Globe and Mail journalist John Allemang ’74 speaks with Toronto Mayor John Tory ’75 on the best view in the city, putting traditions in their place, and the Trinity of the ’70s
by John Allemang
The first thing John Tory did as Mayor of Toronto was to order that the curtains in his office be kept open. His elusive predecessor, Rob Ford, preferred them closed.The result is that when I arrive to chat with him, we both stare wistfully at the City Hall skating rink and talk about his dream of driving the Zamboni—which is not exactly the future I would have predicted for him when we were young.
John and I overlapped at Trinity, but we first met at University of Toronto Schools—UTS—in the 1960s, back when it was a jacket-and-tie boys’ school. For two people who had these highly academic, even elitist, institutions in common, we couldn’t have been more different. Or so I thought.
John struck me as the quintessential well-connected WASP from a dynastic family, someone who was inclined to join the Young Conservatives in a student- radical era. I was a suburban kid with a hard-to-place surname whose need to rebel against authority bordered on self-destruction.
In retrospect, I probably envied John’s serene sense of belonging, his easy-going adaptability. By the time I got to Trinity, attracted there by schoolmates’ stories of its intellectual brilliance, I was weary of the constant political fight and decided to remake myself into a somewhat monastic scholar of Latin and Greek. John, meanwhile, was already a political operative at Queen’s Park with an aura of ambition and a healthy distrust of libraries. My attempts at profundity probably looked a little too nerdy to him.
I’d like to think that we finally met each other halfway. Decades later, in large part because of our educational affiliations but also because of a matching restlessness, we’ve ended up in jobs and headspaces that aren’t so different. Neither of us, it turns out, felt we fitted in with Trinity’s abiding sense of tradition.And in spite of that, both of us continue to live off the intense education we got there—one as a player at the centre of things, the other as a not-entirely-detached observer.
John, you’ve turned into a 24/7 mayor. I seem to see you everywhere: talking to people on the subway, skating around the city rinks in your Leafs sweater, being present at the vigil for a young boy who died in the cold. What makes this job non-stop for you?
Well it’s non-stop for two reasons. I don’t sleep very much—five-and-a-half hours a night. Which leaves a lot more time to do things. So if I have the time, I suggest to my team that they fill it.
That’s me. Then there’s the job. The job has two elements. There’s the substantive part, sitting in meetings, dealing with issues, which is the part people don’t see. Then there’s the community part— going to events, announcing things about ice rinks, or going to the vigil. A lot of people in the community who wanted to be there weren’t able to be there. I’m the mayor, so I’m there on behalf of all those people, to show support for the family. You have those two sets of demands and it makes for a very visible job.
JA: Has anything surprised you so far?
JT: It’s the incredible visibility and the degree to which people know who the Mayor is. I was a party leader in provincial politics, but the number of people who approached me in the street was infinitesimal compared to this. When I take
Tory on Trinity s extraordinary teaching” and extraordinary classes”: “Trinity taught me to think. the subway to work in the morning, it’s inevitable that I end up in a very pleasant conversation with people who say hello and they all have something they want to say about the city—about the traffic, the commute, housing.
JA: Is there a risk that when you shift from feel-good photo-ops to conversations about policy, your role turns divisive?
JT: I didn’t run for the job to do photo-ops. I ran for the substantive part and the photo-ops go with that. You come to accept the fact early on that policy is in some way divisive in an environment where there’s no party structure and you have to form a new coalition every day. There are always people opposed to something you’re doing. But in a strange way the two are connected, because the outside part is an important part of keeping the confidence of Council. If they see people are generally supportive of what you’re trying to do, it impacts on your ability to get things done here, at City Hall.
JA: Let’s shift to a more basic question. What made you go to Trinity?
JT: It’s interesting, because I’m not an Anglican.…. I had a dozen friends going there from UTS, which is probably one of the least valid reasons you could use for picking anything. And secondly, it was seen to be the hardest to get into. So I thought, why wouldn’t you want to go to the one that was the hardest to get into, because that would be the best one.
It was nothing to do with any of the Trinity traditions. I was blissfully unaware of them when I signed up. To be honest, I loved my time there, but did any of that traditional stuff mean much to me when I was there? Not really.
