John Tory is a Canadian politician who has served as Toronto’s 65th Mayor since 2014. After a distinguished career in business and law, Tory initially ran for mayor in 2003 where he lost by a narrow margin to David Miller. He subsequently led Ontario’s official opposition, the Progressive Conservative party, from 2004 to 2009 before announcing his candidacy for Mayor once again in 2014. Tory was elected, defeating current Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and was decisively re-elected in 2018. At the helm of Canada’s largest city, Tory has prioritized affordable housing, improved transit, and addressing social inequities.

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Toronto’s success in containing the spread of COVID-19 this summer was remarkably unusual among large North American cities. During the months of June to August, there were an average of around 48 daily new cases in a city of almost three million people. As Mayor, what do you view as the most impactful differentiators between Toronto’s approach to handling the COVID-19 pandemic and other North American cities that experienced contrasting results? 

Well, none of what I’m going to say here should be taken as critical of anybody, but I would just say that amidst our own success, we’ve had some challenges recently—as we’ve had a resurgence—that have been no less than what we’ve seen in other places in North America. I think the number one thing [in containing COVID-19] is collaboration. We had excellent collaboration between our three levels of government: city, provincial and federal. I think that’s allowed us to be very effective, not perfect but very effective, in dealing with all the different challenges, whether it’s to do with contact tracing or public health requirements. And so collaboration has been key, and I think we’ve seen that in spades in Canada. 

The second is that I think we have been very disciplined while asking a lot of questions. We’ve been disciplined in relying on, and following, the advice of our expert advisors. We have one medical officer of health in Toronto, and we have one in Ontario. There hasn’t been an instance in which the heads of government, myself, and the Premier of Ontario, haven’t followed their advice. Sometimes it was painful to do so because you then had to be party to unintentionally inflicting pain on people, whether it was closing businesses, closing schools, or even recommending limitations on what people can do on Halloween. But we have worked well with those experts, and our conclusion is that’s why they’re there: to give us expert advice in areas in which we are not experts like science and medicine. 

The third is we’ve had a tremendous focus from the beginning on helping the most vulnerable and marginalized people. I think from the beginning, we put an extra effort on housing issues, food security issues, and mental health issues, as they relate to the most vulnerable residents of Toronto. That, of course, is the area in which the virus has also shown more of a likelihood of spreading. I think it’s been an effort well placed both to look after those people, because in many cases they can’t look after themselves, but also for public health measures to stop the spread of the virus. 

I think those things helped, along with wonderful cooperation from the public. When the public were told by us, by way of something that amounted to a bylaw, that they had to wear a mask on the Toronto Transit Commission, they did it. We had 97 percent compliance without much enforcement, because how can you enforce something like that? So I think that was really the one additional ingredient: collaboration, follow the advice of the experts, look after the most vulnerable first, and then the public’s gracious cooperation really explains how we’ve been able to do relatively well, although far from perfect.

I’m glad that you brought up the notion of public cooperation as a crucial component of success. For many of our readers in the United States, November’s presidential election is top of mind. When asked about the prospect of reinstating lockdowns, Democratic nominee Joe Biden stated on August 21 that if instructed by public health officials, he “would shut [the country] down.” Toronto recently tightened its COVID-19 restrictions, regressing from Stage 3 back to Stage 2. As Mayor of North America’s fourth largest city, what insights and advice would you share with Americans who may not be receptive to this idea?

Well, two things, I’d say. First of all, if you can back up the decision to go back to a stage of more restrictive business or activities, generally with evidence as to why you’re doing it, I think the vast majority of people will comply. There are what I would call ideologues who are opposed to any restrictions being placed anywhere by anybody, and we have fewer of those here, but they exist. I think that if a number of leading medical and scientific experts are recommending something, and are providing evidence as to why they do, people are pretty prepared—at least in Canada—to accept that as being something that makes sense. 

The second argument is more practical and has less to do with scientists and doctors. If you can hold out for people after months of agony that by enduring some of this short term pain, they will shorten the overall period of pandemic and allow people to get back to business, back to a more normal way of life sooner, I think people will buy into that. That one is a little more perilous because, of course, if it doesn’t come to an end, simply because the virus continues to be a problem for a month and a month more, that becomes a less persuasive argument. 

