Friday, September 24, 2010

Toronto Privilege





Home, sweet home

I am white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, well-educated, I speak English as a first language, and I am border-line class-privileged. I am aware of these facts, and make an effort to keep my privilege in check. 

I'm also Torontonian, born and raised. 




Living in Canada, being Torontonian is a privilege. It comes with the privilege of being from Central Canada, which means that our interests have always been well-represented, politically, at times to the detriment of other parts of the country. Urban privilege, which means that we have opportunities that people from rural areas do not. And, being from Toronto, which means being from the economic centre of Canada. I have Toronto privilege, and it's the one kind of privilege that I'm not sure how and when to check. 


On one level, I can acknowledge that someone from say, Alberta, might take issue with Toronto, and that it has nothing to do with the fact that Toronto is really important to Canada, but the fact that they feel that their part of the country has historically been left to languish while Central Canada has flourished. And it's true that policies like Trudeau's National Energy Program sacrificed the economic interests of Western Canada for those of Central and Eastern Canada.

On the other hand, when Conservative Party politicians start pulling plays from the Republican handbook (again) and start moaning about "Toronto elites," trying to create New Yorkers/Real Americans type of divide in Canada... I can't help but respond that 18% - nearly a fifth - of the population of Canada lives in the Greater Toronto Area, and that you do not get to dismiss one fifth of the country as "elites".

Which to some degree feels like "-splaining" to me. Because I know that there is a genuine issue of regional inequality that the Conservatives are trying to take advantage of.

I find it very hard to factor that understanding of regional inequality into how I react to Albertans is particular, who provide the base for the Conservative Party. I feel like they have a sense of self-importance that is out of proportion - one time I had an argument online with this dude who insisted that thanks to the tar sands, Alberta is now the economic engine of Canada, rather than Ontario. (As of 2008, Ontario had the highest GDP of all the provinces, accounting for about 45% of the national GDP; Alberta was third, accounting for 22%). Which cuts awfully close saying that they're "uppity" and don't know their place.

The thing is, that regional inequality is the only kind of inequality the Conservatives and their Albertan supporters are interested in addressing. On every area related to social justice, they're regressive. This is the province that, in 1998, almost invoked the Notwithstanding Clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to get out of providing human rights protection to people based on sexual orientation - in 2006 when the Conservatives won their first minority, virtually the first thing they did was have a vote to repeal the Civil Marriage act, which made same-sex marriage legal in Canada - and just last year there was an uproar among Conservative supporters when a Conservative MP was photographed presenting a cheque to organizers of the Toronto Pride Parade. These are the folks who insist that "In Canada, we speak English!", get offended by census questions asking for race and ethnic origin, and whine about Canada's official policy of multiculturalism because they think everyone should assimilate with Anglo-Saxon Canadians, while being unaware of the legitimate criticisms of the policy. Oh, and hey, Toronto happens to pride itself on its multiculturalism.

This is why I have trouble checking my privilege. Because the hostility directed at Toronto isn't just inspired by the fact of regional inequality. Often that is all there is to it. But just as often it's based on hostility towards progressivism and towards the "other" that Toronto can be coded to represent. The question is, how to disentangle the two, and respond appropriately, without reinforcing privilege? I have yet to figure that out.

One thing I know, is that I love this city.















Related Reading: Montreal Simon writes about regional discord in Canada and why Conservatives hate on Quebec. I would only add that I think many Rest-of-Canadians' hostility towards Quebec depends on an inability to grasp that the fact that political elites have hailed from Quebec does not change the reality that Québécois in general have historically been disadvantaged compared to anglophone/Anglo-Saxon Canadians.










28 comments:

  1. As a newcomer to Canada but a long-time city dweller, this fascinates me. Thanks for the insightful post.

    (btw, I'm here from Shakesville, though I've been following you since your awesome post at SocImgs.)

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  2. great pics! I'm also Torontonian, though I've lived in a few other parts of the country, and unfortunately I've seen our supposed "elite" city get clogged with traffic without affordable mass transit solutions or extra bike lanes, and lose vitally-needed services like public (or any affordable) housing, shelters and a decent welfare cheque - most of which decisions were not taken by Toronto "elites" but by caviar-and-champagne quaffing provincial and national politicians far, far away from our increasing and everyday urban problems.

