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CivicAction: A look back at decade of city-shaping in Toronto

‘Ultimately, I’d like to see us not have to do this,’ says Maytree Foundation president Ratna Omidvar of diversity efforts.

ERIN ELDER/The Globe and Mail

A decade ago this weekend, a group of high-minded Torontonians announced an alliance that promised an ambitious "action plan" for a city whose political leadership had often been strong on ideas but weak on follow-through.

"Toronto has lost its vision of itself," founder David Pecaut told The Globe at the time. "In the 1970s, the city had a sense of where it was going. … I think this effort will try to put some of that vision back on the table."

It's a sentiment that has new-found resonance following the turmoil at City Hall this week.

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The Toronto City Summit Alliance, now known as CivicAction, made a name for itself picking up where, it felt, government left off. The high-profile names involved tackled everything from immigrant employment to the environment and the arts, with the Luminato festival arguably their most visible achievement.

Given the current state of city governance, the relevance of the organization as it marks its 10th anniversary is particularly germane. Some argue that the group's lofty rhetoric isn't matched by concrete results. Where it has succeeded, others say, is in being able to reconcile private and public interests.

"CivicAction gets very diverse groups together to have informed discussion, and then become unified on the priorities," asserts Gord Nixon, president and chief executive officer of the Royal Bank of Canada. "And it's very difficult to do that with so many divisions amongst interest groups."

But they haven't been beloved by everyone. "I think sometimes people in groups like this … don't want to make enemies," says Brian Ashton, who was a city councillor in Toronto throughout the 80s and 90s. "They want to make friends. And in politics, often, friendship doesn't deliver the results that you really want.… Being non-partisan and apolitical – or just refusing to kiss Sleeping Beauty and wake her up – results in less action than you'd hoped for."

But the group's CEO, Mitzie Hunter, notes that CivicAction prides itself on being "neutral and non-partisan."

"To tackle big issues such a transportation or economic development," argues John Tory, who took over as chair of CivicAction after his friend Mr. Pecaut died of cancer in 2009, "you have to work in collaboration, rather than making everything a political game, contest, or fistfight."

CivicAction's latest campaign – to get politicians moving on urban transportation – is doomed to stagnate, warns transit advocate Steve Munro, unless the organization becomes more political.

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"They strike me as a nice bunch of people who all get together to talk to all their friends," says Mr. Munro, "but if they don't get out there and beat the drums and raise this as a political issue, it's not going to go anywhere."

The Globe and Mail looks back over a decade of the organization's initiatives.


Six years ago, a task force co-chaired by Mr. Pecaut tackled a dilemma that's still stressing policy-makers across Canada. What do you do when a job isn't enough to get someone out of poverty? The ensuing report, A Fair Deal, identified needs for employment-insurance reform that have yet to be realized. But one of its key recommendations suggested the federal government add a tax-credit cushion to boost low-income households that are in the job market but still can't make ends meet. This helped pave the way for Canada's Working Income Tax Benefit, something that economists and anti-poverty advocates alike hold up as as an example of progressive taxation to keep low-income workers above the poverty line.

"The tax credit is their most successful [initiative] in terms of leading to a specific policy outcome," says Michael Shapcott, who is the director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation at the Wellesley Institute. "They were able to identify a mechanism; there was broad understanding and agreement."


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Across Canada, unemployment rates for immigrants remain stubbornly higher than for their Canadian-born counterparts. This is bad for immigrants, whose skills are underutilized, and their subsequent reliance on social programs taxes the economy. In 2003, CivicAction and the Maytree Foundation, a Toronto equity-promoting group, co-founded the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council – a group dedicated to mentoring newcomers and connecting them with work that matches their skill set. Since then, by CivicAction's count, the council has matched more than 6,000 skilled immigrants with employers.

While Maytree president Ratna Omidvar acknowledges progress, she says there is still a much to be done: "[W]e have to work on the other side. … Say, 'Okay, employers: What do you need?' "


In 2008, CivicAction and Maytree started DiverseCity, an initiative to get corporations and political institutions to bring in more visible minorities.

DiverseCity backers argue that simply tracking the makeup of these organizations puts added pressure on those in charge to up their game. This is something the city of Toronto had started doing two years earlier: In 2006 it established a policy emphasizing diversity on its agencies, boards and commissions. The strategy appears to be paying off: As of 2011, according to a DiverseCity study, a third of the people on those municipal bodies were members of visible minorities. Now, says Ms. Omidvar, the challenge is to get that same kind of diversity into boardrooms and leadership positions.

She insists the notion that this smacks of tokenism is mistaken – but admits she'd like this initiative to make itself obsolete.

"Ultimately, I'd like to see us not have to do this. … So the conversation becomes irrelevant. I still think we have a long way to go."


In its early days, Luminato and its visitors grappled with its identity: Was it a populist street fair or was it an elite arts festival? Today, in its sixth year, it seems to have found a way to embrace both, with both Torontonians and the international art world paying it more heed. (Attendance last year hovered around the one million mark). Rita Davies, former executive director of culture for the city of Toronto, says the festival – which got a mixed reaction from the arts community – has now hit its stride. "I think in Toronto we still have that tendency to have a heart-implant rejection syndrome, where we turn back on our own too easily," Ms. Davies says. "Something of this scale needs time to build and get its international stride. And its local stride. But Luminato has shown it's embedded in the Toronto arts scene now."


CivicAction has adopted transportation – that needling issue that no one in the region has yet resolved – as its No. 1 priority. In October, it launched a campaign designed to get politicians and the public talking about how to find ways to pay for the $50-billion infrastructure infusion.

Last Thursday, the government agency Metrolinx announced it was pushing along its so-called Big Move initiative by adding two subway lines as well as more light rail transit in the GTA and Hamilton. CivicAction can take some credit as one of many voices that got the province to budge. The thorny issue remains, however, who is going to pay for it? Mr. Munro is skeptical that CivicAction's efforts will have much impact unless they start to play tough. "The campaign's only a month old so they haven't gotten far down that path," he says. "But, in my opinion, nothing much will come of their actions unless they get out there and beat the drums and raise this as a political issue."

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