“Municipal politics has never been my thing”

By: Emily Harris

Municipal politics has never been “my thing”.

I’ve always been more interested in the causes and consequences of national and global political and socio-economic trends, especially as they affect women. I really didn’t think that I could be bothered to consider upcoming municipal budget approvals, or any such minor developments in how my city is managed. They didn’t seem important or relevant to my experience [insert condescending joke about Millennials and global citizenship here]. The good news is that I’ve begun to see the light, and WiTOpoli is guiding my way.

Over a few months, I learned more about the group and saw the opportunity to join them at an event co-hosted by Be the Vote. I told a few friends at work about it, one of whom hadn’t voted in a Canadian election in a number of years, and we all attended together. It was a great introduction to what WiTOpoli is all about, and included a challenge to get someone new to vote (which I promptly decided should be that same friend – and it worked!).

My biggest inspirational WiTOpoli moment, however, happened just a few weeks ago. I noticed that they were hosting a Municipal Budget night at the Centre for Social Innovation.  I took a look at the information that was going to be presented, and realized that I had zero clue about how these budgetary processes work. I had to go!

Claire McWatt was the host of the event which also featured Executive Director of Sistering Pat O’Connell. The entire evening was such a great example of how the folks at WiTOpoli really get it – from including childcare options at the venue of their events to using inclusive and respectful language throughout their communications. It was also a very informative evening for me, as I can know understand and explain the differences between capital and operating budgets, how to reconcile municipal politicians’ statements with the action they are able to take, and how seemingly small, bureaucratic decisions can have a huge impact on women in vulnerable circumstances in our city. It was also interesting to hear the questions from the other women and men who attended (albeit sometimes I was frustrated to hear how many women began their comments by apologizing or saying “This might be a stupid question, but…” – but group power structures and the socialization of women is the topic for another post!).

In short, the evening was inspiring and a little humbling, too. I realized that I needed to learn more about municipal systems, power balances between and amongst citizens, and the influence of local people on the building of their own community.

Soon after the event, I saw a tweet that encouraged attendees to send an email to their city councillor. WiTOPoli provided a template to send which stressed the importance of providing adequate budget for the development of low-barrier shelters for women. Gotta love the ease of this tool! I saw it as an opportunity to go from education to action, and used the template (along with the website provided to identify who my councillor actually was!) to send the email.

I really didn’t think much would come of it after that. In the past, I had fired off many different form emails to federal politicians and signed tons of petitions without getting anything in return. So wasn’t I surprised when I saw a reply a few hours later from my councillor’s office! Not only had my councillor read the email, he wanted to have a phone call with me to discuss the issues I referenced.  I soon sent an email back to confirm that I would have a chat with him, but I had no idea what to expect! Luckily, Steph was kind enough to send me some pointers about how to go forward (thanks again, Steph!).

At this point, it’s really important for me to also reflect on the fact that I’ve been privileged enough to partake in these experiences. Important factors like having the money to travel by TTC to events, speaking the same language as my councillor, and having the luxury of time in the middle of the day to take a phone call all contributed to this experience for me. I am very aware that is not a feasible way for everyone to engage in our political system, and there are strong, structural barriers that exclude many voices and opinions from participating full in the civic process. This is not acceptable and must be changed.

All in all, the call with my councillor went very well.  I referenced some of striking facts and figures that I had highlighted from various websites, and periodically noted many of the most important statistics. It felt like an honest conversation, as opposed to a staged or scripted affair, where I was able to openly talk about my neighbourhood and the issues I see in my city (I think the operative word here is ownership). My councillor acknowledged the fact that we have problems, and put forward a few budget-related suggestions about how to improve. There was also space to continue the conversation, and my councillor urged me to get in touch with him again to share my thoughts in the future.

Thank you to WiTOpoli for helping me to expand my horizons. You are truly an inspirational group that is doing such good work for the women in our city. I’ll see you again soon.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, March 25

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, March 18

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, March 11

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.




WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, March 4


A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.



Jane Jacobs: City Planning Visionary

By: Brooke Downey

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was a pivotal figure in reducing the gap between planning the city and living in the city. This idea was a core point in her most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).


