Back in the beginning of May, our elected representatives at Toronto City Hall got into a heated debate about tracking lobbyists. The city has a halfway decent system for tracking corporate lobbyists, it could definitely benefit from having more detail, but it’s easy to use and offers visibility into who’s trying to exert influence. That said, there’s a significant gap in reporting requirements- voters have almost zero visibility into the lobbying efforts of unions and NGOs.
Clr. Denzil Minnan-Wong introduced a motion that day calling for city staff to review implementing requirements for tracking the lobbying activities of unions and NGOs. Cllr. Paul Ainslie called the idea “ludicrous”, Cllr. Gord Perks used the word “absurd”, Clr. Mike Layton complained that “these organizations don’t have the resources” to log into a city website and spend the couple minutes it takes to make an entry. In the end, council watered down the request and removed NGOs.
Compromise is important in city governance, but in this case, city council made a trade-off that’s guaranteed to fail. Unions and NGOs have a long history of working together as a team and funding each other’s initiatives- businesses use AstroTurf NGOs this way too. Yesterday I travelled to City Hall to see a live example of the former, an NGO claiming to represent TTC riders at large. But not all is as it appears on the surface, most of their supporters represent special interests- including the union representing TTC staff.
TTCRiders: Not What It Says On The Box
The TTCRiders represents itself as a grassroots organization of concerned Toronto transit passengers. It’s all in the name, like Black Lives Matter, all too many journalists tend to naturally assume that the group is what it says on the box- that they’re representative of a community at-large. Their naming tactic has been so successful that the TTCRiders has become the first group many journalists run to when they’re looking for comment on transit issues. Sadly, even their critics seem to have failed to look beneath the surface.
But the TTCRiders wasn’t organized by a group of concerned citizens, they’re an NGO that was begat of NGOs. They were founded in 2010 by a collective of special interest groups. If you’re a regular reader of this website most of the names will sound familiar; the Toronto Environmental Alliance, Social Planning Toronto, Toronto & York Region Labour Council, ACORN, and the Canadian Federation of Students.
The group was initially funded by the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, an organization created in 1991 with a $23 million endowment collected from the sale of city property (governed by a board of residents and city councilors). TAF granted the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) $77,000 to launch “a financially-sustainable transit group to engage residents and encourage a modal shift towards public transit.” Sadly, they spend almost zero effort promoting public transit- instead, they spend most of their time lobbying on political issues.
The group was originally led in part by TEA’s Jamie Kirkpatrick and Walied Khogali. Kirkpatrick later moved onto working as a Special Assistant to councillors Gord Perks and Mike Layton, and Executive Assistant to Clr. Shelley Carroll- one of the TAF board members who approved TTCRider’s seed money (and currently a TTC board member). Khogali is now TEA’s treasurer, his sister is the infamous Yusra Khogali of Black Lives Matter- a racial supremacist who claims that white people are sub-human.
These days the TTCRiders are led by Jessica Bell (a.k.a. Jessica Markham, Jessica Bell Markham), a lifelong professional protester who’s worked with Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Ruckus Society- a notorious militant organization that claims to be non-violent but has links to every major militant anti-globalization protest since the Battle of Seattle at the 1999 WTO.
It would be an understatement to say that Bell is associated with the “smash the state” militants behind the 2010 G20, she’s at the very heart of their community. Bell is one of the leaders at Tools for Change, a “direct action” training group where she works with Shelley Carroll’s assistant Leah Henderson (who was sentenced to prison for encouraging Toronto youth to smash windows at the G20).
Her partner David Sone was the “smashy smashy” enthusiast’s media contact during the G20. In 2013, both joined G20 convicts and pro-violence activists from OCAP and No One Is illegal in a creepy protest in front of Kathleen Wynne’s house.
Like her friends, Bell also shares a criminal history. She was arrested in Seattle in 2004 and charged with sabotage after invading a construction site and shutting it down. Bell got away lightly, the charges were reduced on her conviction, but the construction site lost $100,000 and the workers were sent home that day losing $20,000 in wages.
I’ve created a detailed chart outlining the TTCrider’s members, donors, and partnering organizations. This article would be a few thousand words if I detailed them all here. If you’d like to take a deep dive into the who’s who of the AstroTurf zoo you can find it at this link.
