Four members of the CCRA attended the Toronto Neighbourhood Summit at city hall on April 6. From left: Kathy McGrath, Karthi Yogasegaran, Kathryn Stocks and Denise Bacon.

By Kathy McGrath

During last year’s municipal election, the number of city councillors was reduced from 44 to 25, thereby doubling their workloads and forcing them to take on more committee work. This means councillors have less time to meet with with citizens to discuss matters in their communities. How, then, will elected officials stay in tune with the needs of the citizens?

The answer may lie, in part, with volunteer community associations like the CCRA.

Last month, four members of our group attended the Toronto Neighbourhood Summit, a meeting of residents’ groups aimed at bridging the gap between citizens and city hall. Participants from all over the city were encouraged to share ideas about how to get the attention of busy officials and navigate municipal bureaucracy.

The day-long event, organized by community activist Dave Meslin, featured a variety of speakers, including Deputy Mayor Ana Bailao who stressed the importance of hearing diverse voices in the city-building process.

“Sometimes city hall can feel like a bubble, physically and emotionally,” she said.  “We want a stable and constant presence from community organizations.”

To this end, Bailao is creating an Office of Neighbourhoods to formally gather and support residents’ groups.  She said the office will “provide a conduit towards getting things done.” The initiative is still in the early stages and has yet to be approved by city council.

Our CCRA delegation was also briefed on the municipal Civic Innovation Office, an organization that tackles civic problems by connecting residents with the city’s innovation and technology community.

Following this, three successful Toronto neighbourhood groups gave presentations on how they effected social change.  Sabina Ali from the Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee gave an emotional talk about how, through word of mouth, a vulnerable group of immigrant women were able to transform a run-down local park into an inviting space where neighbours could meet and celebrate.

Mayor John Tory also spoke, encouraging participants to “push” at city hall, especially when it comes to addressing growing economic disparity.  Tory would like to see this accomplished without regional divisiveness. “I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats,” he declared.

Following a hot, catered lunch (apparently there is such a thing as a free lunch!), participants attended one of five breakout sessions on topics like how to start a neighbourhood group, how to collect  “actionable” feedback and how to influence city hall.

The afternoon continued with a presentation by the Green Neighbours Network, which helps community organizations develop greener, healthier, more sustainable neighbourhoods. Finally we heard from successful neighbourhood coalitions operating in London and Guelph.

After a strong show of supportive hands, Meslin vowed to form a permanent coalition of Toronto associations that would exist at arm’s length from the city.  His team is also creating an interactive map to provide users with community contact information at the click of a mouse.

Our amalgamated city of 144 neighbourhoods includes a disparate group of citizens – urban, suburban, wealthy, struggling, living in condos, single-family homes and renting.  Time will tell if their differing needs can be represented and supported by the proposed umbrella organization.