I remember the cake fight like it was yesterday. It’s still vivid, and that’s just the ridiculous part of the College’s traditions. But when I say I have fond memories, it’s of sitting in the Buttery playing cards rather than putting on a gown and going to Strachan Hall.
What I really remember is the excellence of the professors. I took my Pol Sci 101 course at Trinity, right in the Larkin Building, and had Paul Fox as a professor. Just to have one of the most renowned political scientists in the country as your teacher, how does it get better than that? And Bob Bothwell, Canadian History— to this day I remember how captivating his classes were. I’m not a nerd and I had many other things I was doing while I was at Trinity outside the College. But to this day I remember how captivating it was to be in a class with just 10 people and this renowned Canadian historian.
JA: Do you see anything formative in your experience as a Trinity student?
JT: At UTS, they taught me how to communicate, because they made us get up every day and speak. Trinity taught me to think. You had this extraordinary teaching and these extraordinary classes. My interest in politics and history was already there, but Trinity solidified it. Law school, later on, was focused on preparing yourself for a career. Trinity did what a liberal-arts education is supposed to do, which is about opening your mind and allowing you to think about things.
JA: Didn’t you work for Bill Davis, the Premier of Ontario, while you were at Trinity?
JT: I did. One of the reasons I chose to go to U of T was because I had two jobs. When I finished UTS, I got a job as gofer at a downtown radio station, which has led to my lifelong interest in broadcasting. And of course I was very involved in politics. In my second year I went to work in the Premier’s office because an election was coming up. The Premier’s office was walking distance from Trinity, so I was able to have my cake and eat it too. University doesn’t take up your full day. You can sit in the library all day if you want to, but I chose never to do that. I just figured I would have missed out on all this other stuff I did in politics and broadcasting, which to me was fun.
JA: I read an interview you did with Salterrae, where you talked to students about the sheltered nature of the College, and the idea that their world should be a bigger place.
JT: I think it’s important. I speak to young people all the time, and I now say that what I call Page 3 of your resume is the most important page. Page 1 is where you’re educated, Page 2 is where you worked. Page 3 is, what else did you do? Were you an artist or an actor or an athlete or a musician or an activist? This is what separates you from everybody else who has a BA.
So yes, getting out of the somewhat sheltered environment of Trinity is important. You tend to get inward- looking and think it’s all about people in gowns having traditions. When in fact the world isn’t really like that. Traditions give you a sense of history and put you in perspective, but I don’t think you should get too wrapped up in them.
JT: When I’ve gone to the temple to be blessed—which mostly happened before and during the election—my feeling was that if you go through the ceremony then you should be respectful of the tradition, which says you leave the bracelet on until it falls off on its own. You can see there’s one wearing out now.
JA: And yet, people may still be surprised to see you wearing them—there are all these stereotypes about out-of-touch elitists like you and me who went to boys’ schools and went to Trinity.
JT: During the whole campaign for Mayor, I was portrayed as ineligible to serve because I’d gone to what were clearly establishment-type schools. And I’d been CEO of a big company and earned some money. And I came from the family I did. It’s part of my identity. But it wasn’t my entire identity, obviously, in the eyes of the voters. And there were also some voters who would have said, I like that this guy went to a serious school, studied seriously and became a lawyer and became an executive. I think that’s the kind of guy I’d like to have as mayor— especially after my predecessor.
At the same time, if you’re not prepared to accept the kind of discourse that goes on in politics, then you shouldn’t run.
JA: Was there ever a point when you felt you needed to break loose and stop being the kid who grew up in those privileged circumstances?
JT: From the earliest days at Trinity, I started to get involved in the community, in the United Way and things like that. And it took me out of the realm of the comfortable, which is what Trinity College would have to be included in, along with going to UTS and living in North Toronto. Because when you went to Thorncliffe Park and saw how people were struggling, you knew there was another world much bigger than the one you were in. And if you wanted to change the world, you’d better start there.
That experience galvanized me. I was raised to be concerned about these things but now I was actually going to do something about it. And by being an activist, even in the most modest sense, you can get something done.
(We pause for photographs, and John takes the opportunity to talk about the stack of papers sitting on his desk.) Here’s what I’ve been doing this afternoon. It’s a list of eight people who’ve had their water out, and I’ve been phoning them and going through their problems—most of which were customer-service oriented. None of them was protesting that it was a cold-weather problem, they all get that. It was that they call the City and no one can tell them anything. They said, even if you tell me it’s going to be fixed four days from now, at least I know. And I said, we should be able to arrange it so they can go online and find that information for themselves. So now we’ve got a SWAT team sitting down in our call centre.
