Brampton is getting really tired of the lip service
Brampton is getting really tired of the lip service
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Brampton is getting really tired of the lip service


Keats once said our names are “writ in water.”

He could have chosen the air, or perhaps the sand on the shoreline after a storm surge.

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.

Paul McCartney had thousands of disengaged lost souls he could have picked from.

 


 

Brampton’s Committee of Council passed a three-part resolution on Wednesday afternoon, and there’s a good chance all of them will end up in the ether – unable to garner enough interest (or money) to get acted upon. 

We’re talking about etherealness here.

While Keats’ and McCartney’s artistic offerings will live forever because of their poetry and universality, what Brampton councillors did on Wednesday, will not.

It’s a jarring reminder of how vaporous politics has become – riddled with a disturbing level of deception, a lot of time-wasting debate, and in the end, nothing but PR spin. 

It’s perhaps one reason why the public has generally lost interest in engaging any more and doesn’t bother to vote.

The significance of all this seeming insignificance, can’t be overstated. It gets clearer if we simply decipher a press release issued by the city only minutes after it voted 11-0 to approve moving forward with three major projects “that will spur downtown revitalization and enhance new developments in the city’s core.”

The projects – Centre for Innovation, Downtown Transit Terminal, and the Hurontario Main Light Rail Transit (HMLRT) – will, if built, change the very foundation of this city. But the odds of that happening are longer than the Green Party holding power after this October’s federal vote. 

Readers might have blown right past the ‘if built’ qualifier – but they are the two most important words in the last paragraph. 

You’d think by the breathless optimism of the release that the three projects were in the offing, and we can lick our chops in anticipation of this being a three-phase plan for Brampton’s renewal. Finally, we are emerging from years of weak leadership, and a crappy land-use policy that encouraged sprawl, gridlock, and weakened our business base, while guaranteeing sky-high property taxes for homeowners without a commercial base to balance the revenue load. 

The $160 million Centre for Innovation is being packaged as a new central library providing opportunities for digital creation and programming, performance and audio recording, assistive technologies for various abilities and cultural days. There’s also a transit hub and a whole bunch of space that, thanks to some hocus pocus in the future, will get used, with P.R. smoke-screen descriptors by city staff like “collaboration zone” and “innovation zone” and “event space” and “non-programmed, flexible office floor area” (that’s code for, we have no clue why we’re building this, but if we find the money somewhere, we have to build something). That last part, the non-programmed space, is how the city is describing the need for an additional five floors for the innovation centre, at a cost of $30 million, $6 million for each floor. Of course, since the city doesn’t have $30 million, staff recommended and council approved, the use of external debt to build something no one can explain. If anyone can explain why on earth taxpayers are being asked to finance $30 million of external debt to build five floors for non-programmed (meaning, there’s no current use for it), flexible office space, please let us know.

We get it, the new council got a smack down. The province pulled $90 million in funding for a downtown university campus, then Ryerson was forced to pull out of the project. Instead of admitting defeat and hitting the pause button, this freshly minted group of local leaders decided to march forward in victory, with a half-baked quick pivot that has left many wondering what’s going on with this “Innovation Centre” and now five additional floors for what? and a $30 million transit hub (that needs more than $20 million of funding from higher governments, otherwise more debt will have to be used) and, hold on, maybe a central library, all resurrected like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the only thing that was ever clear – the whole project was based on an actual university campus that would have brought actual students and actual private-sector partnerships, but it's no longer moving forward.

We’re all for tenacity and refusing to take defeat sitting down (the non-campus plans with Ryerson look great and Algoma University's expansion is a big win) but this isn’t a Tuesday night game of Tim Horton’s League soccer, these are the hard-earned dollars of Brampton’s taxpayers that are being tossed around.

If the city has an actual plan for the innovation centre, perhaps through any negotiations with the federal government, after some local MPs recently signalled they are trying to secure funding from Ottawa through grants for post-secondary education, why not tell the public? Instead, we are left scratching our heads, wondering what is going on with a $160 million project that even the library board says is vague, with few details, and has moved forward despite no public consultation.  

It is now entering “the tender stage” of development and could be a landmark for passengers entering or leaving the downtown GO station. 

This leads to the proposed Downtown Transit Terminal. Council is “exploring” how to expand what it is now already operating at full capacity. The city “will begin a study to determine the best configuration and location of the future transit hub.” 

The expansion of actual GO Train service, however, is something that has been promised for some two decades, without any results. Brampton remains the only major urban area in the GTA without all-day, two-way GO Train capacity, even though demand is literally spilling out onto the packed platforms where desperate daily commuters pray for relief.  

