The city of Vaughan has many claims to fame: home to Canada’s Wonderland, the fastest-growing municipality nationwide, the largest without a hospital, and a spot to find a damn good veal sandwich. But all of these fine traits are often eclipsed by the mammoth that is Vaughan politics, a rancorous beast if there ever was one.
We’re now in the middle of yet another race, the fourth in less than a year. As the political gates swing open, eyes from across the province will be watching closely as the election unfolds here.
Politics is good, but not when it becomes an all-consuming attention grabber that overshadows everything else happening in the city. As an astute observer of Vaughan politics, I’ve noticed how through the years the city has been inexorably linked with its politicians and become a lightning rod for bad press. But what is often overlooked among the political antics in Vaughan is the civic engagement of its citizens.
Vaughan is a special city. When compared to other municipalities in York Region, only in Vaughan do residents discuss and dissect stories minutes after they make their way to the Twittersphere. Only in Vaughan would you expect overzealous resident activists to sleuth the streets to pick up $1,000 lunch receipts and catch unsuspecting councillors in handicapped parking spaces. Only in Vaughan do you have three fairly well read, competing publications that are routinely picked up.
It is clear that many residents care about what is happening in Vaughan. Not that Torontonians do not, but in the sleepy town of Markham, for instance, you’d be hard pressed to find that level of interest in politics.
During the last municipal election, the contrast was striking. While Ward 5 Thornhill became a painful-to-the-eyes-but-encouraging hodgepodge of blue, green and orange election signs its counterpart in Markham had few signs at all, and those erected were mostly in support of the incumbent. There was also only half the number of candidates running in the Markham side of Thornhill.
The mayoral campaign in Markham was fairly ho-hum, with all the same candidates from 2006, minus one. Frank Scarpitti cruised to victory with 85 percent of the vote. Maybe that’s a testament to his ability to govern for three years without a property tax hike. Or, maybe Markham politics just isn’t that engaging. And despite the fact that it was the first municipality in Canada to introduce online voting, turnout in the early voting period actually dropped in 2010 from 2006.
So what is it about Vaughan politics that implores its citizens to take part in the civic arena? Is it just that the city has had so much unsavoury news coverage in the past — and more than enough controversy — that residents feel an obligation to keep their eye on the political ticker? Or is there something more to it?
To me, Vaughan is still searching for its identity. There was the sad attempt at defining itself as “The City Above Toronto”, a motto that backfired. It was perceived as pompous by many in the mainstream media, who decided to instead define us by the political circus they observed and gave us the moniker “The City Above the Law”.
But those of us who work and live in Vaughan know there is much more to this city. Ultimately, the city will be a model of success when it is no longer characterized by those from outside its walls as a city defined by its politicians, but by a city defined by its citizens.