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TORONTO—Toronto residents are breathing slightly easier after a long-awaited City Council vote on large cuts to core city services took place earlier tonight. The cuts, proposed as part of the 2012 city budget, have been looming ever since Mayor Rob Ford manufactured a budget crisis upon taking office.
In a major blow to Mayor Rob Ford's austerity agenda, many of the most significant cuts were reversed, in large part thanks to a surprising move from the council's centre, led by Josh Colle. An omnibus motion, which used some financial sleight-of-hand to make increases to the budget in the sectors threatened by the proposed cuts, was passed by a vote of 23 to 21. Colle defended his position in an interview after the vote. “We made tough decisions...it's not reckless spending. We settled on a prudent budget that was fiscally responsible and addressed some of the concerns that people had brought up.”
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday tried to play down the defeat, noting the narrow margin by which the votes on several of the most crucial cuts were defeated. “It's far from the end of the world,” he said.
Approximately two hundred people were in chambers for the vote; almost ten times that number remained outside, prevented from entering by a line of police officers mixed with City Hall security. Attempts to enter the building for the vote were met with violence, as a number of individuals were hit and pepper-sprayed. A small horse-mounted riot squad moved on the crowd. Several arrests were made, people were beaten and choked and an elderly man was thrown to the ground. At least one person was taken to St. Michael's hospital.
Aiden Hennings from Stop the Cuts described the scene:
“I was at the front, trying to get into City Hall. [The police] started grabbing people outside the barricades. I was grabbed by my hair and they tried to drag me through their lines, but other people took me back. About five minutes later I was pepper-sprayed from a foot away—the officer smiled while he did it, and my two little sisters were punched in the face by police as well.”
“I didn't expect it to be one of 'those kinds of rallies'” said Ryan of Occupy Toronto. “[The police] threw a lot of people around. They should have just let us in; they said they wouldn't because it was such a big group.” There was, however, room in council chambers for more people, with a large standing area behind the 250-seat gallery sparsely populated.
During the session, several observers shouted about the police repression outside, while others chanted “stop the cuts, save good jobs” in response to the results of a vote on the privatization of custodial services. They were forcibly ejected from council. “This is just a bunch of elites who claim to represent us, but they don't bother to consult us,” said one, to applause from many in the observation area. She later told the Media Coop: “Security and Toronto Police brought us down the elevator to the first floor. Elise [Thornburn, of Stop the Cuts] started to move toward the main exit, instead of the side exit that the police were taking us to. Police grabbed her, and she went limp. They dragged her down the hall to the door.”
Council Chair Frances Nunziata, who directed security to remove the protestors, had a low threshold for any perceived disruptions from the floor, threatening to clear chambers after a few boos were heard from the gallery.
As the motions wrapped up, City Hall's head of security announced that councillors would have to exit from the side and rear doors of the building, as the Toronto Police were “currently dealing” with the protest. An Occupy Toronto contingent was also present outside, setting up several tents in the middle of the square, which were later moved to the boundary of city and provincial land to “avoid a trespass bylaw.”
Hennings was upset about the police response to the rally: “We wanted to have our voices heard at city hall. We wanted them to hear that Toronto is against the cuts.”
Later, a small contingent of demonstrators marched to 52 Division, where several arrestees were being held. One of the men being held, Derek Soberal, appeared for a bail hearing at Old City Hall on January 18. The remainder of those arrested were released from the station.
Many activists are wondering whether tonight's events constitute a victory or a defeat. Although the feared cuts to libraries, social services and other core services were averted, the loss of jobs within city ranks and privatization measures still culled millions from the city budget.
The cancellation of some of the cuts is testament to months of mobilization by community groups, labour and many ad-hoc committees across the city who came together to save specific city services in their communities. Colle acknowledged the impact of these efforts, saying the budget had generated "more discussion amongst the public and councillors" than he'd ever seen before.
The fight against Ford's austerity agenda will likely continue, with a near-certain lockout of CUPE 416 coming in February, as the union refuses to accept their jobs being farmed out to private contractors.
—with files from Megan Kinch
Justin Saunders is an information technologist and journalist based in Toronto.
The article was originally published by the Toronto Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.