Meet the deputants
More than 2,000 people are registered to get five minutes to tell political big wigs what's on their mind
It's the end of a long day for the executive committee of Toronto city council. Mayor John Tory and his hand-picked group of councillors have been sitting since 9:30 in the morning. It is now approaching 8 in the evening. In between voting and debating, they have listened to a couple of dozen citizens tell them off.
As the meeting in committee room 1 of Toronto City Hall winds down, three well-known figures take their turns at the desk facing the the semi-circle of politicians. They are the final members of the public to speak – and the most familiar. The issue is a grandstanding councillor's motion to support the police against what he calls a torrent of recent abuse.
One speaker is a thick-set man in a Che Guevara T-shirt and camouflage shorts who holds up his phone as he speaks to shoot video of the men and women in suits arrayed before him. He tells the councillors they should reject the divisive motion and get on with fighting poverty and racism. Another speaker, wearing a long chain attached to his wallet, insists 99 per cent of cops are good guys.
Yet another complains about a reported takedown at police headquarters. He ends his talk by asking the mayor not to use the title "mister" when addressing him. He has a whole explanation for that. It has to do with maritime law.
Meet the deputants, the little band of oddballs and obsessives who help keep city politicians honest. They aren't terribly influential. They certainly aren't powerful. Sometimes they aren't even coherent. But just the fact that they are around, and that the powerful have to hear them out, is somehow reassuring all the same.
In city hall jargon, a deputant is someone who comes in to give a deputation or presentation before one of the city's various committees, boards and agencies. Deputants usually get five minutes to speak, or "depute." At city hall meetings, the time is measured out on a digital wall clock.
Some deputants are lobbyists for real estate interests or business groups that might be gored by a new city tax or policy. Others come from residents' associations up in arms about a too-tall condo or an overcrowded dog park.
Some are threatened workers: Taxi drivers came by the score to rant about Uber. When the adult-entertainment industry was annoyed about city nightclub rules, it sent a woman called Viviana to do a pole dance in heels and shiny shorts before the wide-eyed members of the licensing and standards committee. She brought her own pole.
The city clerk's office registered 2,475 deputations in 2016. The executive committee, the last stop for issues before they go to city council for a vote, was the most popular forum, with 390.
Councillors can count on getting an earful. At an executive session last month, one deputant said they denied him the right to raise a flag to mark the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Another said they were nuts to close a commuter parking lot near a big subway station. Yet another said they are treating the city's treasured ravines as a slumlord treats his tenants.
Anyone can depute. A deputant just needs to register with the city clerk, which is as easy as clicking the "Request to Speak" button when a committee's agenda is posted online. But certain deputants show up again and again. One city councillor calls them "frequent flyers." Over the years, they have become fixtures in the corridors of Toronto's famous, winged City Hall, known to reporters, security guards, councillors and officials alike. Even the mayor knows them on sight.
Some have been showing up for decades, outlasting several mayors. The grandfather of them all, Steve Munro, 69, started speaking in the early 1970s. Today, arrayed in a white beard, ponytail and leather vest, the retired IT guy renowned for his command of transit lore is still a regular at Toronto Transit Commission meetings, though these days he usually comes to observe and gather information for his transit blog instead of to make a deputation.
Many deputants have particular axes to grind – and grind and grind. For Hamish Wilson, it is making the city safer for cyclists. A boyish 60-year-old with a buzz cut, he has been campaigning tirelessly since the 1990s, appearing over and over at what he calls "City Wall" to complain about Toronto's underbuilt network of bike lanes, among many other issues. In automobile-dominated "Car-onto," he often feels as if he is "tilting at windshields."
Alan Yule's fixation is transit. His homemade slide shows are a staple of TTC meetings. He has deputed on everything from improving the night-bus system to accommodating strollers on transit vehicles to the hell of short-turning streetcars. At the last board meeting, on Oct. 16, he roasted the commission for its "archaic trip-based directional transfer policy."
Derek Moran, an unemployed former warehouse worker, wants to help councillors understand the law. He often appears at city hall committees or the police board to deliver hard-to-follow lectures on things such as "the bills of exchange act."
When the mayor thanked him for his input at the executive committee, he jumped up to insist he would not be called "Mister" Moran. He doesn't like it, he explains, because maritime commanders use that honorific when addressing inferior officers. "Sorry, I forgot," the mayor of Canada's biggest city said.
Other deputants are soup-to-nuts generalists. They will speak about just about anything. Miroslav Glavic, the guy with the wallet on a chain, started off early this decade deputing about light-rail transit and moved on to technology, pushing city hall to stream its meetings online (it finally does). Now he puts his oar in on everything from budgets to housing.
