.

The passion continued for Findlay as Ford’s April comments came. A group of engaged waterfront activists arranged periodic meetings to ensure they shared information and stayed on top of the latest developments. The meetings with other individuals like Wilkey, Julie Beddoes and John Wilson made him ready to go when the Ford motion came, “When we became aware of the fact the Mayor had his eyes on the Port Lands, we got on our high horse,” he said over the phone. “They were going to have to take our hard work over our dead bodies”.

The hard work Findlay spoke of came from other sources too. Two months before the Ford Vision, Toronto academics Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley had co-edited Re-Shaping Toronto’s Waterfront, a collection of essays and articles from University of Toronto Press. Both Desfor and Laidley had been experts in the Toronto waterfront for a long time, in everything from its history and environmental impact to the socio-political responses to it.

When Desfor returned from his Algonquin Park camping trip over the long weekend to find the Waterefront turned upside down, he saw it as a dangerous idea from a hostile administration, something he warned about on Metro Morning promoting the book in June. Laidley adds, “When the report first came out we were horrified. We had heard something like that was in the works but to see it on paper was horrifying”.

Between Wilkey, Findlay, Desfor, Laidley and others, there were a good number of Waterfront knowledge experts with important things to say. But to combat Doug Ford’s ‘horrifying’ vision and Lyle Lanley ways, they would need to amplify their voice.

Finding A Framework, Making Voices Heard
Laurence Lui

Laurence Lui knew Wilkey through the Corktown Residents Association. Seeing Lui’s  passion for urban issues such as planning and transit, Wilkey encouraged him to become involved in the Waterfront. Like the long-time activists, Lui followed the waterfront issues as they came up. Unlike them, he was also fully immersed in social media, which would prove to be an effective tool for CodeBlueTO.

The Waterfront veterans could see its impact right away. As soon as Doug Ford started speaking of monorails, megamalls and Ferris wheels, “the Internet lit up like Christmas lights," according to Findlay.

Immediately upon the news breaking, Lui tweeted the suggestion that discussions around the Waterfront topic use the hashtag #CodeBlueTO. The prolific City Hall watchers / tweeters took up the idea and a stream of alternately concerned and mocking comments flowed around that name.

Lui wasn’t the only one whose first instinct was to organize and mobilize the online anger at the Ford Vision. Jude Macdonald, a writer and frequent user of social media, created a Facebook page to voice opposition. It quickly gained traction and she was invited to join a CodeBlueTO meeting by Laidley.

The extent of CodeBlueTO’s communication with each other online was so large that they only met twice, once before and after the Executive meeting (September 6). With that said, the mix of people and energy was appreciated. Lui was impressed when he put faces to names, “Meeting the group that first time, I knew it was going to be something great. Everyone around the table spoke passionately and it was clear we all had the same goal in mind."

They all agreed that a website was needed, and the way Lui responded made everyone impressed with his work. Findlay says, “We all agreed a website was needed and within 24 hours, Laurence had it done. We all agreed a petition was needed and 24 hours later Laurence had it done."

The two elements proved to be important community rallying points. In the three-week time span, the clean and appealing-looking CodeBlueTO site received 20,000 hits and the petition had 7,000 signatures.

Importantly, CodeBlue focused on messaging and tone early on. They had concerns that criticism would devolve into cheap anti-Ford rhetoric and they wanted something more, “[The message was] not about personalities but about substantive issues,” says Laidley. “The message all along was ‘we have a plan, it’s a good plan and it doesn’t make sense to switch now’.”

The group went into the executive meeting with this message in mind and the attention of Twitter and Facebook firmly looking at the Executive.

The committee meeting was a bizarro world, as unfocused and unknowledgeable as CodeBlue was the reverse. Several CodeBlue members made deputations, including Wilkey, Laidley and Desfor. For Desfor, it was a rare foray into municipal politics. After the speakers had completed, he spoke in the hallway, saying he was concerned and frustrated by the disingenuous arguments of councillors. Unlike the Jarvis Bike Lanes vote, where thousands of people called the mayor’s cell phone in futility, this campaign would have to be more focused and targeted.

Connecting the Message to Politics
From Matt Elliott's Ford For Toronto blog

Notably, Executive member Jaye Robinson had made herself absent during the committee vote, so there was some hope yet. Outside in the hallway as Lui passed out CodeBlue buttons a number of people looked down at a chart from the popular (and awesome) FordForToronto blog. The writer, Matt Elliott, had created a chart focusing on who the potential swing votes on the issue would be and another article critiquing Doug’s plan. The latter was one of his most popular yet, a testament to the public interest in the waterfront that went beyond ‘the usual suspects’.