JA: Isn’t this a case of micromanaging for someone in your position?
JT: No, it isn’t. The same process problem that exists for these people exists in multiple areas. Today it’s frozen pipes, tomorrow it’s a hydro blackout, the next day it’s basement flooding. This is the combined impact of a government that has not been modernized, just to use basic technology and basic concepts of how to serve people and give them the information they want. If you’re receiving thousands of calls about water, and reason you’re receiving so many is because frustrated people are calling back five times, you’re blowing a lot of money— compared with the cost of setting up a website where people can look up their own water problem and see that someone’s coming to fix it Tuesday at 8. So it’s not micromanaging, its learning what the problem is and doing something about it.
JA: I know you as a serious policy person, but apparently you’ve got a silly side. What’s this I hear about you going to Leafs games dressed as Abe Lincoln?
JT: I have no comment, John. But yeah, they have to make the playoffs for that to happen. Abe Lincoln’s been in storage for a number of years. I had two Leafs players with me to announce that the city’s outdoor rinks were going to stay open into March. And the media asked me, have you got any advice for them? I don’t have any advice for the hockey team, but I am an optimist. When I look out my window at that stage in the square, I know that before I finish here we’ll have a Stanley Cup celebration.
JA: Finally, thinking back to Trinity, I wanted to ask you how education fits into your work.
Other mayors have education as part of their bailiwick. You don’t have that power. But do you have thoughts about how education can be mobilized to redress inequality, improve accessibility or just generally make the city a better place?
JT: When I’m asked what I would like to say I’ve accomplished here, there are some tangible things like getting transit moving. But it’s all a means to an end. And the end is, we have to address the income-disparity issue, the neighbourhoods that are struggling—and the education part is key. Schools go beyond just a place where you educate people. They’re now a place where there are programs for seniors, childcare, all kinds of things.
I had a meeting with the four university presidents—U of T, OCAD, York and Ryerson. And the purpose of our discussion was, how can the city work with the universities? Because the two are so vital to each other in so many respects. They were saying to me, we have thousands of smart people, students and academics, who can help on almost any issue—and the city doesn’t use them.
Universities are an essential part of attracting innovative, risk-taking, start-up businesses to Toronto. We’re
now the third leading start-up location in North America, and one of the reasons is because of the rich academic infrastructure. Education, including both the schools and the post-secondary system, is a huge part of why I think we’re going to be successful going forward.
To take one example: the Rotman School at the U of T does case studies of the same issues we’re dealing with here at City Hall. Why wouldn’t I want to know their answers? There are lots of smart young people there, and if they had solutions to some of the woes we face running this place, I’d love to hear them.
But the views you’re going to hear will be contradictory. Because these are complicated issues that the city is facing, and people who want simple answers aren’t going to find them in the university world.
Nothing here is completely simple. But look at what I was talking about— the call centre and how you deal with problems. These things are actually fairly simple. And that’s the frustrating part. The simple things aren’t done right. You get immersed in trying to solve those, and it leaves you less time to deal with the really complicated things.
We’d gone far beyond our allotted 20 minutes, and the next item on the Mayor’s well-filled agenda had to be squeezed in. John and I, contemporaries from Trinity, don’t want to see ourselves as being out-of-touch or out-of-date. But reconnecting was a reminder that time had moved on, in the greater scheme of things as well.
“John, we’re of an age now,” said the Mayor, one 60-something to another. “The great thing, and you know the feeling, is that you develop a certain serenity, you don’t have to run around in a crazy way. I run around because I choose to run around. But you don’t have to—you can say, I’m at peace with myself.”
I’ve never felt at peace with myself. But I recognized the feeling he was describing, the sense of a full life that helps you rise above the daily fray.
“My goal,” I said, hoping not to sound too serious, but wishing that my ephemeral journalistic career had a serene end-point, “is to be the wise counsellor, dispensing advice.”
“We’re getting there, we’re getting there,” he answered. “I’m a grandfather, four times over. That’s the best of all. You don’t feel old being that. You just feel you’re out there, being recognized as the elder.”
— John Allemang