Does Good Policy Make Good Neighbours?

Without consistent rules, some voices get more attention than others

Shortly before he died in 2006, Bernard Ostry wrote an op-ed essay for The Globe and Mail advocating a royal commission of inquiry into multiculturalism. Ostry, one of Canada’s great civil service mandarins, had drafted and implemented the Trudeau government’s multiculturalism policy in the 1970s.

In his essay, he applauded Canadians’ popular celebration of diversity, but worried that the wheels might be starting to fall off and that, with a million newcomers turning up every four years, Canadians had no idea where multiculturalism was going or what kind of society was being created as a result.

Indeed, there are disturbing signs, which is why Mariana Valverde’s Every-day Law on the Street: City Governance in an Age of Diversity is an excellent idea. She sets out to examine cultural bias, meaning Eurocentricity, in municipal law and enforcement and to make the point that, if our pluralistic cities are to be inclusive, urban governance must move beyond micro-local planning and being captured by neighbourhood “village elder” politics, and embrace rational, city-wide principles.

It is in cities where we live side by side, all colours, cultures and classes. City governments legislate how we share public space, tolerate each other’s cooking smells and noise and pastimes, respect and assist each other as workers, parents, homeowners, tenants and worshippers. City hall is the common terrain where supposedly we meet to defend each other’s interests as well as our own. “Diversity Our Strength” says the City of Toronto’s motto, and it is Toronto, one of the world’s most ethnically diverse urban areas, that is profoundly absorbing the rapid changes to Canada’s demographic character. This city is Valverde’s focus.

There is so much to absorb. Our largest cities—the pre-eminent immigrant entry points that are home to 96 percent of Canada’s non-white population—are becoming increasingly socioeconomically unequal with immigrants puddling at the bottom. Our boasted-about post-ethnic culture looks a lot different viewed through the statistic that, say, in a city like Toronto, more than 70 percent of Anglos live in Anglo enclaves, turning Toronto into Oreo-ville, white in the downtown centre, brown, black and yellow in the suburbs. And while the well-off, university-educated offspring of immigrants are sliding more or less easily into mainstream culture—and thus, yes, have no need of multiculturalism as The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders writes—research points to less educated members of the second generation struggling with the dashed expectations of seeing themselves in the mirror as fully Canadian but living in a country where they and their families are not accepted as such.

Sixty percent of recent immigrants are unable to find work commensurate with their education and training. Kwame McKenzie, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, told a recent LRC symposium that immigrants when they arrive in the country are in better health than native-born Canadians but within seven years are substantially unhealthier than the native born, a result of the stress of trying to survive here. The urbanist Richard Florida has pointed out that Canadian cities, like their American counterparts, are producing a growing mass of underpaid, non-upwardly mobile (and largely immigrant) service industry workers.

In McKenzie’s metaphor, rather than the different coloured bits of Canada’s multiculturalism forming a single mosaic picture, they more closely resemble a pile of pieces dropped indiscriminately on the floor.

Finally, on top of all that, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and elite voices such as those of the business community and The Globe and Mail have turned sour on multiculturalism—“The terminology has ceased to have any real meaning … Multiculturalism should be struck from the national vocabulary,” said The Globe in a 2010 editorial—and are busy redefining immigration as an inbound conveyor belt of inexpensive labour meeting whatever needs business has, crated and moulded to applaud the War of 1812 and other designated symbols of bonding glue in the national culture. Why train young Canadians to be plumbers and electricians (and miners of the country’s natural resources, for that matter) when it is cheaper to import people that other countries have trained, a business plan freighted with the risk of aggravating job-seeking young Canadians’ already dystopian view of their future? Moreover, said McKenzie, planning immigration solely on the basis of today’s labour market in a rapidly changing economy is at best a short-term fix.

With all respect to a well-known and esteemed scholar, Mariana Valverde’s book is merely a first swipe at this subject, a somewhat helpful polemic but not a satisfactory piece of research. We will have to wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting.

