It’s time we raise our expectations for our city’s budget

Open Letter to Toronto City Council

January 15, 2021


It’s 2021. Toronto’s budget must tackle inequality.

This is no time for business as usual at City Hall.

As Mayor John Tory and Councillors ponder the next municipal budget, our city’s decision-makers need to be brave, and bold.

The draft 2021 budget presented yesterday fails to respond to the dire emergency impacting communities across our city.

Since last March, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed our city to us as never before. In the shadows of gleaming office towers, we see tent cities. In the midst of incredible wealth and comfort, we see poverty and distress.

Inequality and systemic racism are defining our city. We can no longer let this continue.

So much is at stake for so many community members: For persons with disabilities. For members of Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities. For women. For youth. For seniors. For essential workers and for those who have lost jobs. For all who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Our city faces many challenges, and the 2021 budget is a unique opportunity to tackle them as part of the pandemic rebuild. With insight, compassion, and energy, we can make the changes we’ve needed for so long. We propose that the Mayor and Council do three things in their budget deliberations:

  • First, focus on inequality. Council must identify new spending to tackle the inequality crisis, and make sure the scale of investment matches the scale of the problem.

  • Second, focus and move resources to where they are needed most. This is especially important with regard to community-led alternatives to policing that will make life safer for persons with disabilities; for Black, Indigenous, and racialized community members; for the LGBTQ2S+ community; for people experiencing gender-based violence; and for people with lived experience of mental health issues.

  • Third, develop a budget based on what our community needs during this crisis. Some voices in the budget debate will demand that we ignore great suffering in order to balance the budget. Instead, we urge you to listen to residents who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and ongoing inequities. We encourage you to make the needed investments and balance the budget through “assumed revenues” from the provincial and federal governments, even if those revenues are not yet committed.

We’d like to draw attention to the 10 principles for a bold, green, and just Toronto, which were communicated to Council in April 2020 (summarized in the Appendix). Thousands of residents and organizations took part in the Toronto Office of Recovery and Rebuild’s (TORR) process to create a vision for truly building back better in Toronto. The 2021 budget summary, released yesterday, all but ignores the vision articulated by communities and residents through this work. We ask Council to try again to better align the budget with this vision.

As part of this work, we also urge the City to adopt three lenses to guide the budget decisions:

  • Equity, with an intersectional perspective: Decisions must consider race, gender, disability, economic status, and age.

  • Indigenous self-determination: Services developed by and for Indigenous people are a critical component; the City must not simply provide equitable access to colonial systems.

  • Climate: an existential threat is posed by the climate emergency.

As the pandemic grinds on, our Mayor and Councillors must bring their most courageous selves to the budget table. This is no time for half measures or mere good intentions.

Governments at all levels have recognized the need for exceptional measures during the pandemic. In December 2020, the federal and provincial governments funnelled an additional $1.2 billion to the city to help address pandemic-related shelter and transit costs. That support helped avert a financial crisis. Our provincial and federal governments know that supporting municipal systems and services is key to protecting the health and well-being of Canadians. City decision-makers must continue to insist that higher orders of government, with the revenue streams to support our city, provide the necessary funding to fill operating and capital gaps and to enhance investments.

City Council has relied on assumed revenues to balance the books in the past. On two occasions, when confronted with extraordinary costs associated with refugee settlement supports, Council passed a balanced operating budget that assumed it would get $45 million in 2019 and $77 million in 2020 from the federal government — funds that had not yet been approved. The TTC’s 2021 budget already assumes funding from other levels of government will cover their extraordinary pandemic-related costs. Council needs to be bolder in assuming revenues for vital services and in its negotiating position and should not address shortfalls by drawing from its under-resourced capital budget.

Council must also commit to expand programs and redesign systems at the scale needed to start addressing the racial disparities of the pandemic, the death toll of seniors in long-term care, the lack of supports for persons with disabilities and people on fixed incomes, and the climate emergency. Given years of chronic under-investment in community infrastructure and social supports, these needs are large and include:

  • Civilian crisis response programs must replace our expensive and too-often-harmful policing responses to people experiencing mental health crises. Investing $150 million in safe beds, consumer/survivor initiatives, and other crisis services could move us quickly toward community-led alternatives.

  • Over-policing of Black, Indigenous, and racialized youth must end. For $65 million, the City could double the number of youth hubs and youth outreach workers and also provide peer mediation and alternative conflict-resolution supports in all Toronto secondary schools. Such peer-led and community-led supports would work better and cost less than what the city does now.

  • Addressing homelessness through policing is not working. For $100 million, we could significantly expand homeless outreach, drop-ins, and safe consumption sites, and help more homeless Torontonians make the transition to supportive and affordable housing.

  • Gender-based violence has increased during the pandemic. For $25 million we could expand programs to support survivors and fund transformative justice to prevent future violence.

