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Philip Preville: Shark fins, pet store puppies, plastic bags—why Toronto city councillors like to ban things

Philip Preville: Big Ban TheoryRob Ford’s victories rarely last. In fact they only become more stunted as his mayoralty lurches along. For his opening salvo in office he killed Transit City; less than two years later it was reborn. Now his wins can be measured
in minutes.

On June 6, council approved Ford’s proposal to end the five-cent fee on plastic shopping bags. Before he had time to gloat, council members promptly voted to make Toronto the first major Canadian city to prohibit plastic grocery bags altogether. Starting next year, Toronto retailers will provide customers with paper bags.

Ford’s objection to the bag ban is quite simple: he’s a conformist. He wants Toronto to quit messing with the rules all the time and act normal like everyone else. It’s this aspect of his personality that chafes so gratingly against the city he ostensibly rules. Toronto likes to be an early adopter of righteous urbanist innovation, a forward-thinking, environmentally and socially progressive bastion of creative-classist policy-making. Our avant-gardisme has become part of
our identity.

When council voted to ban the bags—which it did rashly, without any research or consultation—its damn-the-torpedoes approach went against Toronto’s penchant for thoughtful deliberation. But the idea of a ban met with broad acceptance anyway because it felt right. It fit the mould. And therein lies the problem. The ban wasn’t about bags at all. It was about identity politics. It was the Exceptional City sticking it to Mayor Hoser. Unfortunately, it’s doomed to fail.

Toronto has been on a vigorous run of progressive policy-making over the last decade. At times, this city has been the first to permit new and worthy things, such as same-sex marriages, for which it issued the first licence in North America on June 10, 2003. On other occasions, Toronto has gone a step further and made worthy new things compulsory, such as green roofs on new buildings over 2,000 square metres (which it did last April, a first in North America) or household waste separation (the green bin program celebrates its 10th anniversary this fall). But mostly, Toronto likes to ban bad things.

Lately, council has been on a badness-banning binge. Last year, it forbade the sale of shark fins and the sale of mill-bred cats and dogs in pet stores. Two years ago, the city restricted the practice of idling a parked vehicle’s engine to 60 seconds, which, compared with the previous three-minute limit, is as close to an outright ban as it can get. In 2008, Toronto banned the sale of bottled water in city facilities. Five years before that, Toronto was among the first Ontario municipalities to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides. The city also has long-standing—and not especially progressive—bans against street hockey and just about any street food other than hot dogs.

Toronto isn’t the only Canadian municipality on the ban-wagon. The plethora of recent embargoes in Mississauga (which included shark fins and mill-bred puppies) earned it the moniker of “Canada’s nanny state” from the pro–nanny state Toronto Star. More broadly, ever since 2001—the year the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that municipalities could ban the use of non-essential pesticides—cities have been pushing the envelope of the forbidden, banning everything from teen tanning to ice cream truck
calliope music.