A Year of Lessons

Saadia Muzaffar
Nov 1 · 7 min read
Sula enjoying the Toronto waterfront— October 2018

On a sopping Hallow’s eve, I’m reminded that its been just over a year since I submitted my resignation from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, and a full two years since their announcement of partnering with Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs. A lot has happened in between, and also somehow, not nearly enough. Notably, the Waterfront Toronto board voted unanimously to proceed with evaluating Sidewalk Labs’ proposal further after negotiating some major realignments.

Like many residents demanding transparency, respect, and accountability of process during this time, I have learned a lot. I am holding space for what my favourite teacher, Mr. Zingrone, taught me:

The right questions matter more than answers.

Where should we go from here?


Its almost winter again. Just like last year, and the year before that, our city’s homeless will face brutal weather conditions, shelters will be at capacity, with not enough warming centres or safe injection sites. Last year, in the sweltering heat of Toronto’s summer (hello climate change!), the city decided to eliminate cooling centres. The most vulnerable in our city aren’t safe in the most vulnerable of times. The shelter numbers from yesterday show there is nowhere for people to go.

This past year has also been an election year in Canada and my ears are still bleeding from how many times I heard about the reification of the “middle class”. Middle class is not a thing, a fluff term most frequently used as an “aspirational” alternative to avoid talking about poverty or poor people’s needs, one that also serves to hide our cultural reticence to acknowledging the role of the wealthy in this growing inequality.

Many have pointed to this glaring erasure in the whole discourse around Sidewalk Labs’ pitch to Toronto too. Who is this “smart” city for? Are the “innovations” proposed solving any of the urgent issues identified by Toronto’s residents themselves? “5% deeply affordable housing” is the only thing that came close and yet we were provided no context in any materials on how many units that actually means? How are we to negotiate in the dark?

At a Toronto Community Benefits Network event in September, Alejandra Ruiz-Vargas reminded us that many organizations have done the work with residents to figure out clear and defined priorities for our city to invest in. There have been consultations, there are recommendations, and there are plans waiting for approvals and urgently-needed resourcing. The needs to be addressed are profound and fundamental — particularly those of low-income or working-poor folks, disabled people, and seniors who need affordable housing.

She recalled when Sidewalk Labs showed up two years ago, so much civic and institutional attention swayed immediately to either enabling or evaluating that project. What does that say to people who are facing eviction or enduring poor living conditions, that we are so quick to engage in debating whether we want a “smart” city in Toronto or not, while they have no way to know whether they will be able to afford a roof over their families’ heads next month? How do we develop an abiding consciousness as a city about poverty in our communities and the factors that enable this persistent and growing inequity? How do we enrich our civic imagination to believe that a city that prioritizes taking care of its most vulnerable, is a city that works for everyone else too?


I read yesterday that Quebec will introduce a “values test” for new immigrants starting January 1, 2020. The federal government also has a citizenship test that newcomers need to pass. Momentarily parking the fact that many Canadian-born people would fail both these “values tests” - since we are so keen on “screening” and “evaluating” and being “selective” about who belongs here — what is our “values test” for vendors we are looking to do long-term business with, especially for publicly-funded projects? Where is the rigour of testing if a vendor has a good track record of delivering what they are promising (or a track record of ever having delivered anything at all)? Do we screen for their reputation when it comes to data/contract breaches? How about case studies demonstrating good partnership with other publicly-funded institutions? Is the vendor transparent, clear, and accountable to public processes for taxpayer-funded opportunities? How do we evaluate this based on their history? And where can the public find this assessment BEFORE a deal for taxpayer-funded development is signed?


So much of the economic development narrative in this deal was designed to sow divisions in our communities by attempting to pit residents in favour of jobs versus people who were cautioning against the vendor’s conduct, history, and business model. The most discouraging thing was to watch how our current political system (with its low bar in scrutiny when it comes to that political catnip of jobs!jobs!jobs!) and four-year electoral cycles addicted to announcing-new-things enables this perpetual let-down that is borne solely by the people of our city. I saw community members and union reps grapple with the very real needs of relatively short term but essential gains (site jobs) and long term implications (surveillance) — being forced to choose between these two is a profoundly unfair civic betrayal that our governments allowed to happen without sufficient pushback. Whose responsibility is it to frame trade-offs clearly for public consideration?

