Preston: Students need to make London ‘our city’

As an undergraduate at Western, I never much cared for local politics, in part because the politicians never seemed to be talking about things that mattered to life as a student. I guess I figured they were just a bunch of old, rich jerks doing old, rich jerk things. It was a world I couldn’t possibly imagine holding influence over.

Enter the University Students’ Council (USC). But that’s a story for another day.

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PRESTON

Everything changed for me during my master’s degree when I moved off-campus. I was forced to accept the reality of a much bigger world out there than the Purple and White. There was, in fact, a Forest City facing some pretty significant problems that needed young, creative minds to help tackle.

More than that, those old, crusty politicians weren’t quite as crusty as imagined and actually wanted to hear from the students. In fact, they’re desperate for our feedback.

Assuming you, like I was in undergrad, don’t particularly care about what is happening at city hall right now, allow me to bring you up to speed.

In 2010, Joe Fontana was elected as our mayor, largely with the help of a campaign promise to freeze our tax rates for the next four years without making significant cuts to programs or services. Since that time, council has been desperately cutting anything and everything to maintain this promise.

Now, in year two of his term, Mayor Fontana has already hit a snag. In order to hold the line on the tax freeze he proposed reducing funding to several key programs in London, most notably a $1-million cut to the Affordable Housing Reserve Fund and $500,000 to the Accessibility Retrofit fund. Unfortunately, even with the tremendous public outcry, including a council chambers jam-packed with frustrated citizens on Feb. 21, both of these cuts were passed with an 8-7 vote.

This defeat holds devastating consequences for London in the future. It will mean we have far less money to leverage matching funding from the provincial and federal government to build affordable housing units (something we don’t have nearly enough of) and we may not have enough money to pay for the millions of dollars of retrofits required to make London fully accessible by 2025, which is mandated under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. In two votes, eight councilors have voted to save Londoners a few bucks in taxes this year at the expense of isolating some of our most vulnerable citizens.

After the vote, there was a lot of hand-wringing and depression. People felt ignored and powerless. It didn’t seem to matter how many phone calls we made or how many letters we wrote, those who supported the tax freeze were going to vote for these cuts regardless of what their constituents wanted.

Some might even say this is the end of democracy as we know it.

But I don’t see it that way at all.

Call me foolish, but I see reason to be optimistic. This is our city, too. Even if we are “just students.”

Perhaps affordable housing and accessibility doesn’t directly affect us, but if we have learned anything at Western, it’s that community means something and, in a community, you take care of each other.

If this whole experience has shown me anything, it is, that much like our experiences making change on campus, we can exercise a tremendous amount of power in this city — even as students.

The problem is, until now, we never really exercised that power. Granted, we weren’t able to stop this round of cuts, but just think of the impact we can have on the next election simply by getting involved. Imagine what would happen if a student were elected on council?

By getting involved in local politics, we can have an even more profound impact than we do on campus through organizations like Society of Graduate Students and the USC. By paying attention, we can begin to change the conversation from what the city needs to cut to how much the city wants to spend.

More specifically, we can turn politics in London to look to the future, our future, and not simply living year-to-year.

Yes, some politicians are slimy, but in my experience they are only as slimy as the public will let them get away with. Through vigilance, correspondence, and discussion, we can keep these crooks honest. And more then that, we can change the conversation.

All it will take is a few minutes of your time to pick up the local paper, check out what’s going on, and forming a long and loving relationship with your city councilor.

They’d be happy to hear from you, I promise.

Jeffrey Preston is working on a PhD in Media Studies with the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, where he is researching representations of disability and media impact on the development of provincial accessibility policy. He is the writer of Cripz: A Webcomic.