Lethargic Leaders Plague Citizens of Toronto

I watch the puffy oppressive snowstorm clouds roll in, spouting out masses of unwanted dandruff-like precipitation. And I think: Wow, this is MARCH! I feel disgruntled. But as I look at the city around me, I sense that an overwhelming tide of intolerance is slipping over Toronto. Suddenly grievances that have been accumulating, for months and even years, are insufferable. It wasn't until recently that I actually sat back and thought about all the unrest that's been rising around me.

As a nation, Canada has always been viewed in stark contrast to their southern war-mongering neighbor. Canada was more patient, more peace loving, more tolerable, steadier. No one worried about Canada making a rash judgment that would send the whole world into spiraling chaos and irreparable damage. Yet is Canada's slow-to-change attitude be hurting certain groups and leading to an increased number of strikes and protests? I also wonder if striking and protesting is really an effective motivator for social change. Let's look at a few recent examples.

Hockey Strike

It seemed like the end of the world for many Maple Leafs fans. The media and NHL kept baiting hockey fans with talks about talks, which constantly led to irresolution. Perhaps there's some good that can come out of this devastating loss. Obsessive hockey fans will make more time for other priorities in life such as work, family and other hobbies. The AHL and minor league sales went up slightly. Most importantly, the very rules of the game will be contested and reevaluated, leading to fundamental changes in the industry. For example, an increasing number of players become sidelined for the season due to serious injuries that may have been preventable if certain rules were altered and if public pressure to maim and take no prisoners wasn't so high. Removal of the red centerline with regards to offside plays, no-touch icing (to increase player safety), and goalie movement limitations were among some of the hot debates this year.

However, all this whining about salary caps has left many hockey fans jaded and many local businesses scarred. Maria Angelopoulos, a waitress at Shoeless Joes in Toronto, expresses frustration about cut hours, lower tips and the subsequent financial stress that comes along with the lockout. "It hurts. It hurts. It's not fair for everyone," she says.

Nine hundred thousand less patrons flood the ACC this season. In addition, Terry Mundell, President and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association estimates that businesses are down 20-25% business as a result of the strike. Even the Toronto Parking Authority was slammed with a total loss of $700,000! Many operators are petitioning the government to stay afloat during their 2004-2005 hardships.

Thousands of fans all across Canada are left helpless, feeling as though they are mere pucks being slapped wildly across the ice. They lost something more than the camaraderie of enjoying a case of beer and weekly outings with their friends. They lost respect for the game, admiration for the players, the desire to put money into the industry and their hope for the future of what was once their favorite sport.

Like many other jaded hockey-less individuals, I wonder: is this strike about selfish indulgence, about being "right", about crying like a child until you get everything you want to keep you quiet? Where will the whining stop? At 49 Billion? But perhaps the strike is merely an outward symbol of deeper issues within the league and the salary caps become the bait for the media feeding frenzy. After all, it's more interesting news to report overpaid whiners demanding more money than to report that maybe hockey has become far too dangerous and the fans have become far too vicious for the pay to compensate.

Farmers Protest

I'm sure you saw this if you were traveling along the 401, 427, Gardiner or DVP in recent months, or perhaps if you found yourself downtown at Queens Park earlier this March. Farmers marched with signs. Tractor parades blocked every entranceway to the 401East from Western Toronto, while cops sat in their cruisers idly allowing the peaceful disruption to take place. You may have been one of thousands to sit in your car, clutching onto your Tim Hortons coffee, cranking up the Classical music just to make it through those hellish morning commutes. Maybe you felt bitter and angry that these farmers would be so self-seeking.

Yet there were legitimate grievances that weren't being met and a growing need for public awareness. Most local farmers start their days at 5am and work rigorously day in and day out in a less-than-glamorous, meager lifestyle to provide us with goods we sometimes take for granted. How often do you go to a grocery store and think about the effort that went into growing that head of lettuce?

Typically farmers live on the outskirts of Toronto and become detached from their labor as their products are sold to the major food retailers that we know so well. Finally these hardworking people had the courage to come together in the public's eye and show the government they weren't ones to roll over and leached of all their land and assets.

"I just think it's important for the people of Toronto, the people who work downtown, who buy our vegetables and meats, that they're paying these high prices but the farmers aren't making a cent off it," one woman tells BlogTO. "They need to know that it's the government that's reaping all the benefits!"