Before becoming famous for her criticism of New York City planner, Robert Moses, Jacobs began her life in Scranton, Pennsylvania (before that was made famous by the sitcom The Office). While growing up, Jacobs showed an interest in writing and when she moved to NYC in 1935, many of her jobs related to journalism.


Her experience living in Greenwich Village made her an early proponent of mixed-use neighbourhoods. She saw the rising popularity of suburban-style development to be detrimental to neighbourhoods. In 1968, she was arrested for inciting a riot during a public meeting about the Lower Manhattan Expressway.


Not long after, Jacobs made her way to Toronto where she made her mark on a similar battle – the proposed Spadina Expressway. Neither of these projects would end up being built. She also helped to push for the planned revitalization of the St. Lawrence market to be mixed-use and mixed-income.


Every May cities across the world honour her work and their urban communities with Jane’s Walk.

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Portrait by Emma Jenkin

A Political Perspective with Councillor Ana Bailão

By: Julia Chew

Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.


Ana Bailão is the City Councillor for Ward 18, Davenport- an area rich with cultural diversity. She currently serves as Toronto’s Housing Advocate, overseeing the city’s affordable housing strategy. We spoke to her to discuss political life, accessibility, and community engagement.


Q: How has political life shaped your advocacy work and activist roots?

A: My activist roots truly started when a city councillor asked me to do some grassroots work with him. I loved the impact that I was able to have through the office by increasing advocacy in the files that were important to me. I usually say that it was the early advocacy work that I was passionate about that still affects my political work and what sorts of files I work on.

Q: What kinds of early issues were you interested in?

A: I came to Canada at the age of 15. Being an immigrant myself, I am interested in any files that to do with settlement. This is why I do a lot of work on housing, job opportunities in terms of social procurement and making sure that there are good jobs in the city and there is access to these jobs. Economic opportunity is always around and it’s important to give the opportunity for people to succeed. I see government as having a huge role in looking out for the most vulnerable but we also should think about how we can create the conditions for people to succeed. Whether it is good housing or transit, it’s our job in the government to ensure that people have the foundation to succeed.

Q: How do you communicate and engage with the community?

A: There are many ways we can contribute to the community. Politics isn’t the only way to affect change but it is one of the ways to affect change. There are tons of people and organizations in the city that work to positively affect the community. In government, we work within direct impacts from council’s decisions. It’s challenging because there is a lot of responsibility, but it’s extremely rewarding to walk down a street and be able to point out a community centre that you’ve pushed for and see children being able to have a place to play.

I’m out in the community at least three times a week. We have town hall meetings, a local community office open three days a week, and I’m at the local office myself on Fridays to be open to anybody who would like to drop in. I use social media (Facebook, Twitter) and we distribute newsletters and e-newsletters. As we have a very large Portuguese community, every month after council, I talk about the most important items that were discussed and debated. In this way, I am not only informing my constituents but the whole Portuguese community. I’m consistently trying to engage and listen to feedback as well. This is an important part about being a community leader.

Q: What are your proudest accomplishments in office?

A: Locally, my proudest accomplishment was being able get a new library for the community. We have one of smallest libraries in the system (Dupont Library) and the new space will be approximately 10 times larger. I’m proud that we were also able to secure a new 7500 square feet community space and we are working on expanding the west Toronto rail path.

City-wide, I feel proud that when Rob Ford wanted to sell all the scattered homes in the Toronto Community Housing portfolio, I led the fight to stop it because I didn’t believe he had a plan. With 90 000 families on the waiting list, we could not start selling off stock without a solid plan. At the end of the day, we ended up selling a number of homes that were worth too much, and needed so many repairs that it didn’t make sense to repair it with the same amount of money that could be used to house two or three families. We wanted to ensure there was a thoughtful approach to the process and a focus on creating a true capital plan.

I also feel very proud of a new program recently launched with John Tory called Open Door Program where we are making land available for the construction of affordable housing. We’re partnering with the private and non-profit to create more affordable housing.

Finally, I’m proud to have led the twinning of cities with Toronto and Rio. We didn’t have any prior relationship with a Brazilian city. As one of the BRIC countries and a powerful economy, our national and provincial government were starting to have relationships with Brazil. Brazil is the sixth largest investor in Canada, and now our city also has a relationship with them.

