Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

A word to the wise from Toronto: activism works

Remember Anika Tabovaradan? The teen made a passionate case to keep her library open at a Toronto City Council meeting. We can all take lessons from her.
Remember Anika Tabovaradan? The teen made a passionate case to keep her library open at a Toronto City Council meeting. We can all take lessons from her.

A word of advice to our American pals who are worried and scared about what’s going to happen after their new president gets sworn in this week: fight.

Advocate. Organize. Rabble-rouse. Raise hell. Speak directly to those in power and tell them what they’re doing is wrong.

Activism works. I was skeptical about that once, too dismissive of sign-wavers and petition-starters. But during my time covering Toronto, I have seen the value of people speaking truth to power again and again.

I think often about Anika Tabovaradan, who stepped up to a microphone in front of then-mayor Rob Ford in 2011. It was just about 2 a.m. at city hall, mid-way through what would be an all-night public consultation on the city’s finances.

“I’m not a director, I’m no president – I’m just a fourteen-year-old from Scarborough,” she said, before launching into a sobbing and defiant defense of her local library branch. Ford’s obsession with budget-cutting had put a slew of branches on the chopping block. Anika wasn’t standing for it.

“I’m no taxpayer, but when I use those computers in the library and do my homework, I’ll be able to get a good job someday, get some good education, so when the day comes to pay taxes I’ll be glad the people years before paid extra taxes to keep the system going,” she said.

The room broke into wild applause. The media wrote about her. Her library branch wasn’t closed.

Her story was just one of the many stories of successful activism during the tumultuous Ford years, where virtually every move made by the mayor was opposed by a grassroots effort.


It happened with transit, with waterfront development, with casinos, airports, and homeless shelters. And the activist efforts continue today with issues like pedestrian safety, police accountability and systemic racism.

Whether you plan to oppose a president or simply agitate for a stop light in your neighbourhood, there are lessons to be learned from these stories.

The most successful brand of activism is focused with laser-like precision on specific issues. Activists should arm themselves with a combination of unshakeable facts and stories of those who will be hurt by these policy decisions.

Most importantly, work the system. Instead of directing all efforts at the politician at the top of the chain, go to the players who have votes or influence. Let them know they can’t hide.

It’s not easy. Virtually every activist I’ve ever talked to – none of whom are directors, nor presidents – has said there are times when the odds feel insurmountable. It’s exhausting, frustrating and often terrible.

But the alternative to activism is unchecked power – and that, I promise, is so much worse.

This post was originally published at on 2017-01-16T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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