Source: Olivia Chow/Wikimedia Commons

After over a decade of deep cuts to public transit and social housing, and expanded police spending under right-wing mayors, Olivia Chow was elected mayor eight months ago promising real “change.”

But the changes she’s implemented have not improved life for working-class people anywhere.

What Chow promised

Many of the biggest unions in Ontario, who were attacked by previous mayor John Tory, sought to direct the anger at Tory into a vote for Chow. Chow’s electoral platform was modest, she has spent her career avoiding words like “socialist” and even “left-wing” in favour of nebulous words like “progressive” or by avoiding laying down any sort of “political convictions” at all. 

Despite this, the leadership of Canada’s unions pulled out all the stops to get her elected. And, soon after, her win was presented as a win for “the left, and a sign that the city would soon take a “different path.” According to CUPE Ontario, as mayor, she would build a “movement” to “make Toronto a better place to live, work and grow – for everyone, not just for the privileged and powerful.” 

This has not panned out. All the burning issues of skyrocketing rent, deteriorating transit, poverty, and police brutality continue to worsen.

So what is the Toronto working class to do? It’s useless to pin our hopes on politicians that promise to improve life for “everyone”. The privilege and power of the ruling class comes at the expense of everyone else. 

What has Chow done?

Far from being the “progressive” mayor that some hoped for, Chow has functionally carried on the policies of her predecessors. 

Earlier this year, Chow announced a $17 billion draft budget for 2024 with the statement that “I’m fixing the financial mess and getting Toronto back on track”. Neither of these two aims will be met by the budget. The services ordinary people rely on remain chronically underfunded and doomed to crisis and disrepair, and the police have only been emboldened. 

During John Tory’s reign, $570 million was cut in funding to the TTC. This led to wide scale cancellations of services and increased transit fares. Under Chow, not only have none of these services been restored, public transit is deteriorating faster than ever.

The most stunning example is that in July 2023 the Scarborough Rapid Transit train was derailed due to “loose bolts”. Instead of repairing the line, it has simply been shut down, leaving thousands of commuters to rely on shuttle buses.

The $50 million “Back on Track” fund is not remotely enough to meet Toronto’s transit needs. 

Chow’s campaign also said, “You should be able to afford a place to live in our city.”  One year on, the housing crisis has reached only new levels. Last November, a Tiktok video revealed a rental advertisement asking for $900/month for one side of a queen bed!

As “chronic homeless” skyrocketed, the city’s underfunded shelters have also failed to provide for people’s basic needs, pushing many to seek refuge on public transit. Currently, every night at Spadina station, five TTC buses are left running for the sole purpose of providing shelter. What began as a desperate solution by individuals in crisis has become a semi-official city policy. 

The 2024 budget includes $100 million over three years to simply maintain the current “affordable” housing supply. By the city’s own estimate, they need $28.6 to $31.5 billion to just address the current backlog of tens of thousands waiting for subsidized housing. What about renovictions and skyrocketing rent? Nothing. 

In response to these dire conditions, Olivia Chow responded: “we have no homes for them. I apologize for that”. And when it comes to transit, Chow stated: “the Bloor subway cars, they are reaching their lifespan. Do we have money to order new ones? No”.

There is, however, one area of the budget that is not facing cuts: policing. 

When the budget was initially released on Feb. 1, it suggested that the police budget would increase slightly less than the police chief demanded. Two weeks later, Chow clarified:  “Let me set the record straight. The Toronto Police are receiving millions of dollars more in the budget. There’s no cuts”. The police budget is increasing by $20 million to a total of $1.19 billion. 

Under John Tory, the police force was massively expanded and incidents of police violence increased by 25 per cent. Tory justified this increase by demonizing Black Lives Matter and kicking out homeless people from encampments. This is Tory’s legacy that people hoped would change with Chow. Today, she is increasing the police budget and supporting motions to further repress Palestinian solidarity action. Chow has continued where Tory left off. 

No money for reforms? 

Chow’s supporters will be quick to argue that she is limited by the city’s $1.5 billion deficit. 

The deficit is indeed a problem for the city. Chow’s various attempts to solve it have also been sources of controversy. She gave over control of Ontario Place to Doug Ford, in exchange for the provincial government taking over the expense of the Don Valley Parkway. She also raised property taxes, particularly adding on a “Federal Impacts Levy” in the hopes that angry homeowners will turn their ire on Ottawa to demand more funding for the city. Neither of these come close to solving the underlying problem.

But, is there really not enough wealth in Toronto? 

Towering over the downtown homeless encampments are the biggest financial corporations in Canada. Not only are all five of Canada’s largest banks headquartered in Toronto, 41 international banks have head offices here; making Toronto the second largest financial center in North America. All the big banks have reported record profits, with the largest bank, RBC, accumulating almost $2 trillion in assets. 

Toronto is also home to some of the largest landlords in North America. With a monopoly over housing supply, they have made record profits off charging skyrocketing rent. The five largest landlords recorded on average a 56 per cent increase in profits. Under the monopoly of these landlords, housing is inaccessible not due to a lack of supply but due to the exorbitant rent these owners demand.  

Toronto is by far the wealthiest city in Canada. Yet, it is also one of the most unequal and impoverished cities. This is at root a fundamental contradiction of capitalism. So long as the resources and wealth in society are owned by the capitalist class, they set the terms for how this wealth is used. Their terms leave the tremendous wealth in Toronto in private hands for the sake of accumulating profit. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people are left with scraps to meet social needs. These are the irrational terms that must be accepted if you accept capitalism. 

The question is not whether or not the wealth exists, but who controls it. This is precisely the problem that all reformists encounter when faced with the limits of capitalism: They can either challenge private control over profits and carry out the program they were elected on, or they can accept capitalism and abandon their program. Workers should not trust any politician that talks vaguely about being “progressive” and working and “everyone’s interests.”   

Revolution wins reforms

When Chow states that she wants to “collaborate” and make Toronto work for “everyone”, it is an attempt to reconcile what is in reality an irreconcilable class contradiction. 

Through their role in production, the working class can show that we are the ones who actually run society. It’s when the bosses are afraid of losing control that they attempt to buy peace with reforms. It is through mass revolutionary struggle that the working class won reforms such as the right to unionize, maternity leave and unemployment insurance. 

In this way, the struggle for reforms is fundamentally tied to revolutionary struggle. But as we see today, so long as capitalism exists, none of the gains of the past are safe. Only when the workers take control of the economy and run it for their own needs will we be able to provide things like transit, housing, and everything necessary for a decent quality of life. 

This requires first and foremost a workers’ leadership that is prepared to consciously build a revolutionary movement – not a “progressive” one – to seize the wealth of society from the hands of the ruling class and put it in the hands of the working class. This is not and can not be a movement for “everyone.” It must be a movement to liberate the oppressed and exploited from their oppressors and exploiters.

This will fundamentally mean breaking with “progressives” and progressivism. This is the favoured label of liberals and their apologists in the labour movement and, everywhere, we see where it leads. We are not asking the status quo to be gentler, we want working class fighters. 

Moreover, while elections provide a useful agitational platform, they alone are insufficient to overturn the capitalist system and its crises. We need to prepare for a thoroughgoing struggle in order to win.