City Councillor AstroTurfing Makes A Mockery Out Of Toronto Democracy (Feat. Wong-Tam, Layton)

Krystyn Wong-Tam with ACORN AstroTurfers

Krystyn Wong-Tam with ACORN AstroTurfers

It’s been a while since I’ve watched City Hall in action, it’s almost always a great disillusionment. Today sounded like fun, Black Lives Matter Toronto promised to show up with a message for John Tory. I’ve been investigating the AstroTurf reality behind BLMT, so it seemed like a good opportunity to peek further behind the curtain.

I arrived early and the rotunda was still closed. With fond memories of city council’s painfully long Hero Burger debate of 2013, I headed outside and got myself one of their delicious hot chocolates. Hot drink in hand I headed up to the 1st floor for what looked like a media conference. Turned out it was ACORN Canada, an AstroTurfer’s AstroTurfer. They were accompanied by two city councillors and a representative from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW).

It’s a rare opportunity when two Astroturf events cross paths like this so I figured it would be an interesting afternoon. And I was right, it was seriously interesting, as it was also seriously disillusioning. I had a front-row seat, watching councillors make a mockery out of Toronto’s democracy. On Friday I witnessed what a sad, sick, joke our dysfunctional city council has become.

Some Background on ACORN:

Toronto city councillor Mike Layton with Alejandra Ruiz Vargas of ACORN Canada

Toronto city councillor Mike Layton with Alejandra Ruiz Vargas of ACORN Canada

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was an American NGO started by Wade Rathke, local 100 co-founder and former executive at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Rathke was also a founding member of the TIDES Foundation, a billionaire-backed NGO that exerts influence north of the border through their TIDES Canada subsidiary.

ACORN was a total shitshow in the US. Their downward spiral began when a journalist took secret videos while he played the role of a pimp and convinced their tax consultants to help cover earnings from his underage sex worker. Things got worse when ACORN staffers were criminally charged for submitting fraudulent voter registrations. It didn’t take much long after that for ACORN USA to go tits-up.

But while ACORN USA disappeared, their mothership ACORN International survived intact – and Rathke still appears to be at the helm. Their headquarters are in New Orleans and Toronto. ACORN Canada’s headquarters are also in Toronto at the same Danforth Avenue address as ACORN International.

So, basically, the Canadian chapter hasn’t fallen very far from the American tree.

ACORN’s speaker billed the organisation as “a national organisation of low-to-moderate income people who have been pushing for fair banking laws in Canada.” They also campaign for housing legislation, telecom legislation, and minimum wage. Curiously, most of their campaigns appear to be laser-aligned with the agendas of the labour movement (and hard-left members of the NDP).

This might be because ACORN gets a lot of money and support from the labour movement. The “people’s” movement has received backing from Unifor, OPSEU, the Ontario Federation of Labour, CUPE, ETFO, IBEW, NUPGE, PSAC, SEIU, the Steelworkers, and CUPW. In Vancouver ACORN has a partnership with the Vancity Credit Union.

As part of their effort keeping up “grassroots” appearances, ACORN asks members to donate monthly dues to help fight for the needs of the unions. Their recommended monthly amount is $15, but “members” are allowed to choose how much they pay. ACORN pays their organizers to bring new members together and build communities of membership fee payers.

City Hall’s Version of an “Omnibus Bill”:

ACORN's bill?

ACORN’s bill?

ACORN gathered at City Hall with city councillors Frances Nunziata and Kristyn Wong-Tam, a group of their members wearing the group’s trademark red t-shirts (it’s uncertain how many were paid), and Derek Richmond- a Scarborough-based national organizer with CUPW. There were a handful of journalists, a couple professional TV cameras, and yours truly.

They came to discuss City Hall agenda item MM17.8, an “omnibus bill” of sorts. The document’s titled purpose was for “Establishing Regulations and Minimum Separation Distances for Predatory Lenders,” but there were also five other motions tacked-on to the back of it:

  • Increase payday branches’ business licenses fees by 2-3 times current charges
  • Request the Province of Ontario to cap interest rates, improve documentation, and change lending practices
  • “Encourage” the financial services industry to create new services
  • Request the Government of Canada to add banking services to Canada Post
  • Forward a copy of the decision to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities

If you’re the observant type you’ve probably noticed the problem here. First, the proposal isn’t what it says on the title, a whole of other stuff was bundled in with it. Next, the taxpayers of Toronto don’t pay city councillors to campaign for the labour movement’s pet projects, and financial services regulations are the polar opposite of the city council’s remit to operate municipal infrastructure.