Valverde, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, acknowledges that “I was limited both by the time and the research funding available and by my own background” (which she explains in her opening sentence: “I came to urban studies relatively late in life”). Perhaps her energy should be applauded for setting out to accomplish so much in one book: a demolition of iconic urban philosopher Jane Jacobs’s ideal of a city of villages achieving local solutions through grassroots political organizations; an exposé of the systemic flaws in city planning and city hall governance; an analysis of cultural bias in matters such as street-food vending, private property use, poverty, noise control, the rules governing the Toronto taxi industry and the “othering” of Muslims. But what she has produced is too spotty, too thin.

The defect in the Jacobs model, she says, is that so-called spontaneous interactions in neighbourhoods are in reality takeovers of the political agenda by self-appointed “village elders” professing to speak for the whole community but tending to be white and established. This leaves on the margins the poor, the young, tenants and the newly arrived who do not understand what is going on or are too timid to speak out or, worse (as is often the case), are the targets of the self-appointed elders—the at-risk youth and mentally disadvantaged who will be the occupants of proposed group homes battered by the winds of NIMBYism, the people who want to build houses or grow gardens culturally at odds with some sort of nostalgic neighbourhood norm, the entrepreneurs whose business ventures the village elders and their supporters consider morally distasteful.

Writes Valverde: “Democracy at the scale of the city, particularly in today’s increasingly economically divided cities, requires careful attention to the mechanisms used to solicit input and allow for citizen participation. Jane Jacobs’s front-stoop vision of spontaneous neighbourhood action, somewhat naive even in her own time and place, has become completely inadequate, and it may be positively harmful as a model of governance in cosmopolitan cities riven by very sharp economic, social and racial differences. Democracy at the scale of the city, particularly in today’s increasingly economically divided cities, requires careful attention to the mechanisms used to solicit input and allow for citizen participation.”

Maybe. But we need more evidence of how urban democracy truly works. Are tenants, the poor and minorities really mute? Is the alternative—muscular, professional municipal governance handing down from above decisions based on carefully crafted and adhered-to rules—really the alternative in a democratic environment as delicately stitched together as a big, multicultural city? Valverde’s book is long on argument and short on examples. (Actually, in one of the illustrations she gives—a campaign led by a white community activist against proposed assisted housing in a downtown Chinese neighbourhood—she points out that some influential members of the Chinese community were campaigning in favour of the project.)

From her assault on the Jacobs paradigm she heads into city governance, presenting a portrait of elected councillors who, instead of devoting themselves to developing intelligent city-wide enhancements, expend their efforts on chewing holes in planning rules and skewing bylaw enforcement by perpetually responding to the loudest voices of complaint within their wards—creating in the first instance a crazy-quilt of incoherent planning variations and, in the second, wasting the time of bylaw enforcement officers by deflecting them from more important work.

Again maybe this is true. But her report is not conclusive. One wonders, for example, if community consultation might have saved Toronto from the appalling waterfront wall of apartment towers and parking garages approved by city council. Moreover, Valverde does not make clear what it is that bylaw enforcement officers would be doing if they weren’t responding to councillors’ directives since, as she points out, there are only 150 of them in a city of two and a half million people, too few to be proactive, which means they are left being reactive to complaints made to elected representatives—which sounds like democracy in action.

Valverde does bring out some interesting findings.

She writes that the guiding principle of Toronto’s bylaw officers is not to bring down the hammer of law enforcement except as a last resort, but rather to bring complainants and offenders together in mediated agreement. As she points out, the imposition of impersonal rules in large multicultural cities can lead to paradoxes and absurdities. Likewise, the traditional legal test of “reasonableness” in a culturally diverse environment can be problematic.

She encounters an officer who tells her the city’s bylaw against growing vegetables in front yards is not often enforced in neighbourhoods with large concentrations of Italian Canadians, which, she says, is one of the rare examples she finds of cultural sensitivity in municipal governance. “I wondered,” she writes, “if the antivegetable rule had been passed at a time when Anglo-Torontonians were feeling threatened by immigration”—a statement Valverde would agree is not the language of academic research. In any event, the bylaw, now repealed, appears to have been specifically against growing vegetables on city-owned verges between the street and private property.

