On February 10 and 11, the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, hosted its 4th Summit at the Toronto Metro Convention Centre, gathering over 700 invited civic leaders from across industry sectors to talk about what we can do together to make our city region among the best in the world.
Founded by the late David Pecaut in 2002, the then named Toronto City Summit Alliance is a coalition of thousands of civic leaders committed to leading change and tackling big picture issues facing the Toronto region. Now chaired by John Tory, it convenes and organizes individuals and organizations across business, academic, government, labour, and not-for-profit sectors to improve Toronto’s social, economic and environmental future.CivicAction, as it’s now known in short form, is a recent, more inclusive rebranding aimed to reflect the economic and geographic cluster surrounding Toronto, today inhabited by over 5.5 million citizens – roughly one sixth of Canada’s population. Since its inception, CivicAction has taken an active role in incubating innovative initiatives designed to galvanize action on the tough issues and big opportunities affecting the Toronto region.
The Summit was an incredible opportunity for these big picture conversations, and included a range of star speakers and salient topics such as diversity, neighbourhood development, transit, affordable housing, arts and culture, economic cooperation, and immigration, among others.Day one began with a keynote address by Ontario Premiere Dalton McGuinty, who delivered what sounded much like an election platform speech. He presented a vision for Ontario “to be the place where the best workers build innovative products and services that the world wants.” He highlighted priorities such as infrastructure development, health care, education (including the introduction of all day kindergarten), electricity, and, of course, deficit reduction. Glen Hodgson Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the Conference Board of Canada presented the first-ever economic forecast for the GTA and Hamilton, projecting that public investment spending will fall in 2011-12, but that the region will see 3% in real GDP growth this year. Full recovery is projected for 2013.
Breakout discussions focused on key issues such as transit, affordable housing, labour force readiness, diversity and a new model for economic cooperation across the GTA. Detailed reports from working groups were prepared in advance and included proposals for possible action, ensuring focused and forward moving conversation.
After lunch, recently elected Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, spoke about the ‘diversity advantage’ and opportunities for new immigrants as a key contributor to local prosperity. An immigrant himself, he said “it’s a shame to waste the talent and potential of the people we’ve invited to this country.”
And last, but not least on the day’s bill was US-based Carol Coletta, CEOs for Cities who swiftly stirred the late afternoon energy lull with her lively presentation. She illustrated how the success of a city rests on its quality of talent, place and opportunity, and cited many formidable examples of cities investing in quality of place and opportunity as a way of attracting and retaining talent.Day two featured federal Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty – also Minister for the GTA and professed friend of the Ford family, having served with Rob’s father in the Ontario Provincial Legislature. Flaherty boasted Canada’s strong economic position relative to other countries and spoke at length about Toronto’s brand as a prosperous city. He also reported that despite “negative media attention”, the financial sector abroad thought the G20 Summit was “brilliant” for Toronto. Hmmmm…. I’m not sure the crowd was convinced. He offered a few unsurprising points about the upcoming federal budget. Focused on job creation and competitiveness, he mentioned things like tax relief for businesses, eliminating manufacturing tariffs, the already announced extension to October 2011 on infrastructure projects, and a working income tax benefit for low income workers to discourage welfare dependence, among others. Next, Majora Carter of the Bronx in New York spoke passionately about her mission to create economic opportunities for America’s most expensive citizens, and walked us through several exciting projects that engaged the green economy in at risk communities. “You shouldn’t have to leave your neighbourhood to live in a better one” she told us.
The breakout sessions on Friday included topics such as arts and culture, neighbourhoods and community, income security, social development and environmental action, among others.
Of course, I went to the arts and culture discussion that focused on new collaborations within the sector. Despite the somewhat uncoordinated panel speakers who introduced the topic, the discussions around the room were energetic and productive.Up for debate was the notion of making Toronto a global cultural capital. The need to create a common vision for the sector, foster audience growth, increase cooperation within the sector and develop a robust sector-wide research effort were presented as the challenges at hand. Three proposals for action were presented for discussion – a single campaign leading to enduring collaboration, the creation of a framework for collaboration, and the creation of a research and policy centre for arts and culture. Hosted by CBC’s Garvia Bailey, small group discussions were facilitated and the results of the conversations varied.
At my table, we were keen on the creation of a platform for collaboration. We imagined an alliance called something like ‘Arts Action GTA’ and envisioned that it would do things like host an annual city-wide, cross-sectoral summit focused on arts and culture in the broadest sense, develop collaborative branding and marketing initiatives, align messaging and spearhead advocacy campaigns as well as conduct policy research. An interesting model of such an initiative is the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
Another table presented the idea of an ‘Arts Passport’ that would provide discount offers to patrons for cultural events throughout the city, as well as allow the sector to collect data on cultural consumers. Other suggestions included creating a ‘Cultureliscious’ event, aligning collaboration around physical spaces in various neighbourhoods, involving private sector partners as collaborators instead of just funders, and advocating for more arts education in GTA schools, among many other ideas.
It was a heartening discussion, especially given the scope of individuals in the room. It wasn’t only members of the cultural sector who were present, but also representatives from business and government, allowing for broader scope and perspective on the issues and in turn, more support for the proposed actions. Going forward, it’s clear that CivicAction will continue to be a critical platform in bridging connections between sectors – something the arts and culture industry hasn’t done well in the past. I am hopeful that we can work more strategically and collaboratively within our sector, and together with other sectors, to address the critical issues we face today and in the future.The latter half of Friday featured Gordon Nixon, President and CEO of RBC, a video message from the Right Honourable David Johnston, Canada’s Governor General and a panel of his and her worships – this Mayor’s of Mississauga, Hamilton, Markham, and Toronto (though brother Doug Ford was a stand in for Rob who was in the hospital at the time).
I was thrilled to have been a part of Summit 2011, and left the event inspired by the many incredible people who contributed their talent and leadership to the discussions. The convergence of people motivated to lead positive change in our city region can only amount to good things. The need is urgent and the time for change is now. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “I hope you’ll understand, sirs, our legitimate and unavoidable impatience”.