But I think for the moment, two things: the weight of the scientific evidence and the fact that people are prepared to put their faith in scientists who we have available to us and others, and secondly the notion that short term pain will lead to long term gain. We’ve been saying over Canadian Thanksgiving, which has already happened, ‘Well look, if you follow restrictions on your Thanksgiving time, which is an important family time here as it is in the US, you might be able to enjoy a normal Christmas.’ I think most people thought that was a kind of promising way to look at this. And if you gave up a lot of what you would normally do on Thanksgiving, you might be able to be back with the family at Christmas time.

In thinking about the ways that COVID-19 has affected the city, I know that transit has been a significant priority for you as Mayor. Toronto’s Subway Line 1, which is the only line servicing the city’s downtown core, has been operating above capacity at rush hour since 2007, and the number of riders is expected to grow further. In response, you promised, in January 2019, accelerated construction of a relief line. But because of COVID, short and possibly medium term demand for public transportation is shifting, and the city has installed more bike lanes as an alternative. Has COVID-19 shifted your medium and long-term views on urban mobility in Toronto, and if so, how? 

Not away from transit expansion. I mean, it’s definitely shifted my view in that I think what we learned from it is that during adverse times, probably not during just normal times, you have to present to people a wider range of options to get around. Increasingly, for environmental and now for health and other reasons, people want to walk or use a bicycle to get around. So we’re making arrangements within the limited public space we have. The challenge for people in government is to divide the public space that exists between the front of one side of the street where the stores stop and where the stores are stopped on the other side of the street. You have sidewalk and street space, and you can divide that up any way you want between space for pedestrians, space for patios, space for bicycles and space for cars and transit vehicles. So we’re going through an evolution, as most cities are, having to actually realign that space to take account of the fact that more people are cycling and walking.

And we’re making those changes. We will have installed, by the end of this year, the most new bike infrastructure of any year in the history of the city. But the notion of transit expansion in some way being discontinued or disrupted or scaled back is not going to happen for two reasons: the first is that we took decades off where we didn’t build new transit, so we’re just really now catching up in some respects—which is the case with a lot of cities. But secondly, and as importantly, once the border reopens, this city will resume its status as the fastest growing city in North America. We had, pre-pandemic, 100,000 people per year coming here, mostly through immigration. And we want those people to come. We want them to come and help build up our economy, we want them to come and bring all their skills and smarts to the city, and their jobs and investment. We need to have places for them to live, meaning we have to make a big push on affordable housing, but we also have to have ways for them to get around in increasing numbers. So the transit expansion will continue. If anything, we’re looking for more projects to do because the city is growing fast, and we can’t afford to make the mistake of a generation ago where they just said, ‘Oh, well, we’ll build the transit later.’ We’ve got to build it now, so that it’s ready in a few years’ time.

Even after this pandemic is over, do you foresee—perhaps if for environmental reasons—increased bike & sustainable transportation infrastructure perhaps being a major or leading point of emphasis for the city?

I think it was always an evolutionary thing, and what’s happened is the evolutionary change of the use of that public space. It was an evolution that was underway: we had a 10 year cycling plan, which contemplated the construction of different additional cycling infrastructure over the next 10 years. That work will continue, and we’ve accelerated some of it during the pandemic, and because of the pandemic. 

But it was always an evolutionary thing where we were making changes that accorded with the changes in patterns of how people got around, so I think that will continue and we have a plan. It was a good plan, and while we’ve achieved parts of it faster during the pandemic, I think we’ll get back to implementing that plan as soon as the pandemic is over.

I want to pivot slightly to something that’s been a major point of discussion as of late in the United States and Canada, being the idea of police reform. On June 25, in response to systemic racism and police brutality against Black and Indigenous individuals in Toronto and across North America, you filed a motion that would require a public release of the Toronto Police Department’s finances and invite the auditor general to review them for potential efficiencies. You hypothesized that this would “likely” result in budget reductions, though no specific defunding target was specified. What actionable measures has the city taken this year, and in what areas specifically do you think the city can do better in addressing systemic racism? 

Well, we started long before this year. We established the first in North America Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit inside the city government, and it had been initiated long before the events of 2020. Things like compulsory anti-Black racism training for every member of city staff, and a series of other measures in areas like employment, helping businesses with social procurement policies, and so on. We had started doing this and had begun to make some progress. I think this [recent call to action] has accelerated the need for us to do more, faster. Of course, a significant component of that has to do with police reform. I would say in terms of what’s been achieved since the intensive discussions of the summer include the actual publication, for the first time, of the line-by-line, detailed police budget. It’s never been made public before, there were always summaries made available to the public, and that’s been put online. The auditor general arrangements have been made to have her go and examine the affairs of the police department. That was never permitted before under law.