Q: What are some of your goals right now?

A: I’m very passionate about housing and economic development. While building a strong workforce, I want to ensure that there is social procurement in the city at the same time. While spending billions of dollars on roads, why aren’t we creating more apprenticeships at the same times? I’m interested in making sure we have a good workforce strategy and a living wage through social procurement.

Q: How can we make city hall more accessible to constituents?

A: Initiatives such as open data can make constitutes feel like if they need to look into something, that option is available to them. Making sure that public meetings are held outside of city hall, think about issues outside of the bubble of City Hall, and making sure we are targeting other languages are all ways to make City Hall more accessible. There’s a strong multicultural media community we can engage with, and we need to utilize that and update citizens as to what’s happening in their city and how they can be engaged.

Q: From your point-of-view, how do we build a more equitable Toronto? What do the women of Toronto need?

A: We need to address a number of issues such as housing, childcare, and equity in the workforce. We need to continue the conversation about values in our society. Support also needs to be given by the government and the workforce to ensure we have a truly equitable city.  

As we’re developing policy and legislation, we need to put on a gender lens. How do we make it more equitable for women, for people with disabilities?

Q: What are your political priorities during your time in office and when it comes time, how do you want to leave your legacy in municipal politics?

A: Locally, I want to leave the area as a space that people can live in while maintaining its rich diversity. How do we make sure we’re not pushing people out- that we still have the artists in our community, good services and affordability to live in the area? As the neighbourhood is slowly gentrified; community spaces, libraries, and daycare are important spaces to maintain and pay attention to. I’m going to be leaving an area that is very well-known when people come to visit Toronto, but I also want to ensure it’s a space that people can continue to live in.

As a city, I want to put a dent in the housing situation particularly with Toronto Community Housing. With 2.6 billion dollars of repairs, it’s very important to me that we are able to tackle this issue in a responsible way.

Beyond political office, I do see myself staying in politics. Even through non-profit work, these are issues I can see myself continually working within and these are files that will always have issues arising. There are city-building issues that will need to be continually addressed.

Lillian McGregor: Aboriginal Educator & Community Leader

By: Brooke Downey

At the age of 15, Whitefish River First Nation member, Lillian McGregor (1924-2012), left her home of Birch Island, Ontario for Toronto. For over 70 years, McGregor would work to preserve and celebrate Aboriginal culture in the city.


While living in Toronto, McGergor worked as a nanny, factory worker during the war, and as a nurse before being appointed by the University of Toronto to be the first Elder-in-Residence at First Nations House. In this position, she worked on supporting and teaching Aboriginal students, encouraging them to remember their culture, language, and traditions. She also helped to establish the Native Canadian Centre in Toronto.


McGregor’s work would be recognized with an honorary doctorate in law from UofT in 1996 (the first Aboriginal woman to receive it), being made an Officer of the Order of Ontario in 2005, an Olympic torch bearer in 2010 and receiving the National Aboriginal Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. She is remembered for her work in strengthening the Aboriginal community in an urban area.

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Portrait by Emma Jenkin

Ursula Franklin: Scientist & Social Activist

By: Brooke Downey

Ursula Franklin was born in Munich, Germany in 1921. As the daughter of a Jewish mother, she and her family were sent to a labour and concentration camps during World War II. After the war ended, Franklin studied experimental physics at the Technical University of Berlin. A year after completing her Ph.D, she moved to Toronto after being offering a fellowship at the University of Toronto.


In 1967, she was the first woman to be appointed to UofT’s department of Mining and Metallurgy in the Faculty of Engineering. Her scientific contributions include pioneering the field of archaeometry, helping to get ban the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere after her research showed the presence of strontium-90 in children’s teeth, and her extensive work in environmental protection.


Franklin’s work both extended beyond science and incorporating her scientific research into her social causes. Much of her work in the field of technology looks at through a scientific and societal lens. She is a committed pacifist, feminist, and social activist with numerous papers and lectures on these topics.
The Ursula Franklin Academy in Toronto is named in her honour.

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Portrait by Emma Jenkin

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, February 26

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.