Summit 2007 Raises Questions for Activists

By Ben Bull
Published February 25, 2007

Toronto's Summit 2007 kicks off tomorrow with City Summit Alliance Chair David Pecaut calling for immediate action on 11 critical fronts.

Among the list of priority items, the Alliance has cited the following as vital to Toronto's success:

External influences such as the City Summit Alliance are critical to the successful operation of our democratic institutions. The Toronto Summit, with its 400 participants, comprising heavyweight business leaders, activists and various sitting MPs and MPPs, provides a useful barometer for our City Council's and provincial governments performance and brings much needed pressure to bear.

I wonder how many RTH readers are aware that Hamilton has its own branch of the City Summit Alliance? Or which of us, I wonder, can recall the annual Power Conferences organized by Laura Babcock which sought to create a short-list of municipal priorities for the year ahead? Who among us can say what these groups are up to now? Or what they have accomplished?

Although I believe that these external influences, along with Hamilton's other activist organizations, are critical to a healthy democracy I have always been more than a little alarmed at how well they don't seem to work - especially in Hamilton.

I recall attending a few sessions of the Downtown Revitalization Committee sponsored by Hamilton's branch of the City Summit Alliance, only to realize, after several months of discussions and lobbying, that nobody at City Hall was listening.

"If these councillors and our Mayor can ignore City stakeholders including the top Execs at Dofasco and Mac - what hope do our little activist groups have?" I wondered at the time.

The breaking point for me was when, after weeks of lobbying the Mayor, the City Transit Department, and various HSR Executives for a re-routing of the Gore Park bus routes, we were finally promised a 'presentation' of HSR's Executive Plan and a Q&A session with a senior HSR representative. A full complement of the committee duly turned up the next week to see the presentation and get some straight answers.

Imagine the dismay as the committee was met by an apologetic co-op student who explained that she'd just started and wasn't too familiar with the presentation. "I'll do my best," she told the disappointed crowd.

While affording external democratic institutions the respect they deserve and understanding how to incorporate them into the democratic decision making framework is a point of contention - and confusion - for many local governments, I have to say I have never seen such insolence as I did in Hamilton.

The Toronto Alliance is today boasting no fewer than nine policy successes stemming from its 2003 Summit, including the creation of a Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council and a pivotal role in the sharing of the federal gas tax revenues.

Beyond that a number of local activist groups, such as the widely applauded Spacing Magazine enterprise, are credited with influencing a variety of local policy decisions.

Apart from being roundly ignored, I wonder what successes Hamilton's City Summit Alliance and activist groups can claim?

While I have no doubt that these external activist organizations and think-tanks are vital to a successful democracy, how to make them effective is a different matter altogether.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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