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  3. This is just kinda related, but did you know that Jim-"f*ck Toronto"-Flarherty has endorsed Rob Ford? And that Ford thinks that Toronto doesn't need any more immigrants?

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  4. @ libractivist

    Thanks for following!

    @ thedelphiad

    Remember when Mel Lastman suggested that Toronto form a city-state? That made more sense than he was given credit for.

    @ Christina

    Ugh. I read that at least one of the candidates is dropping out of the race, and endorsing Rocco Rossi, to improve the chances of Ford not winning.

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  5. Again you twisted what is being said for wedge politics.

    Baird accused two political leaders as being elitist.

    I would also argue that the 308 MPs belong to a very small club and are fair game as being defined by the same standard.

    I was born and raised in Toronto and have traveled extensively in Canada and can tell you the chip on the shoulder does exist in Toronto.

    The one-fifth of the population stat does not work because we measure voters as political will. In fact in 2008 only 26.3% bothered to show up and mark a ballot on behalf of the Liberal party to express their political will.

    Are you suggesting you can speak for one-fifth of Canadians after 50% voters turned-out in the 2008 GTA ballots?

    You can check Pundits guide for turn out in Toronto and the 28 held ridings in the GTA by Liberals.

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  6. @Canadian Sense
    Why would Toronto have a chip on it's shoulder? People who have a chip on their shoulder are those who were mistreated in the past and take it out on everyone else. An accusation of arrogance would make more sense.
    So... the fact that 18% of Canadians live in the GTA isn't important because most of them don't vote? I didn't know voting was a prerequisite for being treated like a human being.

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  7. I am from western Canada, specifically, Alberta. I am almost 18, and one of the things I am honestly dreading is being expected to vote, for largely the reasons you give. "Liberals" are perfectly happy to screw over my province to buy votes from central Canada. "Conservatives" are just as happy to screw over my ideals and values...though in their case I can't quite figure out the motivation, as no one I know actually objects to any of those things; presumably though, they too are trying to buy votes from someone. I may not end up voting at all, which is also ethically problematic for me.
    I would be nice if there were a "socially progressive" party that actually gave a fuck about the rest of the country...but there's not.

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  8. I can't relate to this Canadian-aspect, but as a city-dwelling, I can. Louisville, Kentucky is often regarded as the oddball of Kentucky, a state of its own, because, well, it's the only "city" in the state. (And by city I mean a large metropolis.) Being a progressive from a liberal-ish city in the midst of a conservative state is interesting.

    One thing that is often forgotten about in the urban-v-rural discussion is that cities are like a state of their own. Each city is divided into neighborhoods, each having its own culture and economic level. Some areas of a city often suffer the level of neglect from legislators and administrators than do rural areas. It's hard to say who has it worse (I don't think you really can) because on the one hand, rural areas have their own municipalities to represent them, while poor city neighborhoods do not. But poor neighborhoods are a part of the larger city, and so have access that rural do not.

    Interesting topic, for sure.

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  9. @ CanadianNonsense

    I think it's pretty clear that this is a personal post and that I'm not "speaking for" anyone but myself.

    You don't understand how political representation works. An MP represents his or her riding, everyone who lives there. Not just the ones who voted. You don't have to prove that you voted before your MP takes your phone call or reads your letter.

    I find your comments typically to be bitter, inane, and derailing. I would prefer not to interact with you. Please don't comment here. Any comments of yours will be deleted without being read.

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  10. @ Kelly

    How do you feel about the NDP?

    @ brittanyannwick

    That's an excellent point.

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  11. I now live in Nova Scotia, but I grew up in Western Canada - and I do mean that, having lived in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

    What fuels a lot of my regional irritation at Toronto is when people from Toronto do something like what you've done in this post: write as though Alberta is a) the only place in the whole country of Canada that voted for the Conservatives (as you do when you say "Conservatives and their Albertan supporters") and b) Alberta is the only place in Canada that has some pretty "regressive" political ideas. Which I guess is why all the other provinces have some awesome supports for people with disabilities (they don't) and why all the other provinces have comprehensive sex education (they don't).

    This isn't to defend any of the really shitty things that happen provincially in Alberta - I don't live there anymore on purpose after all, and a good deal of that is because I do not fit in politically, even in supposedly liberal Edmonton, but the way that Toronto-based newspapers seem to think that All *isms In Canada are focused on Alberta, and Alberta is somehow responsible for Toronto-born & raised Stephen Harper drives me up the frigging wall.

