Pam McConnell left a huge legacy and a big project for her council colleagues: Keenan
There could be no more fitting a tribute than to see her anti-poverty plan carried on and see the goals behind it embraced.
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When John Tory first announced his team in 2014, his executive committee from among city councilors, I wrote a column about how he’d excluded downtown progressives from positions of influence.
Except Pam McConnell, whom he’d named a ceremonial deputy mayor.
It was a move about which I was dismissive: “One token gesture,” I called it. I said she and two other ceremonial deputies were “human props to be trotted out for events that require ribbon-cutting and civic-unity platitude uttering.”
Shortly after that, in a committee room at city hall, while I was chatting with another councillor, McConnell sneered at me from across the room: “I’m nobody’s window dressing,” she said.
In the wake of her death late last week, I’ve been thinking about how she was right about that.
She hasn’t been mere window dressing during John Tory’s term of office, and she wasn’t in her more than three decades of public service.
Instead, she leaves a formidable legacy that shaped her ward and the city.
By now, many who are most interested will have read many remembrances and appreciations of her life and work. These include, in a bit of charming eccentricity, Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun, who quoted Donald Trump’s 2012 take that “Pam was a tough negotiator,” and musician and writer Dave Bidini, who revealed that McConnell had been a friend of Neil Young’s and had a permanent spot on the guest list of every show he ever played, and a few of us who recalled how she was tackled (accidentally) by Rob Ford during a city council debate at the height of those scandalous years.
But McConnell was a serious presence at city hall and a deliberate speaker, not often a participant in the bits of monkey business and jokey banter that sometimes overtake that body during long meetings.
Her record as a city councillor was substantial.
Most of what you’d consider her legacy is in what she got done, much of it fixing mistakes of the past.
Remembrances in this newspaper and one by John Lorinc at Spacing magazine recalled her steady hand as chair of the police board during a turbulent time and her work to build a community centre in St. James Town after that neighbourhood had suffered years of neglect.
You can look at the new neighbourhoods that have started to spring up in the south end of Corktown and in the Distillery District to see her efforts at overseeing the building of vibrant places, communities with magnificent spaces in them.
The Corktown Common park, built by Waterfront Toronto in her ward, with her help, is a stunning example of a park that can be the centrepiece of a community. When it opened, it seemed scarcely possible to imagine penny-pinching Toronto had actually built a place that nice. The same could be said of the newly revamped Berczy Park and its dog-sculpture fountain, reopened just days before McConnell died.
Perhaps there’s no bigger example of her legacy, nor a more influential one, than Regent Park, Toronto’s largest housing project and its oldest. The project to redevelop those units and rebuild a community with private market units both financing the work and joining the neighbourhoood is one she worked on for years. She worked on a “social development plan,” as part of it, to ensure the neighbourhood would have the kind of resources and amenities that would enable its population to thrive, and help make it a great place to live.
McConnell believed in it enough that she, herself, bought a market-rent condo in the revamped Regent Park.
By every account, the pool and park she helped get built at the centre of the neighbourhood is wonderful.
The project, itself, has become a model for the revitalization of other neighbourhoods in the city.
Much of what she did could be a model for others, explicitly so in her biggest project as deputy mayor this term. John Tory gave her the task of preparing an anti-poverty strategy for the city, a project he said was his chief reason for being in public life and which both he and McConnell said countered the perception her appointment amounted to mere window-dressing.
Indeed, the poverty-reduction strategy she came back with, endorsed by most prominent social agencies and anti-poverty groups in the city, is no token gesture; it is a sweeping 20-year plan, containing 71 concrete proposals, adopted in principle by city council.
It is only partly implemented, and the prospect of fully funding it has sometimes been seen as a hurdle. “Aspirational,” Tory called it when it first passed in principle. Budget processes since have had nail-biting fights about whether the dollars would come through.
At a memorial service for McConnell on the weekend, Tory suggested the implementation of the rest of that plan should proceed to honour her memory. “Her real legacy will be the work she did to help other people,” he said. “We’ll have to move forward, and I think it will be an extra impetus behind this, knowing she would want us to implement (the poverty-reduction strategy) as quickly, and to do as much for people who are struggling, as we can.”
There could be no more fitting tribute to McConnell’s career than to see her plan carried on, and see the goals behind it embraced more fully by her colleagues every day at work.
She left quite a legacy. And a big incomplete project for her colleagues to complete. It is a great life’s work from a public servant, one it’s now up to others to carry on.
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