Heather Mallick: Jennifer Keesmaat is Toronto's vote for modernity
If Premier Doug Ford is the past and Mayor John Tory is the present, Toronto mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat is the future.
But who thinks about the future? Keesmaat’s biggest problem will be that harried voters in every part of this huge urban and suburban city might be too busy to take an hour to think ahead, much less to vote. With their days spent keeping their personal canoe afloat — work, family, rent, mortgage, a rough commute, health, heat, cold, and of course raccoons — they’re too busy coping. The future is someone else’s problem.
But the future was Keesmaat’s job for five years. She was Toronto’s chief planner. Assiduously recruited by the city from her own growing business, she did nothing but look ahead, visualizing how the city might look, feel and be easier to get to and get around in. She had to consider dollars and cents, entrenched corporate, community and government interests, along with that elusive creature hunted by us all, quality of life.
What is your quality of life right now? Straitened, I imagine. What is mine? Fretful. Like many voters, I have ideas. I want a shorter Gardiner expressway (in over-large Ward 19, I’m voting Matthew Kellway), more trees (and possibly granny flats?) in the suburbs, laneway housing in the urbs, more LRTs, a downtown relief line that will ease the hot, slow squash for subway riders from all parts of the city, climate-friendly buildings, more density … my requirements are endless.
And then, suddenly, the future slammed its face right up against us all with an unfolding dystopia in 12 years.
Scientists had been telling us about what climate change will have done within a century. That’s so distant. I will not see those years, I will not make old bones, I thought.
And then climate scientists sent out an urgent bulletin: we have only 12 years left to keep global warming to 1.5C. If not, life will become uncomfortable for all and unbearable for many. Unprepared places — like traditionally run, hidebound cities — will be in for it.
How do politicians react to crisis? Remember what happened when Premier Ford told Mayor Tory “in passing” that he wanted to shrink Toronto’s city council. Tory didn’t take it seriously.
Then an elected Ford did it. Tory didn’t get openly angry, which is fine, but he didn’t even seem energized, ready to fight tooth-and-nail for citizens who would lose their closest local link to democracy. Tory suggested a referendum, of all things. It worked so well for the Brits, I note. Why would it go differently than the election that had just brought us Ford?
I have rarely been so disappointed in a politician.
Keesmaat, taking questions on Thursday from the Star’s editorial board, is different. She radiates energy. She is an intellectual with a detailed understanding of every dragged-out city problem. But most of all, she is hopeful rather then despairing. She contains no discouragement, and that’s saying a lot in these times.
She reminds me of Chrystia Freeland, an intellectual with an intuitive understanding of her opponents with whom she has great patience. “Chrystia Freeland is a role model,” says Keesmaat.
The Star’s Election Promise Tracker follows the differences between Tory and Keesmaat. Her plans are noticeably more detailed and ambitious than his. He has four transit promises, one of which is a daring plan to “maintain the discount for seniors on TTC fares.” Edgy.
She has made 10 promises on transit, but the one that most impresses me is building the Downtown Relief Line “three years faster than currently projected.” Speed matters more than ever. Nothing could be kinder to the city and the planet, our beloved little blue ball falling around the sun, than to get polluting cars off the road and send people off to work on a fast, generous subway.
I do get the impression that Tory moves more slowly, like the Lazy River ride at the water park. Lazy Rivers are circular. You end up right where you began.
Keesmaat’s daughter, who has just entered university, would consider becoming a teacher but it’s impossible, Keesmaat says. You can no longer live in Toronto on a teacher’s salary. How has it come to this?
Heather Mallick is a columnist based in Toronto covering current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherMallick