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Women not welcome on Toronto’s executive committee

The Toronto Star by Reggie Modlich 22 January 2013

What does it mean for women in Toronto that not one of the 13 councillors originally nominated to the city’s 2013 executive committee was a woman? This powerful committee works with the mayor to set priorities for the city’s agenda, labour relations and several other important areas. When Councillor Janet Davis protested the gender imbalance on the slate, she was told that the most qualified councillors were nominated. In other words, the striking (nominating) committee considered none of the 15 (34 per cent) women — many of them with extensive experience — on the 44 member council as qualified for the executive committee.

What does this say about the status of women on council? What does this mean for women in Toronto? It means that the top decision-makers in Toronto do not feel a need to be representative of the diversity on council, let alone of over half of the city’s population and that their overt bullying deters most women. It also means that they do not feel diverse women in Toronto have concerns and issues that should be represented, let alone addressed. Poverty, homelessness, unemployment and underemployment, an inequitable burden of caregiving and domestic responsibilities, gender discrimination, domestic violence and sexual abuse remain the alarming realities for many girls and women in Toronto — and decisions by city hall affect them all.

In 2004, a diverse group of women got together to form Toronto Women’s City Alliance (TWCA). They have been organizing to end the growing silence and invisibility of diverse girls and women in Toronto. They strive to place women’s and girls’ issues on the political agenda of city hall and call for a Women’s Equalities Office.

Many cities around the world have recognized discrimination against women, including Vienna, San Francisco, Montreal, Seoul and many others. They are addressing women’s concerns with gender mainstreaming programs or women’s offices. In Bogota, Colombia, one of the world’s most violent cities in the early 1990s, murder rates were reduced by 70 per cent and the economy improved through a comprehensive community safety plan, a women’s safety program, an overhaul of police, massive infrastructure for transit, cycling and pedestrian circulation and comprehensive slum improvements.

The City of Toronto is currently reviewing its official plan, the policy framework for its future. TWCA is trying to ensure that this plan includes policies which address women’s priorities and needs. TWCA is calling for:

  • All major housing projects to include a substantial portion of affordable units.
  • Safety design guidelines that are anchored in the Official Plan.
  • Flexibility in land-use planning that allows paid employment/enterprises to locate in all transit accessible locations, including homes — while having regard for environmental safeguards and scale.
  • Provision of services such as child, senior and health care to be part of the planning process at the city, neighbourhood and project levels.
  • Transit fares, design, routing and scheduling to address the needs of those with caregiving responsibilities, safety concerns, income and ability limitations.
  • Disaggregated data collection and analysis to document the diversity and reality of the people in Toronto and to develop socially equitable policies, budgets, and programs.

Such inclusive policies would value and support nurturing and domestic responsibilities for their true social significance and encourage more equitable sharing between partners. Women and girls would experience greater respect, less violence and sexual harassment.

As for the 2013 city executive committee, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti declined his nomination, which allowed Councillor Jaye Robinson — the only current woman member — to be renominated in his place. Of course, having women in any given position does not automatically mean they will defend women’s interests. Nor can one token woman easily sway a vote.

Awareness of the importance of inclusive representation on all bodies of the city means that the voices of all, and especially marginalized groups, will be heard. Only then can Toronto become a caring and safe city.

Reggie Modlich, a member of the Toronto Women’s City Alliance planning team, is a retired urban planner.