    Nova Scotia & Ontario have had people up in arms about sex education in schools. Toronto's Transit Authority fought in court - twice! - to continue to be inaccessible to blind riders, once for the subway system and the second time for the buses. The University of Winnipeg decided to save money by refusing to provide students with disabilities with the assistance they were promised when they paid their tuition fees. Prince Edward Island prides itself on not having any abortion providers on the whole Island, requiring women to travel to Nova Scotia for medical treatment, and New Brunswick refuses to cover abortions under Health Care.

    The Conservatives got seats in 9 provinces and 1 Territory, and the bulk of those seats were in Ontario. That kinda implies to me that people in Toronto should stop acting like Alberta is the hick cousin we're all embarrassed by and start acting like "the Conservative base" is a bit more broadly spread out. Certainly it would make me a lot less irritated, and I'm basically on your side.

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  12. Unless Kelly lives in Edmonton-Strathcona, voting for the NDP in Alberta is basically saying "Here, have the money you get per vote cast". I always feel bad for the NDP candidates in Alberta. They all seem so nice.

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  13. @trouble

    What fuels a lot of my regional irritation at Toronto is when people from Toronto do something like what you've done in this post: write as though Alberta is a) the only place in the whole country of Canada that voted for the Conservatives... and b) Alberta is the only place in Canada that has some pretty "regressive" political ideas

    I deliberately meant to refer exclusively to supporters from Alberta, since I was trying to make a connection between regional inequality and politics; and because, as I mention in the post, it's almost exclusively when interacting with Albertans that I'm tempted to consciously wield my privilege. But still, point taken.

    I do recall reading that Harper's politically formative years were spent in Alberta. Not that that contradicts the broader point you were making.

    Conservative-held ridings are spread out, yes. That's not the same thing as their "base". Wanting to get rid of the Liberals, and not feeling moved to vote them back into power after they ran an ineffective campaign, is different from being an ideological supporter.

    The reason I'm specifically talking about Albertans is, as I mentioned, it's in interactions with them that I'm tempted to let my privilege go unchecked. I guess I could have been clearer, but I was writing about how I manage my privilege in a specific context: Western alienation, and Albertans trying to overcome that alienation and assert their claim to political power, often with reference to the fact that they have oil money now.

    I do think you make a valuable point, though, and I'll keep it in mind in the future.

    Unless Kelly lives in Edmonton-Strathcona, voting for the NDP in Alberta is basically saying "Here, have the money you get per vote cast". I always feel bad for the NDP candidates in Alberta. They all seem so nice.

    The money per vote cast is exactly why I vote NDP - my riding is pretty much guaranteed Liberal.

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  14. As someone from Eastern Ontario, the Toronto privilege issue extends beyond being part of politically powerful Central Canada. It irks me when people talk about "Ontario" but mean the GTA/potentially the golden horseshoe (for example the GO train, "Ontario's inter-regional transit system").

    The manifestation I run into the most personally is the assumption that everyone knows Toronto. I study Canadian history and a lots of my profs will start talking about the history of specific Toronto neighbourhoods or events that happened at particular intersections, and assume I know what they're talking about. I have sat there, completely lost, for up to half an hour at a time as profs go on about economic and demographic changes on Dundas St. in the last three decades ("This used to be Sam the Record Man. Anyone know what's here now?" "I'm sorry, I guess I missed that section on the required reading list...") I mean even the Globe and Mail reads like a GTA newspaper to me half the time, Toronto events get so over-represented.

    Sorry about that little gripe :) Essentially what I'm trying to say is that, as we say east of Oshawa, Torontonians think Toronto is the centre of the universe, which doesn't leave much room for those of us who aren't there.

