The City of Toronto defines public engagement as "all the ways in which the City interacts with the public every day to build relationships and to seek and receive input and advice on its programs, policies and services. Individuals, businesses, organizations and groups can offer feedback and expertise in many ways.... Public participation helps strengthen the relationship between the City and the public, and shapes Toronto’s policies, programs, and services to meet the diverse needs of Torontonians."
In 2021, the City began a review of its public engagement methods "to consider ways to deliver more inclusive, accessible and relevant engagement with the public, particularly Indigenous, Black and equity-deserving communities."
This year’s budget process introduced some notable improvements to engaging with the public. The City held a number of pre-budget consultation meetings in November — before the launch of the budget. The City distributed a survey that engaged 10,802 people with questions about budget priorities. In addition, the City funded 15 resident groups and organizations to run their own consultations with groups that faced economic and social barriers (including a group of resident leaders that we engaged) and funded the Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council (TASSC) to survey Indigenous-serving community organizations.
While the City provided its own summary of the public consultations, we wanted to give voice to what we heard from communities, particularly Indigenous, Black, racialized, immigrant, and low-income residents, and people with disabilities — those who have historically been, and currently are, often excluded from consultation processes and decision-making tables.
We heard from communities that their top priorities were:
- affordable housing, shelters, and social housing (TCHC)
- community centres and spaces, parks, and recreational programming
- food security and poverty reduction
- employment opportunities and decent work
- youth services and supports, and violence prevention programs
- public transit (TTC)
- newcomer services and supports
- grassroots leadership and organizations
- harm reduction
- Indigenous services and service provision
- climate justice
This contrasts somewhat with, and adds additional useful information to, the top three choices identified by those who completed the City’s survey (of multiple choice questions). They chose affordable housing and shelters (37%), TTC and Wheel Trans (13%), and police services (10%).
Similar to the City’s survey, where 43% of respondents wanted to see decreased investments in police services, an overwhelming number of community voices we heard also called for a reduction in the police budget. We also heard calls to reallocate those funds towards community services, youth programs, violence prevention, and non–police-led crisis response programs and mental health supports.
Equity Means Listening Most Closely to Those Most Impacted by Unequal Systems
The map (on p. 11) of the City’s survey respondents reveals that the majority of participants were from the downtown core and fewer were from the inner suburbs and/or Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. It’s vital to note that though the City held a robust public engagement process, it may still not be fully representative of communities most in need.
Furthermore, in November the Toronto Police Association launched a targeted outreach campaign encouraging members of the public to participate in the City's survey. Through postcards delivered across the City (for thousands of dollars) and posts on X (formerly Twitter), the Association made statements such as “If you want police to be there when you call, tell Mayor Chow you want a budget that supports adequate and effective policing.” Regardless of whether the Association’s campaign factored into high support for police investments in the City’s survey results, we raise an important question about data integrity: How can we ensure that data from equity deserving communities is accurately reflected in public engagement documents and remains at the forefront of municipal decision-making? How can we continue shaping our own narratives alongside the City’s public engagement process around the budget?
SPT has connected with many of the community organizations that led pre-budget consultations. Many of the participants and organizations felt that the pre-budget consultations were a step in the right direction to ensure that the experiences of low-income and equity deserving communities are considered when developing the City’s $17B budget. But they also noted the following:
- No matter how the City engages community in the budget, it’s crucial for community organizations and resident groups to shape their own narratives and data around the budget.
- Data from equity deserving groups need to drive City budget priorities and be represented prominently in City reports.
- Since the New Deal announcements, the City has placed a lot of emphasis on communities needing to advocate to senior orders of government to fill the City’s funding gaps — but the City must also take ownership and responsibility to come up with creative solutions to fill these gaps.
- Community members expressed feeling weary of being tokenized to serve the City’s agendas after many years of feeling ignored.
- Engaging with community requires consistent follow-up and long-term trust-building and accountability.
- Resident groups and grassroots organizations have been advocating for years for equity in the City’s budget, and their efforts should be recognized as City Council moves forward with investments and priorities to address historical inequities.
- Budget documents need to be made more accessible for community members to understand, and the City should help communities understand the budget in a more concerted way.
- The pre-budget survey design should have been more flexible and allowed for more than one response regarding budget priorities.
- The survey should have avoided closed questions resulting in "yes" or "no" answers.
- Pre-budget consultation processes need to provide more time for community groups to summarize and submit their data, and provide clear instructions on how to do so.
- Follow-up efforts by the City need to be considered after community leaders participate in deputations; historically, many of them have not felt heard through this process.
Prioritizing Indigenous Voices
The Toronto Aboriginal Services Council's (TASSC) pre-budget consultation summary noted that the City’s budget engagement process did not include the capacity to disaggregate the findings to filter for Indigenous-specific views and voices. So TASSC led its own process, which went beyond the City’s predetermined areas of interest.
In the TASSC process, Indigenous services was one of the top priorities for City investments, next to affordable housing and shelters. Truth, justice and reconciliation, equitable access, and affordability were highlighted as top reasons to support these investments. TASSC members also expressed interest in seeing an equity based, community driven budget table to facilitate more meaningful engagement with community partners in future budget cycles. This is a great example of a group that has taken the City’s budget process into its own hands and placed an emphasis on improving data integrity for equity.
Finally, it’s important to note that many of the community groups we heard from did not receive funding from the City yet still went to the effort to organize their own pre-budget consultations with vulnerable populations. The nonprofit and community services sector has more often than not supplemented and subsidized the City's public engagement efforts. Looking forward to next year’s budget process, we hope that the City will invest in further funding and accessibility for public engagement processes led by, and for, equity seeking groups and grassroots and community organizations.
Image by storyset on Freepik