Toronto Elections Goes Canada Crazy, Notwithstanding

Woodhaven, Ontario       In Paraguay the frame of reference was constantly back to the end of the dictatorship thirty years ago and the process of rebuilding civil society, institutions, and a democratic tradition in their country.  Suddenly in Canada for the annual fall organizer training sessions and management meetings for ACORN Canada, I found myself trying to unravel the wildness of the Toronto election crisis precipitated by new, rightwing populist Trump-wannabe Ontario Premier and former one-term Toronto city councilor, Doug Ford, against a frame of reference that seemed more common to Paraguay’s history than that of Canada’s.

What’s going on here?  City council elections were set in Toronto since the spring in the city’s 47 districts.  Candidates lined up, declared, and away they went.  Ford, the new Premier of Ontario, seems to have become confused about whether he was elected or enshrined to the throne, and unilaterally ordered the 47 districts cut to only 25 without so much as a never mind it seems.  Commentators, pundits and politicians seem to ascribe it mainly to old feuds from his time on the council and his late brother’s raucous ride as Mayor of Toronto.

Of course, there was legal action by the councilors and not surprising there was a judicial ruling, and this is where it really starts getting weird as Ford channels his inner-Trump to the outer extreme.  The court ruled that the move abridged the Charter of Rights and was unconstitutional.  Judge Belobaba wrote in his decision that “It appears that Bill 5 was hurriedly enacted to take effect in the middle of the city’s election without much thought at all, more out of pique than principle.”  The Toronto Star summarizing the judge’s decision added that he “blasted the province for failing to justify the cut to council, saying it submitted little evidence to support a hastily prepared argument that the legislation would result in more effective representation or that it would make council more efficient and save money.”  So, the October elections in a little more than a month were back on in 47 districts.

The court’s decision upset Ford, whose understanding of an independent judiciary seems in tune with President Trump’s.  According to the Star story, he claimed,

“I was elected. The judge was appointed. He was appointed by one person…A democratically elected government, trying to be shut down by the courts — that concerns me more than anything,” he said, adding the courts have made him feel like “I’m sitting here handcuffed, with a piece of tape over my mouth, watching what I say.”

So, he claims he’s going to fix that and overrule the Judge using the “notwithstanding” clause passed initially to prevent the secession of Quebec from Canada and only designed for extraordinary circumstances, and never used previously in Ontario though it has been employed once in Quebec, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

So, in the Canadian circus, Ford is calling the Ontario parliament into session to pass a bill to overrule the judge and is appealing Judge Belobaba’s ruling to the higher court.  It’s a US Senate kind of problem though, because Ford has the party line majority to muscle through his new bill, so no one knows what and who will really be before the voters in October so the only thing certain is that lawyers will be running in and out court.

When this whole democracy and basic democratic rights thing is not just under fire in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India and elsewhere around the world, but in the United States and, oh my god, even Canada, we’re really in the middle of a citizen rights’ conflagration totally out of control.


Techo, Tagging, and Finding Another Way

Dallas   Sometimes if you can’t be good at least hope you’re lucky.  Once we were on the ground in Paraguay, we were hustling to fill up the dance card of our agenda with meetings.  We had heard the name of a group that was called Techo that was involved in housing.  Ok, sounds good, and finally we were able to schedule them as our very last meeting before flying out of the country, but on our third day in the country, my excitement about the meeting changed dramatically.

We were in a cab going from the Fundacion Bertoni to our next meeting, and suddenly we had seen some young people “tagging!”  Darned, if they didn’t have on white-and-blue t-shirts that said “Techo” on them.  A young woman even put her head in the window with a clipboard, and we told her we were going to meet with Techo in a couple of days.  Andrew Marciniak, ACORN Toronto head organizer, and one of our intrepid team that made it through the Brazilian visa process to see the amazing Igazu Falls, reported to me that he had seen a bunch of Techo folks doing the same thing at the border.  I was excited now:  these were my kind of people!

If you are an organizer and you have never been part of a tagging operation, I’m not sure you’ve really lived.  Tagging is the epitome of street fundraising.  ACORN’s tagging operation, originally pioneered in Columbus, Ohio by Fred Brooks, and then picked up in a number of offices, most spectacularly in New Orleans by ACORN and Local 100 United Labor Unions, involved getting old tennis ball cans, putting an ACORN slogan on the outside, taping the can with a slot for money, and putting largely teens and sometimes staff and members on the busiest streets in the cities with the longest stoplights to go car to car to raise money for the organization.  Devised initially by firefighters hitting the streets asking for donations into their boots and then giving people a “tag” saying thanks, it was repurposed as a grassroots fundraiser.   Don’t scoff either.  New Orleans would regularly net more than $1000 on a Saturday in the 1980s.  When Cecile Richards, most recently head of Planned Parenthood of America, spoke at an ACORN Year End / Year Beginning Meeting she rightly bragged to the crowd about how great a tagger she was!

Meeting Bruno Lopez, the General Manager of Techo Paraguay, and his management team at their amazing headquarters in a donated, rambling house and property in the city, he told us that we had witnessed their annual fundraiser, and though they were still counting, they expected to raise $400,000 USD from their tagging operation, accounting for almost half of their budget.  Techo turned out to work in more than twenty Latin American countries and to have its roots in organizing largely young volunteers to build small scale emergency housing for lower income and displaced people after disasters.  The housing can last up to 10 years!

This is still a huge part of their program, but they have been reaching out and expanding their focus.  Sofia, their operations manager, described their emerging organizing “model,” which had many close parallels to the ACORN Organizing Model substituting volunteers for members, adding dues, and other items.  Bruno and his team were reflective.  They were thinking about making changes and pushing the envelope past the history of their organization and its operations, and were most curious about lessons we might have learned in doing so as well.

Luckily, we all felt as we walked away from our last meeting in Asuncion that we had some how saved the best for last!