  • The $860 million in support that the City is assuming from the provincial and federal governments in 2021 will contribute to important transit, road, housing, and environmental projects (creating jobs and economic spinoffs, when work is safe to proceed). However, that level of support is not enough to support investments in services, programs, and infrastructure to address the urgent, unmet health and survival needs of residents during the pandemic, nor to begin the planned recovery.

  • The threat of climate change is not abating: a key learning from the current pandemic is that there is an unacceptably high human cost to inadequate preparation for crises (health or climate related). Progress on Toronto’s climate emergency commitments was largely delayed in 2020, and the proposed 2021 budget for the lead climate department — Environment and Energy Division — is $2.5 million (or 17%) below the previously projected spending level. We must not lose another year in tackling the climate crisis. Effective and equitable climate action can protect residents, generate benefits for communities, and create good green jobs.

  • The child care crisis must be addressed. The City's licensed child care growth strategy needs to continue, and be modernized and expanded to provide the benchmarks, costs, and direction for new funding. The Safe Restart funding provided by the federal government was meant to sustain nonprofit child care programs. However, the City needs to provide further funding dedicated to operating costs, increase affordability for families, provide decent work/wages for early childhood educators, expand inclusion for all young children, and expand nonprofit child care programs. Twenty-seven child care centres have permanently closed since the initial mandated closures in March 2020. Forty remain closed with no known reopen date. Without significant funding from the City, and bold advocacy from the City to the provincial government, child care centres will continue to close permanently.

  • If other orders of government do not provide appropriate funding to address the budget shortfall, the City plans to gut the capital plan for essential infrastructure. This will set the city back a decade or more and reduce the employment and economic benefits from needed infrastructure projects. Council needs to immediately take that option off the table.

Looking ahead, Toronto City Council must continue to advocate for funding from other levels of government. However, in addition Council must not hesitate to raise additional revenues in ways that push back against inequality.

Recovering from COVID-19 and building back better calls for a bold vision and must include major, transformative investments. It is time to raise our expectations for our city’s budget.

Toronto depends on it.


Access Alliance Multicultural Health & Community Services

Afghan Women’s Organization Refugee and Immigrant Services

Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic

Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre

Black Legal Action Centre

Canada Centre for Policy Alternatives (Ontario)

Centre for Connected Communities

Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter


Communities for Zero Violence

Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA)

Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services

East Scarborough Storefront

Empowerment Council 

Faith in the City

FCJ Refugee Centre 

Findhelp | 211 Central

Good Jobs for All Coalition

GTA Disability Coalition

Health Providers Against Poverty

KCWA Family and Social Services

Labour Community Services

Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services

North York Community House

North York Women’s Shelter

Open Policy Ontario

Parkdale Activity – Recreation Centre

Progress Toronto

Redwood Shelter

Rexdale Women’s Centre

Scadding Court Community Centre

Shelter & Housing Justice Network

Social Planning Toronto

South Asian Women’s Centre 

Syme Woolner Neighbourhood and Family Centre

The Centre for Independent Living in Toronto

The Neighbourhood Group    

Times Change Women’s Employment Service


Toronto & York Region Labour Council

Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council (TASSC)

Toronto Community for Better Child Care

Toronto Drop-In Network

Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA)

Toronto Neighbourhood Centres

Toronto Police Accountability Coalition

Toronto Public Library Workers Union – Local 4948

Toronto Seniors’ Forum

Toronto Youth Cabinet

Trinity-St Paul's Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts

TTC Riders

Urban Alliance on Race Relations

West Neighbourhood House

West Scarborough Neighbourhood Community Centre

Windermere United Church

Woman Abuse Council of Toronto (WomanACT)

Working Women Community Centre

YWCA Toronto

Zero Gun Violence Movement


Appendix: 10 recommended principles for a bold, green, and just recovery for Toronto:

  1. For best results, ensure the recovery and rebuilding process is transparent and community-led.
  2. Make evidence-based decisions, informed by disaggregated race-based and sociodemographic data collection.
  3. Advocate immediately and powerfully to secure a New Deal for Toronto from our federal and provincial governments
  4. Fast-track and improve Toronto’s existing strategies, plans, and commitments in Toronto’s recovery and rebuilding plans, in order to build a more equitable, healthy, and climate-resilient city.
  5. Invest in, protect, and centre workers in recovery and rebuilding plans.
  6. Prioritize low-carbon infrastructure, social procurement, and equitable local job creation in recovery and rebuilding.
  7. Invest in public and community ownership of land and housing to ensure everyone is permanently housed, local food production is increased, and jobs are created.
  8. Support and sustain the community infrastructure that has developed in response to COVID-19 for ongoing response and recovery work.
  9. Encourage and prioritize community support, and discontinue programs that increase surveillance and harm social cohesion and solidarity.
  10. Make permanent and expand the public supports and services that have been put in place to respond to this pandemic, rather than cut services.


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