For a visitor to Toronto on a busman’s holiday, the perspective gained from leaving my home in Boston is valuable. The oft-heard phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” once intoned during the Clinton years, resonated in my mind: costs are spiralling upward. High wheat prices in the Midwest are pushing up the costs of bread at the market. Gas is close to $4.00 a gallon. Many of my neighbours have foreclosed on their homes, unable to pay the mortgages. Many are out of work, or face lay-offs.
Visiting Toronto, I realize that back home, it’s not just about the economy. It goes deeper than that. It’s about how economic troubles have eroded our confidence in daily life. We are downtrodden. We have lost our will to dream of better lives.
I noticed this when a malaise for the long and loathed Iraq war dampened a hero’s welcome. PFC Sean Bannon stood before a crowd of 35,000 in Fenway Park last week and received the Purple Heart, the highest award for bravery for being wounded on the battlefield. He was cheered by all. But later, he
made this comment to the press: “I know everyone is sick of the war. I know everyone disapproves of it. But at least they know it’s not the troops’ fault.”
Canada is not fighting a war. There are no yellow ribbons tied to the trees along College Avenue and the other main streets where so many Toronto residents take the air and shop at outdoor markets, or stand in line to enjoy nightlife, film festivals and more. Toronto is a city that radiates optimism, evident in the bright smile that greets me when I speak with Steve Chan, owner of Bright Pearl Seafood restaurant on Spadina and St. Andrews streets in Chinatown.
“I left Hong Kong and settled here, opening this place 11 years ago,” Chan tells me. “There have been successive waves of immigration from Asia since and before that time. But now, this current wave of immigrants, they are making their mark on the city politically, with new representation in local government.”
The fact that Toronto government is open to diverse representation is a positive sign, Chan says. It may be a recent change, but it is a good one, he insists. His own civic involvement is evidenced by the number of photographs of him and luminaries that grace the wall near the restaurant’s entrance. He is passionate about his role as a citizen.
“In the past, immigrant groups came into Toronto, made their mark, but then they either moved to the suburbs, or took their money and went back home,” he says. “Not me. I’m staying here and investing in Toronto.”
Back home, I am hard pressed to find optimism or sense of civic commitment or a collective determination to ride out a difficult economic cycle. After having my spirits lifted in Toronto, I returned to an ongoing crisis in lame duck leadership, backbiting among Democratic presidential contenders, and a lacklustre Republican candidate who has no new ideas, intoning beliefs in the current administration’s failed policies. The result: weariness, despair, indifference.
Perhaps we need to emulate our neighbours in Toronto who are putting together successful coalitions and investing in well being for all citizens. Instead of lamenting our plight, perhaps new ideas for civic improvements need to be introduced, action plans like the New Deal that once captivated and motivated a desperate populous and buoyed spirits during a dark time. Back in the States, darkness has descended. It is all encompassing. And that’s why the lucency that prevails in Toronto is so attractive.
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This post was written by Robert Israel