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  15. Oh, interesting blog. I grew up in Northern Ontario (North Bay), went to university in Guelph, teacher's college in Toronto and now live in the UK temporarily. I have met Torontonians who seem oblivious to the geography of Ontario outside the GTA and seem to picture everyone outside Toronto living on farms. Having lived in Toronto for a year I now understand some of this. The rich Torontonians get to nature and rural areas by going to their cottage. However if you can't afford a car or don't see the point of owning one in Toronto, it is hard to get to rural areas if everyone you know is in Toronto. Public transport to rural areas sucks and renting a car is expensive. However, then there are people like my friend who will regularly spend an hour traveling from Mississauga to downtown Toronto but consider traveling any longer than that outside the GTA to be "too far". Everyone outside Toronto lives "far away". When I went to university, I was mistaken for living in Thunder Bay so many times. No, they are over 13 hours' drive apart. Northern Ontario people also feel like all the attention is on Toronto. But despite all this I did fall in love with Toronto when I was there. I met a lot of great people there. Maybe everyone needs to spend some time in a place that is opposite to where they grew up, with regards to urban vs rural.

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  16. I just wanted to thank you for writing this post! So much of what I find on the internet is so American-centric. It can be difficult to find Canadian voices speaking on Canadian politics.

    @ trouble

    I too recently moved to Nova Scotia after spending most of my life in Southern Alberta, for a lot of the same reasons. And I agree with what you are saying completely. There are quite a few of the same "Conservative" attitudes around here as well, which surprised me at first I'll admit.

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  17. Marissa, why do you think that the Conservative base in only in Alberta and not in Saskatchewan and Manitoba? Or is it entirely that Alberta now does wield some economic power, and so it's easier for the rest of Canada to continue to ignore Manitoba and Saskatchewan? That doesn't really help - "The West Wants In" didn't end at the Alberta-Saskatchewan Border. (I see this reflected in the news too. I didn't save the headline, but I recall something a week or two ago that was something like "Alberta Hates X" and the first sentence was "Surveys in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan indicate that all three provinces hate X".

    @rescuedinsanity

    Yeah, it's been pretty interesting, especially at Dal and Saint Mary's. Did you hear that the Women & Gender Studies Program was cut at Saint Mary's with absolutely no warning? Students already enrolled in the program found out when they got back to school in September. And Dal's Student Union voted against the mandate of their own Diversity Committee because it included "gender" instead of "sex", and broadened the definition of sexual orientation.

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  18. @Lyndsay

    "Maybe everyone needs to spend some time in a place that is opposite to where they grew up, with regards to urban vs rural."

    You make a good point. I think a lot of the enmity between the different regions of Canada, and between urban and rural Canada, could be resolved if we took the time to learn about each other, if Canadian media took the responsibility to present a more inclusive picture of Canada, and if the Canadian history we learned in school was more intense.

    As you and other posters have mentioned, one of the irritating things about Torontonians is our ignorance of other parts of the country, including our own province. At the same time, I've talked to Canadians who think Toronto is ridden with gun violence and drugs and it's dangerous for a young woman like me to be downtown after dark.

    To further illustrate the significance of learning about each other, I used to have a resentful attitude towards Quebec, their language laws and separatism. Then I took a course in university about nationality, ethnicity and identity which drew quite a few case studies from Quebec. Learning more deeply about the history of Quebec and the experience of francophone Canadians made me understand why Quebcois were/are antagonistic towards anglo Canada. I still don't think separatism is a rational solution, of course, but I no longer have that resentment towards Quebec that many Canadians have (that Montreal Simon writes about in his post that Marissa links to at the end of her post). I actually admire what they have accomplished politically to a certain extent.

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  19. @ trouble

    I say that Alberta is the Conservative Party's "base" for two reasons: 1) The Conservative Party is more Alliance than PC; the Alliance grew out of the Reform Party, which was an Alberta-based movement. 2) Since 1997, the concentration of support for the Reform/Alliance/Conservative Party has always been highest in Alberta. Election maps: 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008

    You make a good point that it's not just Alberta that experiences Western alienation and is conservative in its politics. But I don't think it's inaccurate to say that Alberta is the Conservative Party's base.

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  20. Marissa wrote, "...and that you do not get to dismiss one fifth of the country as 'elites.'"

    I think it's clear is that every region of Canada has been dismissed, overlooked and ignored by the rest of the country and by the federal government at some point. I think a lot of people in Harper's government feel like it's now Toronto's turn. It's not right for the needs of any part of the country to be dismissed, however, whether it's the biggest city or the most sparsely populated territory. Canada needs to move past its regionalism, and we need a leader who recognizes and emphasizes the importance of all Canadians.

