His critics like to say that Mayor Rob Ford's antics are distracting city council from the serious business of governing Canada's biggest city. But councillors don't need Mr. Ford to be distracted. They are pretty good at getting up to silliness all their own. Just look at what they've been doing the past few days.
At council's government management committee on Monday, they voted for a proposal to buy only Fair Trade coffee, sugar and tea for city shelters and long-term care homes. The goal is to support a campaign by Fair Trade activists to get Toronto qualified as an internationally recognized Fair Trade Town.
To that end, said a seven-page staff report on this burning issue, the city's Environment and Energy Office "will designate a staff member to be appointed to Fair Trade Toronto's Fair Trade Towns Committee." The report asserts that, because the city will invite competing bids, buying Fair Trade won't push up the cost of the $300,000 in tea, coffee and sugar the city buys every year. We'll see about that, but with all the challenges faced by people in shelters or long-term care, is buying Fair Trade coffee really a priority?
A few days earlier at city council, councillors voted to order up "a comprehensive review of the implications, locally, of depleting oceanic species that are used as food sources." What has that got to do with filling pot holes and keeping the streetcars running on time, you might ask.
But city councillors don't like to limit themselves to such petty concerns. In 2011, they adopted a bylaw banning the possession, sale and consumption of shark fin and shark-fin products. Though international fisheries management is a federal, not municipal concern, they argued that Toronto should take the lead in combatting barbaric fishing practices like shark finning. The courts disagreed and struck down the bylaw, saying the city had overstepped its authority.
That, rightfully, should have been the end of it. Last week's motion is a last-ditch attempt by pro-ban councillors to keep the issue alive. Council instructed the city's manager and its medical officer of health to identify any "health, environmental, ecological and animal-welfare consequences" of species depletions in the high seas and to consider "shark populations and shark finning." If that seems a bit far from the medical officer's usual tasks – like, say, flu shots and AIDS prevention – shame on you for being so provincial. Council has grander ideas.
The biggest headlines out of council's monthly meeting came out of its move to protect undocumented migrants from being denied city services. The Toronto Star trumpeted it as a historic move to declare Toronto a "sanctuary city" for people without papers. Ryerson University professor Harald Bauder called it "a heroic step" to guard the vulnerable.
There is only one little problem: Toronto already offers services to undocumented residents. The city doesn't ask anyone for papers when they use child care, libraries, shelters, community centres and a host of other services. In 2007, it even put out a poster, to be displayed at city service sites, explaining its don't-ask policy, just in case undocumented residents were afraid of being carded.
At last week's meeting, council simply voted to "reaffirm its commitment" to providing services to everyone. Under its directive, the city will look into training city staff on the existing policy, launching an education policy and creating a "complaints protocol." It will also ask Ottawa to set up a "regularization program" for undocumented residents.
So why all the fuss? Councillor Joe Mihevc told CBC Radio that, while the old policy was reactive, "this one is more proactive." Asked if undocumented residents were being denied services, he said there had been "many a story" about people being asked for their papers and bolting for the door.
Reports this week say Mr. Ford has gone to Disney World for a family vacation. He may find that less of a fantasy world than the one he left behind.