This article ran originally ran in the Toronto Sun July, 2017
Toronto still stings from the infamous 2010 “à la Cart” experiment, in which bureaucrats planned to bring 15 healthy ethnic food options to Nathan Phillips Square.
Staff with no restaurant experience brainstormed to develop a standardized cart and a list of foods which could be sold. Vendors were required to pay for permits, purchase $30,000 carts and have menu changes approved by Public Health. Several vendors were financially ruined and at least one declared bankruptcy.
Now, Toronto is financially devastating a group of people which is 45 times larger and has invested over $40,000,000 serving a much more important market: vulnerable customers who need Accessible taxis.
As Council’s need to meddle in business knows no bounds, it decreed in 2014 that henceforth, 100 per cent of new taxis would need to be accessible. This decision was not based on any research or needs analysis; it was purely a virtue-signalling exercise. The industry had already met the goal of making six per cent of cabs accessible, despite the fact that Accessible calls account for less than 1 per cent of requests received.
In 2014, Council voted to release 500 additional Toronto Taxi Licenses (TTL) plates. Purchasers were aware that they could ONLY put these plates on Accessible vans, which are customized with wheelchair ramps, cost almost double the price of a sedan taxi and guzzle a lot more gas.
Operators stepped up in good faith to purchase the licenses and the vans. People who need Accessible taxis often need lots of help in and out of buildings, cars, and appointments. This segment of the market is not as simple or lucrative as business or bar calls, but enthusiastic entrepreneurs, largely immigrants, stepped up to deliver services Toronto does not want to pay for itself.
Amazingly, 551 men were OK with this proposition. We should thank them.
Instead, in 2016, Toronto pulled the rug out from underneath them when it adopted Chapter 546, the new Vehicle for Hire by-law. Two years after it insisted upon 100 per cent Accessible taxis, Toronto decided it didn’t need ANY REQUIREMENT AT ALL for Accessible taxis. It cancelled the TTL program, and instead brought in a two-tiered system allowing Uber use its own fare structure without offering Accessible service.
Overnight, all the men who bought TTLs were stranded, competing with 30,000 additional vehicles which were not required to buy $65,000 vans.
They have been devastated, financially and emotionally.
Latif Gowher, who heads up a group of TTL owners asking the City to convert their TTLs to Standard plates, calculates that under the new Chapter 546 market reality, there is no way an owner can pay off the van in the seven years it is allowed to be on the road.
“We signed up when there was one law for taxis. Now there are two laws, and Uber is not required to comply,” he notes. “This is not what we signed up for.”
Several of those who purchased the plates have returned them to the City, or sold their vans and plates at a loss.
This is a serious problem for Accessible taxi owners, but even more so for the clientele that need them.
Instead of making continued progress toward meeting the 10-minute equitable service goal set by Spinal Cord Injury Ontario, Toronto is likely to move in the opposite direction as taxi operators have realized bureaucrats and politicians are nonchalantly using them as a political football.
Risky business, indeed.
In 1996, I took a job as Press Secretary for Dave Johnson, MPP. He had just been appointed Government House Leader, a responsibility he added to his portfolio as he was also the Chair of Management Board (now Treasury Board).
Dave’s first week as House Leader was incredibly chaotic and tumultuous, as the elected Speaker of the House, Al McLean, was accused of sexual harassment by one of his female staff.
The outrage and overwhelming media attention this story attracted, just as the House was returning under the already-hugely controversial Mike Harris government, can hardly be understated. It was a circus. Calls for the Speaker’s resignation were deafening.
This was the second or third day of my new job, my first job inside of government, and I was seriously questioning whether I made the correct decision in shuttering my business to take this position.
Staff in the House Leader’s Office were frantically scrambling to find a precedent for the situation somewhere, anywhere, in any Commonwealth democracy on the planet: the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa….anywhere. This exact situation had never occurred, and Ontario was indeed “setting precedent” in any decision made.
The day Parliament returned, Dave Johnson’s first official day as House Leader, I was standing in the hallway outside the House doors. It was jam packed with media, cameras, lights, producers, reporters, photographers. Standing off to the side at the edge of the scrum, notepad and pen in hand, was Christie Blatchford. A little star-struck, I approached and extended my hand.
“Christie,” I said, “I am one of your biggest fans. I am so honoured to meet you. Are you following this story?”
“I broke this story,” Christie sighed sadly. “The female staffer who accused McLean of harassment called me first. I wrote the initial article.”
She spoke without the slightest trace of triumph or ego. The fact that she had “broken” one of the biggest stories yet about a member of the reviled Harris government seemed not to matter one whit; the fact that the Speaker did in fact resign his position in disgrace brought her no joy.
She did not fight her way to the front of the scrum, elbow aside less senior reporters. If she had, out of respect for the fact that it was “her” story, her media colleagues would have waited for her to ask the first question before they began shouting theirs. In fact, she didn’t plunge into the scrum at all. She continued to stand unobtrusively off to the side, until Dave finished giving his comments and answering questions for the assembled press gallery.
Then, when he was done and the cameras were lowered and the lights went off, he stepped over to where Christie was standing. They spoke for a few minutes in a calm and civilized manner, the quietest moment I recall seeing all day. As a former East York mayor, councillor, and Metro councillor before he was elected to Ontario’s Parliament, Dave Johnson would have held Christie Blatchford in the highest esteem. They were birds of a feather actually, both dedicated, professional, respectful, committed to service.
It’s impossible to summarize Christie Blatchford’s significance in the world of journalism, justice, politics, and Canadian life.
These words stand out for me:
“She called me first.”
Trustworthy, brilliant, always there when it mattered – Canada turned to Christie first. I wonder who we will turn to now?