While the knowledge, network, social media presence and public outreach were coming together nicely, CodeBlue needed another component. Many of their members were immersed in the intricate dynamics of the waterfront, but not council. So they asked Elliott to come in to their second meeting to answer questions about who to contact and persuade. He complied and answered the group’s questions as needed. While the primary focus of the group was public outreach to raise awareness and support for the current Port Lands plan, it was also necessarily tied to the political geography.

Left-wing councillors at city hall each targeted a councillor or two to persuade and pass on information to. At the same time, some were telling the press that they were getting 4000 e-mails from constituents in response to the issue (many of which were coordinated by CodeBlue). CodeBlue was concerned that some kind of compromise deal would emerge and strongly stressed to sympathetic councillors this was not what they wanted. According to Findlay, they heard from McConnell’s and Fletcher’s office that they had to figure out how to move the motion forward with getting the most they could and constructing it so it could actually pass council. They encouraged CodeBlue to keep up the public pressure and contacting councillors to let them know this matters.

As the messaging of consulation, consideration, planning and prudence was repeated, mushy councillors fled the Ford scene. Josh Matlow was an early critic of the plan but Jaye Robinson was the one who set things in motion for it to fall apart. 

After weeks of being hammered in the media and by groups like CodeBlue, Civic Action and a group of 147 Toronto planning experts, the mayor’s poll numbers were dropping rapidly. Now with a 42% approval rating, Ford was vulnerable and Robinson spoke up against his plan. Executive member Michelle Berardinetti followed suit as well as Deputy Speaker John Parker.

The mission to connect the voices of a large group of citizens to moderate councillors through social media, petitions and waterfront knowledge had worked. It was now a virtual certainty that the Ford vision would not pass, it was just a matter of how many concessions they would have to give, if any.

The Resolution

Emboldened by their political position, CodeBlueTO released a ‘no compromise’ document the weekend before the vote, outlining areas that they could not give up (Waterfront Toronto as lead agency, Prioritization of Don naturalization and working within existing environmental assessments).

They held a rally at City Hall called “Behind Closed Doors” with supporting events and McConnell and Fletcher singing the titular song. It was an event that could have turned angry very easily but the mood was kept light and focused on a positive message with substantial criticisms.

On the other hand, Doug Ford had went off the rails over the weekend going so far as to calling in to Josh Matlow’s radio show, accusing Ken Greenberg of being married to Adam Vaughan’s EA (they’re not), stating that Janet Davis bullies him and parsing words over what constitutes ‘horse-trading’ with Matlow. It perfectly encapsulated his campaign: out-of-nowhere, alienating, bizarre and brash.

And so Doug Ford sat in council, defeated by the likes of Fletcher and McConnell, moderates like Robinson and even Ford allies. According to Fletcher, this was in no small part due to CodeBlue, “With an exceptional knowledge base and a good ‘rolodex’ they created a port in the storm and encouraged Torontonians to speak out for what they believed in…The state of civic life in Toronto is as healthy as ever."

Long-time activist Wilkey shared the sentiment, and found it personally fulfilling, “The group was politically savvy, energetic, able to operate in traditional and social media, smart, informed and fun. And I believe we made a difference.”

Wilkey’s observation points to a model for contemporary activism. CodeBlueTO didn’t succeed by doing the opposite of Doug Ford’s single-minded bullying, but because they integrated their diverse and complementary personal skills into their group tactics.

They gathered a passionate group of knowledge experts, communicated a condensed and positive message through old and new channels like social media and used a two-pronged approach to engage in public outreach and political persuasion. In a way, it was a model example for affecting change in the community.

Their activism- often a derogatory word in politics- was appreciated. As Fletcher finished her speech and Council unanimously voted for a consensus that only gave token concessions to the Ford Vision, applause broke out.

But it wasn’t just from the City Hall watchers. Most of the politicians turned around and stood to face the audience and gave a sustained applause to them. Even the chamber camera broke tradition and panned the audience, capturing a moment when the ideals of activism helped to (briefly) change the tenor of politics.   

It was Laidley’s favourite moment of the three weeks, a validation of the impact a small group of people can have. Asked about a lesson from the experience, she offered, “A city is not just created by those who have the power to make decisions, it’s shaped by all of us. All of us have to take responsibility for how we’re governed.”

CodeBlueTO will continue to cover the waterfront. For the purpose of this article, some people who made significant contributions were not covered. 

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