He will often speak on two or three subjects at a single meeting. City records show he spoke 56 times at major committees in the two years to Oct. 1, and that doesn't count his appearances at smaller committees or the community council in Scarborough, the suburb where he lives.
Mr. Glavic, 39, is a food photographer and sometime blogger who immigrated from Croatia in 1990. He says deputations are important because "in person you see the emotion when someone is speaking." If city councillors don't like to listen to him, well, "they shouldn't be councillors. Part of the job is to listen to the people."
Seeing the usual suspects such as Mr. Glavic appear time after time drives some city hall politicians around the bend. Denzil Minnan-Wong, one of the city's deputy mayors, says it takes time away from others and makes for drawn-out meetings. "Are these people contributing to the democratic process," he asks, "or are they limiting it?" He says it may be time to put restrictions on the frequent flyers by limiting the number of times they can speak at one meeting or capping the total amount of time they can speak in one day.
Others argue that letting people speak their minds is just part of being a democracy. "As soon as we start to restrict deputations to those people we find interesting, we are restricting free speech and restricting access to government," Councillor Gord Perks says. Welcoming input from everyone and anyone "is a necessary condition – I wouldn't even call it an evil – of open and inclusive government."
Mr. Perks, in a younger, shaggier phase, often delivered passionate deputations of his own, calling on the city to close a big garbage incinerator and step up recycling. Now he wears slim suits and represents a ward in the west end of downtown.
Some deputations are tiresome and predictable. They disappear into the ether as soon as they are uttered. But others make a difference. At a famous all-night meeting on cutting city services in 2011, Mayor Rob Ford pounded back cans of Red Bull to stay alert as he listened to dozens of speakers. One of them was Anika Tabovaradan, a 14-year-old girl who sobbed as she begged Mr. Ford not to cut library services. Her words galvanized opposition to Ford-era cuts.
Another deputant, Mary Hynes, got thunderous applause when she delivered a sarcastic "modest proposal" to shut down all sorts of city services. With her curly white hair and high-decibel delivery, she became known as "yelly granny."
A few deputants record small, practical victories. Emily Jane Daigle, 38, a passionate advocate for accessibility who calls City Hall her "second home," says she complained for years about a low-slung deputation table that was hard for speakers in wheelchairs to use comfortably. Ms. Daigle suffers from multiple disabilities, including being legally blind and hearing impaired. She survives on government assistance, lives with her husband in a tiny apartment and wears a Deadpool button on her baseball cap because the comic book anti-hero "gets things done and doesn't take crap from anybody."
Last November she accidentally knocked the table right over with her motorized chair when she was preparing to address the Community Development and Recreation Committee, causing gasps and a big commotion in the committee room. City workers fixed the table so it can be raised and lowered to accommodate wheelchairs.
The regular deputants are realistic about their impact. Mr. Moran reckons that, for most councillors, his advice "goes in one ear and out the other. They do whatever they want anyway."
Though Mr. Tory usually takes pains to be polite to deputants, thanking them and apologizing if they have waited a long time to speak, some councillors just stare at their phones or their papers while the speakers fill their five minutes. Occasionally councillors exercise their right to ask questions of deputants, stretching the speaker's moment in the sun beyond five minutes, but that usually happens only when they agree with the point being made or just want to sound off themselves.
Miguel Avila-Velarde, 52, likes to think that politicians listen to his deputations and appreciate his passion for social justice. "They understand my righteous anger, you know what I'm saying?" An immigrant from Peru, he has been a regular since the Toronto Zoo fired him from his job as caretaker in 2009. He hopes to help build a city where "we can all live together in peace, unity and love."
With his Che T-shirts, mane of dark hair and jean vest with badges that say "Places to go, people to annoy" and "Am I free to go, officer?" he is hard to miss. Chatting in the City Hall lobby, he waves and says "How you doing?" to a passing security guard, then leans over to confide, "They have a file on me."
Mr. Wilson, the ardent cyclist, is jaded but persistent. He pleaded for more than a decade to get a bike lane on Bloor Street, the major east-west roadway, but when it opened about a year ago on a trial basis, it was much shorter than hoped. He feels his warnings about another preoccupation, climate change, are being disregarded, too. "We are really scorching the Earth and limiting the future of the world."
He is depleting the inheritance he lives on and admits that he really should see a dentist. Still, he keeps coming. The city, he says, needs new ideas. One of his current favourites is running a bus route along a Scarborough Hydro corridor with high-voltage wires running overhead. He produces a map of the route.
By making deputations to city councillors, he says, "You can bring perspective and maybe influence their minds, such as they are." When asked whether he isn't just a pain in the neck for some of them, he answers, "I hope so."