She points out that not all noise protection in a city is equal, something likely not to have occurred to most inhabitants. Poor citizens and recent immigrants with no economic choice but to live in low-rent accommodation along Toronto’s arterial roads and close to industrial and commercial areas cannot call on the same enforcement of the anti-noise bylaw as homeowners in leafy suburbs who are bothered by garbage and delivery trucks and amplified music.

She notes that if she lives beside a noisy family there is little either she or city officials can do. “But if the people next door are singles receiving welfare or disability payments and living in a legal rooming house, then I have an automatic right to voice my opinions about them to officials who hold the all-important threat of denying the proprietor a license renewal. In other words, neighbours wield a power that … can deny housing to those who are already less empowered and more marginalized not only economically but from the point of view of citizenship.”

She declares that noise protection against outdoor amplified music extended to noon on Sundays in Ottawa is a cultural bias. Well … would the same bias apply to free street parking in Toronto until 1 p.m. on Sundays, where across the street from my office Jews and Muslims and Hindus take their kids to a University of Toronto sports centre without paying $3 an hour? After watching the work of Toronto’s licensing tribunal passing judgement on alleged wrongdoings of taxi and tow-truck operators and other business owners requiring permits in the city, Valverde labels it “the Christian spectacle of confession and repentance” focused on wringing satisfactory remorse (in a theological sense, she makes clear) from adjudicated miscreants. I have trouble with this.

She finds a specific cultural target in Toronto’s taxi industry, where so many of Toronto’s struggling immigrants are behind the wheel, unable to find jobs elsewhere and bound to Dickensian working conditions of 75-hour weeks at earnings a fraction of the minimum wage. Valverde cites an ingenious complaint brought before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, claiming that the effect of the city’s licensing system was to restrict new immigrant drivers—overwhelmingly from Africa and Asia and thus “racialized”—to holding inferior so-called “ambassador” taxi licences that do not allow them to hire replacements if they are sick or want time off. The drivers lost their case, but they made the point (after the city licensing office was ordered to submit photographs of all ambassador drivers to the tribunal) that city law can have the appearance of discrimination. The taxi regulations are currently under review.

Finally, mosques.

Muslims are the Canadian “other,” the people the rest of us in the country find most difficult to accept. Of the approximately dozen mosques built in the Greater Toronto Area over the last two decades, maybe half have been resisted by “community activist groups” formed for no purpose other than to block their fellow Canadians from building a place for worship and to raise the usual objections that mask Islamophobia—not enough parking spaces, minaret too high, building footprint too large, non-conforming uses of ancillary structures, fear that they will attract vandals.

Valverde devotes a chapter to mosque building, focusing on two Muslim congregations that had to battle their way through local government and their neighbours and one Sikh community that got dinged for worshipping in a private home without a licence. This is a disgrace comparable to the anti-Semitism that openly stained English and French Canada up until the 1960s and Valverde is right to highlight it.

However, she also might have written about the mosque in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan, where community protesters—primarily Chinese Canadian, interestingly enough—were told by the mayor and most councillors (including one prominent Chinese-Canadian councillor) to get stuffed. Or about the mosque in the suburb of Thornhill that shares a parking lot with a neighbouring church and synagogue. Or about the mosque built out of a former horse barn in the suburb of Richmond Hill, which was welcomed by the neighbours as a community improvement. Valverde usefully could have told us why one municipality differs from another.

The fact is, Everyday Law on the Street unfortunately does not take us to any conclusion; it merely whets our appetite and Canadians definitely need scorecards on how well they are managing diversity. Bernard Ostry said we had a choice: “stumble blindly into the future, accepting whatever flows from existing policies, or do the royal commission thing we’re so good at and come to a decision as to what kind of Canada we want to see.” That second choice sounds interesting.