And, of course, the granddaddy of them all in this is the “proposed” LRT line. The city will update its current environmental assessment to include a wide range of transit opportunities. Our LRT will eventually link with the GO station in Port Credit, offering riders an almost seamless journey south to Mississauga, or east to Toronto. The line to our GO station might run along a surface route or tunnel through the floodplain along Main Street. The costs ($400 to $450 million for the surface route, or as much as $1.7 billion for a tunnel) is framed as if this will have little impact on the ultimate decision. There could be more add-ons, like a Main-George One-Way Loop. One councillor thinks the project must be linked to Downtown Reimagined – a fix to the surface and sub-surface of the aging downtown core that is now unfunded and on hold. 

There is a lot of optimism here, and vagueness, and Mayor Patrick Brown is quoted in the presser as saying, “Today’s decisions and the related developments are all exciting and transformational initiatives for Brampton. They are strongly connected to this council’s priorities and the vision our residents have shared for a more connected city.”

Transformational. Strongly connected to council’s priorities. The vision our residents have shared.

Yes, excitement is building. Everything is simpatico. Brampton is ready to move forward. 

But who is its partner – Queen’s Park? Where is the money? The city’s coffers certainly don’t have it. Even with this year’s symbolic tax freeze, which City Hall can’t afford, but new council members desperately wanted as a show of early success, homeowners are still squeezed by a property tax rate that is 30 to 40 percent higher than Toronto’s and one of the highest in the GTA.

Meanwhile, the political masters in the provincial legislature have been on a massive bloodletting since Doug Ford assumed the premiership last June. We haven’t seen this much gore (or usurpation of powers) since Macbeth took the knife to King Duncan and cleared his path to the Scottish throne. Some insist even his victory over main rival Christine Elliott in the race for leadership of the PC party was tainted. 

Shakespeare used the word “nullity” to describe the Macbeth regicide, meaning: an act or thing that is legally void – of no importance or worth.

This pretty much captures the Ford doctrine. There seems to be no plan, or an endgame – just the evisceration of public-sector programs. Since June, everything from healthcare to education to university funding to the planting of trees has suffered serious blunt-force trauma. 

Ford appears the most unlikely partner on the planet to join with Brampton and sign a blank cheque to fund our new LRT route. It doesn’t seem to matter that our plans still remain in the at-work stage, or that none of this has been properly priced. 

It’s also unmentioned that Brown, former leader of the PC party, took a carving knife to many still in the Ford caucus in his tell-all book, Takedown, which was released just days before he officially took over the mayor’s office. The thinking here is that Ford would rather pet a porcupine than shake hands on any deal involving Brown. 

But the presser is irredeemably upbeat, spun in silk.

The Liberals in Ottawa are another iffy financial partner. As the federal election approaches in October, panic seems to be setting in from the political fall-out of the SNC Lavalin controversy. It may have cemented conservative support because seven of the province’s premiers are now led by right-of-centre pols. The powerful provinces of Alberta and Ontario have spawned the most ardent alt-righters of them all, Jason Kenney and Ford.

Nullity nicely describes what many interpret as a splintering of our long-held democratic principles.

Ford took the premier’s chair by winning 40 percent of the votes and 60 percent of the seats – which gives him a massive majority. When he walked into the legislature last June, he also had 100 percent of the power. All municipalities were quickly brought to heel. He sent out an early and cryptic message when he cut the Toronto city council almost in half, and recently he doubled down by starting the process of shrinking regional government. 

You don’t need the Three Witches of Macbeth to prophesize what’s to come. Ford is blessed with a supine caucus. The two PC MPPs representing Brampton, Amarjot Sandhu and Prabmeet Sarkaria, sit like gargoyles in the legislature – unsmiling, unmovable and uninvolved. There was stony silence from both when funding for a new Ryerson university for Brampton was cut. Waiting for any pro-Brampton legislation to emanate from either of their offices is like waiting for pandas to mate at the zoo. You can bet they’ll have little stomach for pushing their boss to support any kind of funding for the LRT, transit terminal, or Innovation Centre.

As for the local Liberal MPs likely desperate now that the polls are turning on them, let’s see if they have any political savvy, or if they’re just the latest placeholders warming the backbenches while oblivious to the actual reason Brampton voters sent them to Ottawa – not to attend fancy foreign trips and glad hand at weekend galas.

The money to move this city forward has to come from somewhere. Brampton residents pay taxes just like everyone else, except the fruits of their labour seldom seem to materialize, while other jurisdictions make out like robbers using your dollars to build their infrastructure. Just visit Brampton Civic Hospital, or step into one of the portable classrooms at a local school or try to find parking at a Brampton GO station, if you want to see what this steal from Peter to pay Paul routine looks like.

That’s why Wednesday’s council meeting was too full of empty talk, and the press release read like fiction – and pure propaganda.

It’s easy to criticize a document that blindly suggests Brampton is moving forward. Which begs the question: Where exactly is all the money coming from to pay for these much-needed projects? 

No wonder the voting public is disillusioned and disengaging from the political process – especially at the local level.

