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History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

The Canadian Essence: What will it mean to be a Canadian in the 21st century?

Barbara Hall, Former Mayor of Toronto

Last week I was in Bolivia speaking at a meeting of the Organization of American States and as always occurs when I travel people seek me out to tell me about their experience with Canada.

They talk about our cities, about the safety, about the diversity and how we deal with diversity. They talk about our cultural institutions, our architecture. They talk about the cleanliness of our cities and the sense of community.

No one mentioned how we’re dealing with our deficit.

I think that cities have a major impact on how the world sees us. And the world sees our cities as places of strength and light. The biggest challenge we have for the 21st century is how we live in our cities and deal with them.

I often wake up in the morning listening to the news, thinking of the darkness that you [Qajaaq] have described so eloquently; the kinds of fears that at moments seem possible in the communities of this country.

How we address those fears — and I think we are at a very crucial point — will determine how we’re seen internationally, but most importantly how we feel and who we are.

Most of us in this country live in cities and our cities are growing and that growth has resulted in an enormous amount of change. Those of us from the Toronto area know that we’re going through an experience of change right now as a result of the amalgamation.

That’s happening in communities across the country; in Halifax-Dartmouth, in Cape Breton. It happened many years ago in Winnipeg.

I was in Winnipeg recently and talking about issues of gangs in the downtown of the city. People there said to me the problem with Winnipeg is that when we were amalgamated we didn’t become a city, we’re separate communities. And many people who live on the outskirts of that city don’t feel any sense of ownership or commitment to the whole and they’ve let the centre rot away.

In many respects, the last three decades have been a golden age in municipal politics in this country. I think that coming out of some of the attempts at urban renewal in the ‘60s, the building of large expressways.

People came togther and opposed City Hall and then decided, after they learned the could fight City Hall, that they might as well — rather than fighting, move in and become a part of local politics, shaping it, sometimes running for public office — but being a very much a part of the development and building healthy communities.

We saw during that time many more people being brought in. We saw local governments move beyond purely delivering physical services, but paying attention to things that build souls in communities, like culture and the arts.

Over the last few years in the City of Toronto we were the only level of government that didn’t cut funding to the arts. We were the only level of government that initiated new programs that focussed on solving the problem of homelessness.

People marched to City Hall in various ways to talk about the kind of community that they wanted to have and they were prepared to be a part of building that.

The concern as we grow larger and we amalgamate is how you allow those vehicles for involvement to continue. One of the things that I get asked very frequently right now in Toronto is, how do you have an impact on local government?

This is a problem that we’re all going to have to deal with. How we’re big in the ways that it’s important to be big. And I gather you’ve spent a lot of time this weekend talking about globalization. Clearly there are some advantages to bigness, but the strength of our communities is also in the smallness and we need to ensure that the vehicles are there, that we have places to come together — common places.

Our diversity requires that there be common places. The public school system has been one of those places in the past. That’s why some of the erosion of public education is so worrying for me, as we lose that common place for people to come together.

But more than coming together, those opportunities for us to feel that we have the power to influence what’s happening at the very local level. If we feel good and a sense of community locally, that feeling, I believe, transfers to how we feel as a country.

If we’re feeling the darkness on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, we’re not going to feel very good about being Canadian.

So, how we live in our cities, how we provide those opportunities are essential to the light, the helping others to help others to be happy.