Sunday, June 6, 2010

FCM in Toronto

This year's annual meeting of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities was held in Toronto the last week in May. Everyone from the current council attended this, which rarely happens, but perhaps the lure of Canada's biggest city, with all its attractions, was an opportunity too good to be missed. Of course, while it was cold and rainy in Prince Albert, it was extremely hot and humid in Toronto - not my favourite weather, but I shouldn't complain.

About 1,500 delegates, plus civic administrators, plus a fair number of spouses, makes for a huge conference. There are several days of educational sessions, as well as tours of various city facilities and initiatives - a full range of topics from cultural through housing, green initiatives, waste management - it's a long list, and the hardest thing is selecting which sessions and tours will be most beneficial. And of course, there are also social gatherings, which provide the opportunity to network, catch up with old friends, and meet new ones.

I enjoy FCM because it's the chance to learn how other municipalities are trying to deal with their issues. While we may be much smaller, we can still learn from what other cities try, and adapt their initiatives to our own community. For instance, affordable housing is a concern everywhere, and in Toronto, it's quite common to see people living on the street, sleeping near warm air vents, and spending the day moving about with shopping carts full of their possessions. So Toronto spends quite a bit of effort trying to find housing solutions - one example that we were shown was an old hotel that had been converted to men's housing - people are allowed to live there for up to four years, recognizing that for some social problems, there are no quick fixes. But to help them, services are available right on site - things like employment services, addiction counselling and social workers. These services are available to others in the community, not just the residents, but they are closest to those who might have the hardest time accessing them otherwise.

New housing initiatives, such as new developments along the waterfront, are required to include a mixture of housing types, from high-end condo developments through affordable housing, including some Habitat for Humanity homes. Toronto has recognized that all of its residents deserve to have decent, safe places to live, and is doing what it can to make that happen. And it makes a conscious effort to put services and amenities close to where people live, so that they are accessible to the maximum number of users.

Toronto is, of course, of a size that's hard to imagine when you live in Prince Albert. It's population is more than 3 times that of Saskatchewan, but crammed into a relatively small space. Last Sunday, the Toronto Star (yes, the newspaper is out seven days a week), interviewed ten delegates, three of whom were from Saskatchewan, to find out what the best and worst things were about Toronto. Uniformly, people liked the variety of things that you can do there; they also found the number of people and buildings the worst thing.

But despite its size, it's very easy to get around there - it has a first class public transportation system - subways, streetcars and buses, all interlinked. And, because there are so many people around, in the downtown area, day and night, I never feel in danger. That's not to say that there aren't incidents - Councillor Miller and I were sitting on a bench at Nathan Phillips Square after attending a reception at Toronto's City Hall (where, incidentally, her husband Dave got his picture taken with another David Miller, that one the mayor of Toronto), when there was a bit of a scuffle in a group near us. Tour bus drivers who were parked nearby came to help, and then police on bicycles were there very quickly. We're still not sure what happened, but help, and the police, were very close at hand.

For me, a bonus was seeing family that I don't get to see that often due to geography. My sister Laurie and her husband Don drove in from Fergus one evening, and we had supper and a good visit. I had breakfast with Andrea's sister Rhondda one morning (she's a nurse at St. Michael's Hospital, which is right downtown, but lives near Peterborough, about an hour's drive east of the city), and the next day had lunch and some time with her husband Nathan, (who was at a conference at the same hotel as I was staying), and their daughter, my niece Gillian, who was thrilled to tour the FCM trade show with me, and pick up all kinds of goodies. And I had supper one evening with Andrea's sister Fiona, her husband Stu, and Andrea's brother Len, who all live in Toronto. It was good to catch up on family news, and share the usual family jokes.

Although I certainly enjoyed my time in Toronto, it's good to be back. Now we have to figure out how to put whatever we learned there to work.

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." - George Burns

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