On September 10th, Dufferin Grove Park was filled with volleyball players, children playing and people enjoying one last warm Saturday before the cold sets in. In the south-west corner of the park, down the hill from the playground area, around 900 people gathered in Dufferin Grove Park for a public meeting on how to stop Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s cuts. You wouldn’t know that that the City of Toronto had closed the park for the day, or that they’d cancelled programs and told staff to stay indoors for “their own safety.” The only official notice of the park closure was a piece of paper on the bathroom stating that the park had closed due too an “unpermitted event” (someone had crossed out the word ‘unpermitted’ and replaced it with a hand-written “awesome”). The splashpad was dry instead of being filled with joyful children, the café was closed, and no gardening was allowed. The city seems not to have expected a major security problem either, given that only two police on bikes were deployed inside the park, making the cancellation of park programs seem particularly scrooge-like. Still, Friends of Dufferin Grove Park noted that, “No group which regularly uses the park on weekends had stayed away. The volleyball players didn't even seem to even be aware of the meetings that were taking place down in the Garrison Creek Hollow.”
The meeting was put on by the Stop The Cuts network, an alliance of grassroots groups that includes some of the largest organizations in the city such as OCAP, No One Is Illegal (NOII) and Barrio Nuevo, as well as many other activist groups and individuals. Magdalena Diaz Arce, a spokeperson for Stop the Cuts, told the Media Co-op: "We were able to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, which was to have a People's Declaration. And we did it in a very short period of time. It was very efficient, we were able to feed everybody, there were no arguments; people seemed to be on the same page, everybody was against the Ford agenda. Personally I was so pumped because i thought it was a really good experience."
The format, familiar to participants of other mass meetings such as the People’s Assembly for Climate Justice or the University of Toronto General Assembly, involved a mass meeting with breakout groups on particular themes, such as Health, Libraries, LGBT and geographical areas of the city where Stop the Cuts has a presence. It was useful that the breakout group consultations were conduced by those already engaged in sustained campaigns, such as the Spanish-speaking caucus being facilitated by activists from Barrio Nuevo, which does long-term activist work in Latino communities in Toronto.
I went to the Downtown East Side breakout group, where a difficult balance was struck between having a coherent politics and a consultative democratic meeting. For example, some of the people attending wanted rent-to-own for social housing, but that’s a difficult demand as under current conditions rent-to-own would simply result in the privatization of social housing, and current tenants would benefit in the short-term but at a cost of destroying affordable housing in the long-term (without a massive building boom in social housing). But a breakout group like that isn’t the place for a significant debate on this kind of thing: the demand was incorporated as “tenant control over housing” which gets at some of the issues but isn’t quite the same thing. The breakout group was run by activists associated with OCAP, which I thought really tied in the breakout group consultation with long-term activist in the east end. I agree with Brandon Gee, who attended the meeting, and told the Media Co-op: “The meeting brought in hundreds of regular folks from the community beyond the core of activists in Toronto and although the logistics of getting 600 people to voice a detailed opinion is difficult it was more or less achieved.”
The Toronto declaration was signed by 600 attendees at the meeting (perhaps 400 more people participated in the process but drifted off sometime in the afternoon before the final declaration was finished), and since then by 3,000 more people. It begins, “All public services are vital to communities. We reject the attempts to divide and conquer by pitting community groups against each other in a battle for funding,” and goes on to demand that services not be cut, that user fees not be implemented and that attacks on poor, on immigrant communities, on other marginalized groups, or on labour unions be halted (read the entire declaration and sign it here).
In the face of massive public disapproval, Ford blinked. City councillors that had supported him unstintingly are worried about being seen cutting services such as libraries in their own wards. The cuts have been deferred but are still on the table. The Stop the cuts network released a press release which stated:
“In a surprise move, on Sept 19th, the Executive Committee deferred most of the recommended cuts. Thanks to the opposition that emerged in Toronto’s communities, major cuts will not be voted on at the Sept 26-27 meeting. The attack is still coming, but we now know that the supposedly unstoppable ‘Ford Nation’ can be challenged. Rob Ford is still dangerous, but he can be beaten.”
Of course, the Stop the Cuts network is not the only group targeting Ford. NOW Magazine has targeted city councillors in the so-called “mushy middle” who sometimes vote with Ford and sometimes against . Small local coalitions such as Save the Riverdale Farm have been lobbying against specific cuts, and the Toronto Cyclists Union is continuing the struggle against the anti-bike agenda.
Actions continue; yesterday childcare activists actually set up an affordable daycare in the hallway of City Hall, while children went into council chambers and offered snacks to city councillors who agreed to pinky swear not to cut subsidized daycare services support affordable childcare . According to spokeperson Lindsay Windhager, there was good attendance with lots of parents and children attending. She said that sympathetic city councillors participated and told the activists (including activist children!) that they were voting against cuts to daycare. Earlier today, there was a mass die-in from AIDS ACTION NOW against the proposed cuts to public health including HIV prevention and support.
Magdalena talked about what Rob Ford's strategy might be coming up. "I think they are waiting to see what happens with the elections. What they discovered was that it's a lot tougher to do things that are not popular under the current climate. The fact that we mobilized so fast and so strongly... When they realized that there was a really strong number behind the stop the cuts movement and they saw their popularity number plummet they have to go to plan B. And I'm sure their plan B is that they have [the provincial] elections and that they hope to get a Conservative government. If we wind up with a Conservative government they are going to feel like they have the support from both the federal and provincial level, so they will be able to do what they want.”
Coming out of the Dufferin Grove meeting and the Toronto Declaration, Gunjan Chopra, who has been organizing against Rob Ford for months, told the Media Co-op that she has noticed more and more anti-Ford sentiment when she talks to people. "It seems almost everyone I talk to already has a sense that Ford is intent on destroying our communities. The momentum is definitely building."
Major protests are planned for the evening of September 26th by unions and community groups.
 Dufferin Grove park has been under attack lately, with City Officials attempting to restrict the flexibility of park employees, undermine the unionized workers and and stop creative uses of the space by the community. Friends of Dufferin Grove Park have responded by writing a series of zines demonstrating the history or community and worker resistance to City Attacks on the park.