by Paul Oxley
originally published in the 2012 Summer Issue
I’m a Torontonian. Having lived in this city for sixty years, I have been witness to many changes here. My first memories go back to the early fifties; in the streets it was a city of immense steam-shovels, belching black smoke and horse drawn delivery services. Then later with the immigration from the late fifties to the present, the face (and faces) of Toronto changed.
Then came our ever-changing city skyline—first commercial towers and now the new condominium skyscrapers. Toronto’s become more cosmopolitan and I have grown to love it even more; long gone are the days of the waspish, ‘never on Sunday’ Toronto of the fifties and sixties.
Some of the latest changes haven’t been so pleasant such as municipal, provincial and federal austerity measures. We’re being told by our civic leaders that the city is broke; I have become aware that the number of low income people around me, including myself, has increased, prompting me to ask why? What’s happening in this city?
An opportunity to understand the whys jumped at me when Anne McDonagh, a volunteer on the board of the Workers’ Educational Association, which runs University in the Community, sent me an invitation to attend a free lecture series sponsored by Senior College at the University of Toronto and the Workers’ Educational Association. The series has focused on Toronto, from its early history to current governance with much else in between. It is a nine-week series put together by Peter Russell, professor extraordinaire, a professor emeritus of political science and former Principal of Innis College and current principal of Senior College.
The first lecture began with a moving and realistic film on the Irish immigration to Toronto in 1847 titled ’Canada or Death’ followed by a discussion. It was a fascinating film. Although most of the class was aware of the Irish Potato Famine, few of us had realized the extent of this tragedy, and how it affected early Toronto. We had the feeling that there was a lot more written between the lines than we had realized about this city.
The lectures have been held every second Wednesday to a class of approximately thirty students. The students come from diverse backgrounds, with many never having had the opportunity to expand their knowledge earlier in their lives because of economic or cultural hardships or for any number of reasons. We have one thing in common and that is that we believe learning is a life long process.
The second lecture of the series dealt with how the city is governed. The students received a very well-written, easy to understand booklet on the City government. In the same lecture it came to light how one city councillor may have to look after as many people in his or her ward as a small town mayor and his council, , the point being that some city councillors may be overworked— and this on the heels of our present mayor wishing to downsize the size of council.
The next time the students met we were lucky enough to have Councillor Adam Vaughan explaining to the group what it takes to be a councillor and the responsibilities involved, again a fascinating open discussion, giving us an understanding of how our city works.
We were lucky to have Dr. David Hulchanski speak to us on his well-known and researched study ’ The Three Cities within Toronto’ the story of Toronto’s rich and poor neighbourhoods’ and the shrinking middle class areas of Toronto.
Why are the rich getting richer while most of us are having a harder time making ends meet? We also looked at the projected income growth by 2025, and it’s not a very good picture of Toronto: The lower income group will have increased to 60% of the population. It’s a bleak picture, unless the governments react to this income polarization before its too late.
The University of Toronto lecture series has demonstrated how the city’s growth has left some people behind and how in the past we’ve managed to overcome other hurdles. Once we have the facts in front of us, we can use our knowledge to make positive change on the issues that we feel need changing. We need to become more involved and connected to our community, which will help other people, but more important, by being part of the community, we will learn more about who we are.
Toronto is one of the great cities of the world. The city motto ’Diversity is Our Strength’ refers to the seven municipalities that make up Toronto, but I prefer to think it refers to a city
that‘s made up of people from all parts of the world. The future is who we are!