How do we raise expectations about what kinds of jobs we want in our city? We know platform corporations like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have a terrible track record when it comes to treating their workers fairly. They have exploitative, tiered systems (the lower tiers mostly consisting of racialized and immigrant workers) and deny their contractors (more than half of Google’s workforce) benefits, information access, and equal pay compared to their full-time workers.

What is the logic behind trusting this type of vendor to be the “catalyst” that would create “thousands of good jobs” when their own house is on fire? What will it take for our elected officials to demand clarity around exactly what kinds of jobs will be created so we can separate conjecture and marketing (hundreds of jobs! thousands!) from facts (are these net new jobs or are you really just consolidating your various offices into one “campus”?)


I’m hearing people praise how Sidewalk Labs spent “thousands of hours” on working this deal. I’m hearing that they deserve “credit”, because they had to scale back and that must’ve been hard. I would like to know who holds the ledger for the time, reputational risk, and Sisyphean effort it took from Toronto residents to call for accountability and try to piece together the details of a secretive, deeply flawed deal structure — one designed to obfuscate with its vagueness, plain lies, and closed meetings - for TWO YEARS? Who is keeping track of what the cost has been for people working in public service at all three levels of government, while most of our elected officials played chicken with Sidewalk Labs?

This compulsion to insert ahistorical and dishonest “civility” is a problem that plagues Canadian discourse in particular. There is no nobility in helping a manipulative business vendor launder their reputation by doing this. The decision to circumvent due process is a choice, and an anti-democratic one at that. A vendor that has shown contempt for public demands for transparency and due process does not deserve to be coddled like a toddler and given conciliatory praise — doing so whitewashes their conduct throughout this time as fair and acceptable, when it has been neither. As part of public accountability, I would like to know what Waterfront Toronto has learned from this debacle thus far that other cities can use as a cautionary manifesto? I also believe the people of Toronto are owed a ‘Lessons Learned’ report before the end of next year.


Trying to read the public-facing demeanour of Waterfront Toronto; an entity appointed as a steward of public interest and in charge of negotiating a good deal for Toronto, has been an exercise in frustration for residents. It should not have taken 20+ months and a new board chair to assert who needs to be in charge of how this process unfolds (grateful for Steve Diamond’s leadership now, but my word that road has been painful).

I look at this, and wonder how do we restore residents’ faith in our public institutions when the public consultation process was willingly compromised by being handed to a vendor? How do we counter the inept weariness towards our politics and politicians, when so few demonstrated the courage to ask tough questions or back residents and experts who were already doing so? How do we accept and wield the power we have when negotiating with vendors that out-flank us in sheer $$$ muscle? How do we create wariness around sly vendors borrowing civil society’s social capital, and manufacturing their “endorsements” in exchange for shamefully small grant monies, as Sidewalk did with great success in Toronto?

How do we set the table so that we always have clear, fool-proof exit ramps? How do we learn to say “no” and not get that confused with institutional performances of being amenable/civil? How do we put some checks in place for our infatuation with “reaching a middle ground”?

And in all of this, how do we make our democracy something we talk about every day? Because make no mistake, that’s what is really at stake when vendors like Google, Facebook and Amazon want to privatize governance. How do we create literacy around the interrogation of how our public institutions are functioning, and do it in a way that is accessible to everyday people? How do we give our institutions confidence to call for slowing down when we don’t have the right guardrails to guide something new? What is our media’s role in framing a situation with healthy skepticism and not falling for the dazzle of sophisticated corporate PR that hobbled so much of Sidewalk-related local reporting for the *longest* time? How do we make democracy something that is understood as alive and needs tending to? How do we hold our elected officials’ feet to the fire the very next day after an election when it comes to their promises for the safety and well-being of residents?

Democracy dies in darkness. Its time to charge our solar floodlights.

Written by

Tech Entrepreneur | Founder @TechGirlsCan | Cofounder http://TechResetCanada.org | Board @endVAWnetwork | In @FortuneMagazine @GlobeAndMail @VICE @CNNMoney @CBC

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