Until now, most urbanized commuters had probably never even heard of the government's recent Greenbelt Legislation. Traditionally mainstream media shuns the farmers' point of view and the placards reading "Buy Canadian," "Stop Greenbelt" and "Liberal Farm Income Crisis" give us something real to think about.

Do these grievances make the strike justifiable to the person delayed an extra hour in his/her morning commute or to the grocery store managers with delayed shipments? James McMaster, director of the Glengarry Landowners Association, thinks so. He told the Post, "Your assertions that 'certainly we understand the farmers' frustrations' says it all. Frustration is being 20 minutes late for work. Driving to downtown Toronto because you are losing your farm is desperation." This desperation even resulted in Anh Vuong setting himself on fire during the Queens Park protest just days ago.

Will this chain of 100-600 tractors and 2,000 strong protestors inevitably reflect positively on the plight of the farmers and help them keep their farms? These questions remain to be solved with the anticipated government-farmer resolution but who knows how long that will take, or how much longer these farmers lives will be in limbo. Conservative Leader John Tory attacks his opposition, calling it ludicrous that poverty-stricken farmers were receiving monetary compensation after two years of hassling the government, filling out paperwork and crying for financial aid.

Teachers Strike

Class continues as normal while students anticipate their two-week spring break. However, behind the scenes, a desperate plot to call off classes ensues. Teachers in the District 16 York Region voted 90.1% in favour of a strike this past Thursday and they're not the only ones focusing their vision on drastic action. A 2% wage increase seems hardly fair for our children's mentors / the building blocks of social institutions. Lack of funding has pushed many local teachers past the point of mere frustration and it's clear that they're sick of the government's delayed budgeting process.

Rhonda Kimberley-Young, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) warned today, "As of this week, about 25,000 OSSTF members have taken strike votes. Because more will follow in the coming weeks, the majority of our members will be in strike position in the spring."

"It's a go," Martin Long, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, added. "We feel we've had six months [to negotiate a contract], and we've made no progress."

A Work-To-Rule campaign is expected to begin as early as the end of the month. School workers will complete tasks at a much slower pace, to mirror the government's sluggish attentiveness to school board needs. In addition, field trips will not be planned, school yards will not be supervised, staff meetings will be skipped, many clubs and after school activities will be cancelled and paperwork will become insurmountable. However, the worst is yet to come in September, the OSSTF cautions, when a full-blown strike will proceed, putting pressure on the municipal government to reach a resolution within the next few months.

Unfortunately, it's the innocent children who will probably suffer the most. Is this fair? Will the teachers' demands be met? Is there no other way to get officials to listen and quicken talks about educational funding? This potential strike seems to point to a need for better structure and a more open channel of communication between the central government, provincial governments, school boards and teachers' unions. With so many groups butting heads, it's no surprise that change is slow to occur.

These are only a few examples of many. Lest not we forget the big garbage strike a few years ago or the Air Canada and passport / immigration strikes a few months ago. It seems this is a growing trend in Toronto. But why?

Sociologists allege that protesting and striking is about more than just voicing one's opinion. As humans we grapple with issues of personal power and social movement. "Many published activist accounts refer to feelings of encouragement and confidence emerging from experiences of collective action," says British lecturer John Drury. "The main factors contributing to a sense of empowerment were the realization of the collective identity, the sense of movement potential, unity and mutual support within a crowd." He goes on to say it's not always about the end result, but is often about the allusion that something is being done and about the realization of a collective identity.

Yet perhaps a more powerful reason for the growing trend is institutional failure and the government's sluggish pace and tendency towards over-thinking immediate decisions that need to be made. Remember my article about the game of hot potato with environmental legislation? Classic example. I'm sure if you think hard enough, you can readily come up with dozens more instances where our leaders stalled and failed to make timely judgments.

Interestingly enough, all this squabbling seems to center around money - or lack thereof. Perhaps the current financial budget is benefitting the wrong people, the wrong institutions, the wrong interests. The common people - small business owners, farmers, teachers, hockey fans - are suffering.

My position on strikes? I believe that it's important for people to seek happiness and that it's almost natural for people to want power over the decisions that affect their everyday lives. On the other hand, the growing inconvenience for the common people is an unfair and perhaps unnecessary byproduct that our government and powerful institutions should take into consideration. Perhaps they foresee the strikes and protests but their indecisiveness gives them no other option but to stall and buy more time while the innocent people are pushed to the brink of desperation and despair.

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