The speakers claimed that when payday loan offices cluster together it results in poor people “doubling down” on their loans by walking over to other lenders when they’ve hit their max at the first. Their solution is to social engineer the situation so that there must be a minimum distance between payday loan offices.

This sounds great on the surface, but there are a couple of problems with the idea. First, the clusters already exist and the proposed by-law would only apply to new offices. Next, in practice, this will likely only result in poor people having to travel further to apply for more loans. Wong-tam commented that people sometimes use the money for essentials like bus fare- under this bill’s intentions, that would cost them an extra $6.50 for the return trip.

There’s also the question, particularly considering the rhetoric of their press conference, of whether they’d get away with these changes if one of the payday loan companies challenged them in court. Wong-Tam claimed that payday loan companies are clustered “by design” so that they can take advantage of people in this way. The speaker’s repeated use of the phrase “predatory loans” shows a definite and very strong bias.

LEAPing Posties With AstroTurf Demands

Wait a minute Mr Postman

Wait a minute Mr Postman

Many years ago, before the days of the Internet, the postal worker’s union was a powerful force to be reckoned with. Canadians used to depend on postal service, any government who screwed-up their service was likely to be punished for it.  Things have changed these days and now the post office is struggling to justify its existence.

On February 29th Leap Manifesto maven Naomi Klein announced her proposal to “save” Canada Buggy whip Post by turning “postal offices into green community hubs to power Canada’s next economy.” The first part involves putting solar panels on post offices, not very useful in a province like Ontario where we have power plants running on idle. There’s no economic analysis of course.

The second part of Klein’s plan reads like CUPW’s wet dream, it’s almost as if they wrote it themselves. Turn Canada Post into a “postal bank,” says Klein, use their retail outlets (and a bunch of new ones I suppose). Postal banks are an old solution that’s gone the way of the post office buggy whip in most countries, I had one in England when I was a kid and have horrible memories standing in line for an hour or more each time I watched my grandmother make deposits.

Wong-Tam looked concerned that the press conference wasn’t going in the direction she wanted it too so she jumped in and said that her motion “is only supposed to show support,” and it was therefore not necessary to ask about the details of how a postal bank would work.

This was the point where my jaw dropped down to the floor. Here we have two city councillors and a union exec making a bold statement on behalf of the people of the city of Toronto, and it was the wrong time and place to ask them the logic behind it?

Adding insult to injury, these bold civic leaders held their press conference using a handful of poor people standing behind as a backdrop- all brought together by paid professional organizers. The purpose of AstroTurfing is to make a movement appear to have broad support from the public, that’s what it appears happened on Friday- the problem is, it’s non-consensual.

Visit From A Weasel

Not wanting to be late for 2pm start in the rotunda, I left the press conference when they started closing off and headed over to the elevator. Suddenly I was approached by one of ACORN’s professional organizers. He came and demanded my name and asked “what’s your purpose here today”.

This was the same reaction when I was standing quietly filming at the launch of the Black Lives Matter occupation when I was approached by labour activist and former student union leader Jeremy Salter. It’s almost invariably a grad school educated white guy who plays the role, and he’s always trying to milk people for information about who they are and what they saw.

Not wishing to engage in the same old exchange once again, I decided I’d turn the tables around and ask him a hard question. So I turned on my camera and asked his opinion on the fact ACORN pays people $13 an hour to organize protests for a $15 minimum wage. The intrepid John Oliver lookalike got a little bit shaken up by the question and eventually walked away- hard truths make great ACORN repellant.

