No cookie-cutter when it comes to neighbourhood groups in West Toronto

[attach]3725[/attach]It’s unlikely the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had residents’ associations foremost in mind when he coined his memorable phrase “participatory democracy” in the late 1960s, but 40 years on, these ubiquitous organizations have largely fulfilled the former PM’s idea of grassroots activism.

Trudeau didn’t believe that only the duly elected should have a hand in public decision-making. There was a role for the unelected to influence how policies take shape and laws are crafted. Organize yourselves around a common issue, articulate your views and press elected public servants to follow suit — even if your agenda contradicts that of the government of the day.

Heck, there might even be public dollars available to help you along, according to the doctrine of participatory democracy.

In Toronto, that spirit manifested itself in the early 1970s when organized groups successfully blocked expansion of the Spadina Expressway — now known as the Allen Road — from steamrolling neighbourhoods as it carried traffic into the inner city.

Since then this city has witnessed the birth, growth and periodic death of dozens upon dozens of residents’ associations.

Nowhere is this more evident than the west end of the old city of Toronto where, in Wards 13 and 14 (Parkdale-High Park), there’s a veritable smorgasbord of residents’ groups all claiming a small patch of community turf in the name of defending neighourhood interests.

Some, like the venerable Swansea Area Ratepayers Association, have been a part of the community tapestry for decades.

Others, like the recently-formed Old Mill group rally around a singular issue; in this case the twin condominium project at the intersection of South Kingsway and Bloor St. W. where residents are now challenging the developer, Tridel Corp., at the Ontario Municipal Board.

The Parkdale Residents’ Association has a reputation for community activism, while others, like the Bloor West Village Residents Association, have adopted a more nuanced position that combines education with advocacy.

Meanwhile, groups like the Junction Residents Association like the idea of community building that helps breathe vitality into a once down-at-the-heels neighbourhood.

In short, when it comes to organized community groups in west Toronto, there is no cookie-cutter. Each reflect the flavour of its local constituency.

To the outside world, though, too many residents’ associations practise the dark art of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). They are in the business of opposition to change, whatever it might be. In this view, anything that upsets the status quo is fertile ground for combat.

While there might be some truth to this view in some circumstances the fact is that, at least in Wards 13 and 14, there have been no great anti-Spadina fights. In most instances, local residents’ groups tinker around the edges of established communities. A poke-in-the-eye on some occasions and a kick-to-the-shins on others.

It’s against this background that one welcomes the move, initiated by Swansea ratepayers, to federate a dozen or more local neighbourhood groups from Parkdale to west of the Humber River under one organized umbrella, much like the federation of North Toronto ratepayer organizations.

The move to federate recognizes that while purely local issues will always root us to our neighbourhoods, it will be the broader issues of transit, the environment and urban planning that, collectively, binds each of our communities to long-term urban sustainability.

It’s a move that an arch federalist like Pierre Trudeau would surely approve of.