We have begun a significant interim expansion of what’s called the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team framework, which are the teams of mental health professionals and police officers that go to handle calls from persons in distress. For years, they had had to make do with six of those teams, and they were able to cover only part of the city or part of the day. Now we’re moving to 24/7 coverage of the city for Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams. So that means in dramatically increased numbers of cases of people in distress, they will be responded to by a team of mental health professionals and police officers instead of now, where it ends up most of the time being a police officer.

We are actively underway with an examination of how we can have functions presently carried out by the police transferred to other people that might be more appropriate. Mental health is probably the number one area. We in Toronto have 32,000 persons in distress calls every year, and at present only a very small minority of those are met with mental health professionals showing up. 

We believe that we should be looking to see if we can have the vast majority of those handled by mental health professionals, because that’s what’s needed in most of the cases. So our city management is coming forward with some recommendations as to how we can achieve that very early in the new year, in fact in January. I would say that we put forward 81 different measures in front of the Police Board and the City Council, and we’re actively engaged in moving all of those forward now.

This is because I think we have a unique moment of consensus in the city, of all elements of the population, all age groups, all colors of skin, all nationalities, all faiths, saying ‘yes, let’s move ahead with police reform so we can have a restoration of faith in the police.’ I think that [trust] has been eroded to some extent in some corners of the city, and we’re looking for opportunities when we transfer cash away from the police to someone else like mental health professionals. So the police budget goes down, and the budget is created for the mental health professionals to do the job that they know best how to do. 

Looking beyond what’s been already proposed, what do you think still needs to be done to address anti-Black racism in our city?

I think a lot of it has to do with [what] I learned in the course I took, the anti-Black racism training that I said that all city employees were going to be subject to, I took it myself.  I learned there, perhaps better than I had learned elsewhere, about some of the hidden and sometimes unintentional obstacles that stand in the way of people advancing in their careers. 

In this case, they were talking about public service. I think that one of my big focuses is going to be on finding ways to make sure that our Black fellow citizens have access to all jobs. I think Black Torontonians are underrepresented in tech, for example, and they’re underrepresented in financial institutions—two of the biggest industries that we have in the city of Toronto. I think you’re now seeing movements afoot. By that I mean organizations that are committed to getting BIPOC people, so not just Black, but also Indigenous and people of color, plugged into the media world where they’re underrepresented—specifically our huge film industry, and also our financial services industry. 

I think once you get industries, the communities, and the governments working together to plug people in and get them on the ladder that they can then climb, then you’re going to start to both advance interests of our Black fellow citizens, but also you’re going to begin to wipe away some of the stereotypes and statements that lead to the sort of racism that you asked about.

Before we close, is there anything you would like to add?

Yes, and this is unsolicited advice, but I think what I would offer up here would be that we have to make a real effort to do two things: one is to continue to remain engaged in the political process and in the community. I believe that what is crucial to the well-being of liberal democracies is that you don’t just sort of vote once every four years, but that you stay involved with your community. I don’t mean necessarily being involved with politics per se. You can do that, but I mean staying involved in the community through some kind of a community organization or an organization that’s in some way helping or supporting people.

Secondly, I would say that the people at Yale—which provides you with such great promise for your own future and yet you earn your way in there—have a particular responsibility to just run 100 miles an hour the other way from the kind of bitterness and polarization and division that we see happening in many places of the world. It is counterproductive, it is not the way you build great cities and great countries, it is corrosive, it is harmful to liberal democracies and to progress, and it is pitting one group of people against another. In the end, that is not the way you’re going to make a country or a city stronger. 

I’ve spent a lot of time here fighting, pushing back against instances of hate, which we do see even in a city where we really respect diversity—we are the most diverse city in the world. I spent a lot of time raising awareness; we just started a new campaign, for example, last week, that raises awareness of racism against East Asian people, especially during the pandemic, particularly Chinese Canadians. This is the kind of thing where we have to push back against that, and I’m counting on people from Yale in that age group, and also people who are obviously going to get the benefits of probably one of the best educations in the whole world, to be people who stand up, speak up and show up to push back against that kind of thing. It’s very corrosive to all the things that we treasure, whether we’re Americans or Canadians, quite frankly.