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  21. "At the same time, I've talked to Canadians who think Toronto is ridden with gun violence and drugs and it's dangerous for a young woman like me to be downtown after dark. "

    True. Although there are also Torontonians who think that Toronto is more dangerous than it is thanks to the media. I was a little scared moving there because of what I had heard on the news but then I looked up the stats and found Toronto is quite safe, especially for a big city.

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  22. I meant to imply in my last comment that I think a key part to checking "Toronto privilege" is consciously and vocally recognizing that other parts of the country have been treated just as poorly and worse by the federal government as Toronto is being treated by the HarperCons.

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  23. Marissa, if you're wondering why my hackles are getting up, please consider that you just decided to explain the political history of the province I'm from to me, even though you have admittedly never lived there. I assume - perhaps wrongly - that you've never read our newspapers or followed our provincial politics very closely either. The Globe & Mail and the National Post really don't give you a clear idea of the province at all.

    Why I get irritated at Toronto: Because the political makeup of the province I cut my political teeth in is reduced to "Preston Manning, REFORM!, Harper, and now look at the mess we're in". As though there was nothing before, and nothing else, and as though Albertans woke up one morning and said "You know what we want? Bigotry!" As though the rest of us, who write letters, who go door to door, who donate, who support other candidates, who get out the vote, don't really count. And as though the reasons why Western Canada in general, and Alberta in particular, might be resentful towards a political system which means that winning a majority of seats in Quebec & Ontario = winning the government are just petty regionalism and not an actual problem.

    Yeah, 1/5 of Canadians live in the GTA. And 4/5s of us don't. Dismissing Albertan resentment of this as being about Toronto as a bastion of progressive ideas and Alberta just being regressive politically is not exactly doing anything to make me think you've actually considered anything else.

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  24. Oh, the Harper government treats pretty shabbily every place that didn't elect a Conservative MP. During the All Candidates Forum here, the Conservative Candidate actually stated outright that we should vote for him or Harper would get revenge. (It was something about how we wouldn't be included in any government spending initiatives? There's a video on YouTube, I should go watch it again.) Strangely, this did not go over well with the crowd, who started booing and shouting about it.

    Toronto isn't unique in being dismissed and treated shabbily due to electoral choices. You're just noticing it more because you live in Toronto.

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  25. @trouble

    please consider that you just decided to explain the political history of the province I'm from to me, even though you have admittedly never lived there.

    You're right, I should not have done that. I apologize.

    The Globe & Mail and the National Post really don't give you a clear idea of the province at all.

    I don't think the National Post gives any clear ideas about anything, so... /snark

    I'm sorry that what I said was generalizing and simplifying. I'll try to be more aware of that.

    And as though the reasons why Western Canada in general, and Alberta in particular, might be resentful towards a political system which means that winning a majority of seats in Quebec & Ontario = winning the government are just petty regionalism and not an actual problem.

    The tendency to think that is one of the things that I'm trying to deal with. And I don't believe that regionalism is petty; there are good reasons why it exists.

    What I don't understand is, what is supposed to be done about it? I guess that's the heart of why I have trouble dealing with this kind of privilege, I don't understand what the solution is supposed to be.

    Dismissing Albertan resentment of this as being about Toronto as a bastion of progressive ideas and Alberta just being regressive politically is not exactly doing anything to make me think you've actually considered anything else.

    The thing is that in my experience in multiple interactions with people from Alberta, in online conversations and in my job doing surveys with people across Canada, resentment towards Toronto, and hostility towards progressivism were entangled. And my point in the post was that I have trouble separating how I respond as a progressive, and how I respond as a Torontonian. I acknowledge that I need to be more understanding of people's attitudes towards Toronto, even though difficult to in certain contexts.

    Toronto isn't unique in being dismissed and treated shabbily due to electoral choices. You're just noticing it more because you live in Toronto.

    I believe that was the point Christina was trying to make.

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  26. @ trouble

    One more thing about this:

    Dismissing Albertan resentment of this as being about Toronto as a bastion of progressive ideas...

    I don't think Toronto is "a bastion of progressive ideas." Current mayorial candidate RobFord is proof enough against that. I do think that Toronto is easily coded as a representative of progressivism by conservatives.

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  27. @Lyndsay
    "Maybe everyone needs to spend some time in a place that is opposite to where they grew up, with regards to urban vs rural. "

    Ironically, the only time I lived on a farm, it was in Toronto, on the south side of Steeles Ave in Scarborough. It was also the only time I lived in Toronto.

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