Rumble In the Rotunda

Kirstyn Wong-Tam with Mike Layton (back) with Black Lives Matter in the background

Kirstyn Wong-Tam with Mike Layton (back) with Black Lives Matter in the background

I arrived in the rotunda just in time for Frances Nunziata to kick-off the session. Wong-Tam came in a couple of minutes after, delayed after her attempt to sell the media on the need for a postal bank. There were about 30 people sitting in the gallery from Black Lives Matter, who were accompanied by American professional protester Sakura Saunders and her husband Darius Mirshahi.

The couple were both organizers of the Peoples Social Form, a CUPW sponsored & co-organized Ottawa event that included ACORN Canada. Saunders’ extremism has made her a virtual magnet for law enforcement agencies across borders. Mirshahi was criminally charged during the G20 but eventually got let off. Both are close associates of city councillor Shelley Caroll’s assistant Leah Henderson- an unrepentant ex-convict who was locked up for encouraging people to use violence during the 2010 G20.

Henderson is an organizer for BLMT

Henderson is an organizer for BLMT

Henderson is one of the more highly active non-black organizers hiding behind the curtains at Black Lives Matter Toronto. She’s been involved in fundraising, event organizing, and even helping to get generators after Toronto police turned off the power outlet BLMT tent city previously used to steal power from.

Shortly after the session began Wong-Tam interrupted and asked to make an announcement. She then “welcomed” BLMT to the rotunda and praised their protest. After a series of quick emergency issues the council went for a vote on a proposal by Wong-Tam and Mike Layton calling on the city to look at policing through “an anti-black racism and racism lens.”

The proposal, of course, mentioned Black Lives Matter as one of the reasons they wanted to pass the resolution. The problem is, as I’ll be explaining in #BlackLivesMatter Unmasked, the movement is the same type of AstroTurf as ACORN (if you’re impatient, check out my interactive organizational chart.) That said, the fact BLMT is organized in the background by the staffer of a city councillor who supports the movement speaks volumes.

If Wong-Tam ever claims she didn’t know what was going to happen next I’ll literally pee myself laughing. We all knew that BLMTO were going to interrupt the council, regardless of the fact the proposal was passed without objection. And they did exactly what they promised to- rolled out posters and started a protest against Mayor John Tory.

This is what democracy doesn't look like!

This is what democracy doesn’t look like!

The AstroTurfers claimed that their demonstration was a great example of democracy-in-action. The problem is that it was the exact opposite, they’d already got their vote and decided they’d interfere with the rights of others in the chambers. The result was that the rotunda gallery was cleared of all observers.

The only thing that was funny about what happened was when one of the protesters yelled out attacking the police chief cut forgot his name (it’s Saunders, dummies!).

On my way out of the rotunda, I walked past city councillor John Campbell. He was less than impressed, and it sounded like he also knew it was inevitable there’d be an interruption. I took the opportunity to introduce myself and explained how the protest was AstroTurf. Campbell looked a little shocked to learn that Carroll’s assistant was convicted for promoting G20 violence.

Closing Thoughts

ACORN got a lot of criticism in the US for collecting membership dues from the poorest of the poor, it’s part of the reason they made their fees “voluntary”. As an experiment, I decided to sign-up as a member yesterday to see how the process works here in Canada.

It was easy-as-pie to sign up, I offered a symbolic $1 per month. In response, I got an email confirming I was now a member, nothing else though. But when I went to cancel my monthly commitment I noticed a very serious problem, there’s no way for members to cancel their monthly commitment on the website- and ZERO instructions on what the process is to cut off recurring payments.

This is a common problem we often see with less-than-reputable websites, the porn industry comes to mind. There’s something deeply cynical about an organization that claims to be supporting the poor yet doesn’t provide their poor “members” an easy way to cancel their membership dues. It’s just plain wrong.

I had to go through the effort of finding an email address on their website and making a request for them to cancel my recurring payment. I got a response today, to the same address I used to sign-up, asking me to give them my full address and phone number. Hopefully they’ll react quickly when I respond- but I’m not holding my breath.

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    • Sagramore on April 19, 2016 at 22:18
    • Reply

    They’ve wanted a Canada Post Bank for years, thing is that if it ever happens RBC or BMO will be tapped to run them as a flanker brand like CIBC does with PC Financial.

    Look up Matthew Vadum. He knows about ACORN. I met him when I was at UofT and Zev Singer’s boyfriend forced him out as editor.

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