Writer Margaret Atwood hopes Mayor Rob Ford and his allies on council have learned a thing or two from the outpouring of support from citizens for Toronto libraries as they contemplate cuts to other city services this fall.
Talk of closing branches "in a heartbeat," as Councillor Doug Ford said earlier this summer, shows they did not understand how important the city's library system is to citizens of all ages and walks of life, said the award-winning author.
In July, Ms. Atwood tweeted a link to a petition protesting proposed cuts that helped set off a verbal sparring match between her and Councillor Ford, the mayor's brother and closest adviser.
Mr. Ford, who said he would have no problem closing one particular branch in his ward, went on to say that he "wouldn't have a clue" who Margaret Atwood was if she passed him on the street. Those remarks went viral and the councillor later clarified his remarks, saying he meant most people in his ward would not know the author, and calling her a "great writer."
Torontonians responded to those remarks and Ms. Atwood's twitter comments by flooding councillors' offices with messages in opposition to the possible cuts and crashing the website that hosted the online petition.
"They just didn't think," Ms. Atwood said Thursday, referring to the mayor and his brother. "I think they will think more carefully now. It will just give them pause for thought."
"These are not stupid people," she told reporters at a news conference to launch a contest asking Torontonians why their library matters. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that the Fords are stupid. They are not stupid. Given that they are not stupid, they will think this through and what we all want, of course, is a good city council and we all want a good mayor. Maybe this will help them become a better city council and a better mayor[s]" said Ms. Atwood, who likes to refer to the mayor and his brother as the "twin Fordmayor[s]"
Councillor Ford responded by characterizing the remarks and the continuing campaign against library cuts led by the library workers union as "fearmongering." All city departments have been asked to cut 10 per cent from their existing budget, and libraries are no exception, he said.
"It's not about Margaret Atwood. It's about finding 10-per-cent efficiencies," he said. "If they can find 10-per-cent efficiencies, everyone's as happy as punch."
That task should be "very, very simple," he added.
"I've been getting numerous calls from librarians and they tell me there is easy 10-per-cent there. So when I am hearing it from the frontline workers, that's who I believe," he said.
The city is in the middle of a cost-cutting exercise, part of the mayor's election pledge to find the gravy at city hall. A consultant's report into city services raised the option of cutting library services, hours of operation and shutting some of the systems 98 branches, the busiest in North America.
While most city councillors, including many members of the mayor's inner circle, have pledged to oppose branch closings, Councillor Joe Mihevc cautioned that does not mean the battle is over.
"I think it is very important that the Toronto public is not deceived by commitments from some councillors that they will not vote to close down libraries," he said. "We have to alert library lovers that it's not just about the branches. It is about the collection. It is about the hours, as well."
Downtown and midtown councillors expect branches in their wards will be targeted, perhaps not with branch closings, but with reduced hours or services, because libraries in the former City of Toronto tend to be located closer together than those in the suburbs, he said.
Maureen O'Reilly, head of the library workers union, said until the final council vote on proposed cuts is taken in September, there is no guarantee libraries will be spared. "Through our campaign, we are going to keep at it and get more and more Torontonians onside," she said.
The "My Library Matters to Me" contest for lunch with one of 11 distinguished Toronto writers, including Ms. Atwood, is sponsored by the Toronto Public Library Workers Union and is open to Toronto residents. The contest closes on Sept. 9, and The Globe and Mail has arranged to publish a selection of the winning entries.
Win a literary lunch
Lunch with one of 11 prominent writers and a tour of "their Toronto" is the prize on offer to city residents who submit the best essays or short videos on why their library matters. Up to 50 winning entries will be chosen, with another eight selected from a children's category for a reading and meal with children's writer Jeremy Tankard.
Mr. Tankard, author of Boo Hoo Bird, brought along his library card to the contest announcement Thursday. "I don't think you can put a dollar figure on this," he said, recounting how he got his first library card as a three-month-old in South Africa.
"Listen up Mayor Ford," said Susan Swan, urging citizens to contact councillors, especially members of the "moderate middle," to prevent what she described as "unfortunate cost-cutting."
"If you have a book you have a friend," said bestselling author Joy Fielding. "It will be very interesting to see how many friends Rob Ford will have in the next election. I suspect he is going to need all the friends he can get."
Whenever politicians are short of money, the first thing they attack is culture and the arts, she observed.
The other authors involved in the contest are Sylvia Fraser, Michael Ondaatje, Robert Rotenberg, Linwood Barclay, Judy Fong-Bates, Vincent Lam, Anna Porter and Margaret Atwood. More information is available at ourpubliclibrary.to