It’s not just anecdotal evidence, but a statistical reality that this is happening. The percentage of votes going to the polls in local elections has dropped significantly in the last three campaigns. It ticked up slightly when Patrick Brown outdistanced Linda Jeffrey in the 2018 battle, with 34.5 percent turnout, but if that represents an improvement, you get the point. 

Two weeks ago at regional headquarters, ex-politicos, Michael Fenn (CAO of Hamilton and Burlington) and Ken Seiling (former chairman of Waterloo Region), welcomed the public to participate in a discussion of Ford’s plan to re-do regional governance. The political fate of Brampton might hang in the balance. Will it amalgamate with Mississauga to form a super-city? Or might it re-emerge in some other guise? 

Despite the urgency of the moment, and the fact it was held in Brampton, not one resident from this city bothered to show up or make a presentation. Maybe this ennui was a simple protest against a process that seems flawed, and built-in to fail. Will Ford listen to any of the Fenn-Seiling recommendations when he decides later this summer what to do with this fourth tier of government? Not likely. Was a no-show by Brampton residents, a rejection of all the useless banter that takes place when politicians ask residents for their input? Maybe we’re simply sick of empty offerings? Is this what is being sold these days as an example of open democracy?

Lincoln said: “With public opinion, nothing can fail. Without public opinion, nothing can succeed.” 

He’s right, and the sentiment is noble, but it is almost the opposite of the top-down, fake-politics currently infesting our system. The autocratic Ford is being sold to the public as the premier “for the people.” The truth is found in his latest giveaway to his friends in the development sector. He gives them more land to build their single-family homes, and cuts back the regulations, with his latest offering, Bill 108, that if passed promises to give builders more control while municipalities will lose the ability to plan land-use for their benefit. That’s who he is. 

Lincoln is an example of how democracy can work. He was a dogged public servant who kept working for people and running for office until he won. Then he changed the world. His Gettysburg Address was three minutes long and proved that politicians don’t need half a day to make a point. We have to get back to our democratic roots and advocate for what we want. We can bypass our representatives and call them out if we think they’re not telling us the truth.

The person we should look to for guidance in all this is the fictional hero from the Oscar-winning film Network (1976). Yes, Howard Beale (Peter Finch) made the most dramatic or satirical case for in-your-face public engagement in film history. Howard was in distress because he was being put out to pasture as a broadcaster. He threatened to shoot himself. Then he turned away from his teleprompter and delivered one of the great (fictional) on-air freak outs in history.

Deftly crafted by the immortal screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, his rant went like this:

We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is: ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ 

Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get MAD! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. (shouting) You’ve got to say: ‘I’m a human being, god-dammit! My life has value!’ 

So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!’

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”

Perfect.

The circuit board at the station immediately lit up. People stuck their heads out of windows and repeated his rant to anyone who would listen. Howard struck a nerve. 

Brampton might be mad as hell that Queen’s Park has killed the university, ignored our healthcare needs, and not responded to the LRT or all-day GO Train. But the silence is troubling. The engagement at town halls is faint. The zero turnout at Fenn-Seiling was beyond abysmal. The city in this city need a little Howard Beale in them. They need to march on Queen’s Park, with torches in hand. If that’s impractical, maybe we can practice our own modern-day version of the shout-out?

Get on your cellphones. Dial up our MPPs on the Ford team. Ask them why they ran for office? Tell them it’s time they earned their pay cheques and represented the interests of the people who put them in power – not those who have taken it from them. 

It’s also time the mayor and council got straight with the public. 

Save the empty words about seeking out money from the provincial and federal governments for a “fully-funded” LRT. Nobody is eagerly awaiting the final configuration of our plan. They don’t care if it runs along, above or under Main Street. At the moment, we are pretty much on our own with all this – and we (and other cities) will have to deal with the man at Queen’s Park who thinks good governance is cutting off funding to families dealing with children with autism.

Maybe the Prime Minister is now scared just enough. The four remaining Liberal seats in this city might actually have to produce something for constituents if they want to help their party hang onto power, to the tune of a $30 million post-secondary education grant, or maybe some money for the potential $1.7 billion LRT, or how about some of the roughly $250 million needed to fix the downtown flood risk, what about the money for the stalled next phase of the Peel Memorial Wellness hospital, or even better, help to build a desperately needed second full-service hospital and while Mr. Trudeau’s at it, some money for proper commuter rail service in the country’s second fastest growing city, that happily accommodates newcomers under Ottawa’s generous immigration policy while other cities turn their back.

Sure, our taxpayers deserve more from Queen’s Park and Ottawa than they have received in the past. Yes, we laud any effort put forth to make this happen. But just be straight with us and stop the mindless chatter about how everything is good, and in the offing. We know better.

And please, ditch the smiley face press releases until there's something truly worth smiling about.

That last one could have been writ in water. 



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