The vast majority are members of unions and special interest groups linked to radical socialist/syndicalist ideologies- hardly representative of the average TTC passenger. Some of the highlights include:
- Herman Rosenfeld is one of the TTCrider’s spokespeople. He’s a retired member of the Canadian Auto Workers, a member of the anarcho-syndicalist Socialist Project, and of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, “an initiative aiming to reinvigorate working class and radical politics in the city.”
- Kingsley Kwok is an OPSEU activist who sits on the Equity Council of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council. He’s also a leader at the Chinese Workers Network, and the Ontario Health Coalition- another labour backed group that is to healthcare as the TTCriders are to transit.
- Sandy Hudson is a former board member, she’s most well-known as a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto- and former leader of the University of Toronto Student’s union who’s being sued by the organization after allegedly bilking them for about $250,000.
- Katie Krelove is a climate campaigner with Environmental Defence, and on the executive committee of 350.org Toronto (one of four TTCriders from 350).
- Robert Cerjanec is the Executive Assistant to city councillor Ana Bailão, and operations director at the Student Association of George Brown College.
- John Campey is a “high impact donor”, former executive director at Social Planning Toronto, and part of the City of Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Group- an organization that’s pushing for the free transit initiative TTCriders were campaigning for at City Hall yesterday.
- Cheri DiNovo is an NDP MPP, and a close ally and vocal supporter of the TTCriders (who do a great job promoting her initiatives). DiNovo recently donated “Lunch with wine at Queens Park” for the raffle at the group’s annual general meeting.
- Hayssam Hulays is a high impact donor and the executive officer at the OSSTF’s bargaining unit.
- Jessie Macaulay is one of the TTCRiders’ directors, and a failed Scarborough Southwest candidate for the Ontario NDP.
- Guled Arale is a party executive with the Ontario NDP, formerly with the UofT Scarborough Campus Student Union, and the Canadian Federation of Students.
Generally, there are a few similarities between most TTCRiders members. Most are either highly active members of the labour movement, with environmental organizations, and/or highly active with city planning politics. Many have deep political connections to the very same city councillors we heard screaming the loudest when Tory and Minnan-Wong suggested the city should register union and NGO lobbying activities.
You can probably see the problem with this, their agendas aren’t as much those of the typical TTC passenger as they are driven by a collective political agenda. This is reflected in their campaigns, like their demands for LRTs vs Subways, this isn’t something that TTC passengers at-large agree on. Each time the media misrepresents them as a grassroots group of average TTC passengers they’re doing their readers/viewers a great disservice.
Jessica Bell often bulks-up the TTCRiders’ size claiming to have “10,000 people on our email list”. It’s not uncommon to hear her claiming the organization represents 1.8 million transit riders. But in reality, their actual membership count is somewhere between 120-150- many who are well known to the media.
So, how to they convince the media and political leaders to believe they’re a significant organization? The solution comes from TTCRiders’ relationship with the Ontario Chinese Seniors Association. It’s a trick I’ve been told Rob Ford was once criticised for- throw a group of old age pensioners into a bus and ship them in to fill the background with extra bodies.
Like yesterday, the vast majority of people at their protests are elderly Chinese folk. And their legions of “grassroots TTC passengers” don’t travel to protests on public transit, that’s for the little people, they’re bussed in by on private coaches. Oh, the hypocrisy!
Rider’s Union vs Driver’s Union, A Conflict Of Interest:
Besides the TTCRiders’ attempts to pass themselves off as representatives of average everyday transit customers, there’s a much bigger problem with the group. If they are to truly represent the needs of average TTC passengers it’s important that they’re genuinely independent from other stakeholders- they’re anything but.
Let’s start with the politicians. As we explored in the last section (and is documented in more depth on the interactive chart), the TTCRiders’ organizers are a highly connected bunch. It might be cheeky to say this, but odds are that the groups’s organizers have personal relationships with more politicians than the average TTC passenger can even name.
The other major stakeholders are TTC staff, who are represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union local 113. The ATU’s primary imperative is to represent the needs of transit workers over everything else- anything less would be professional malpractice. Equally, it’s the job of any organization claiming to represent passengers to ensure that they’re not unduly influenced by the union.
This isn’t the case with the TTCRiders, the union’s influence runs deep. The first problem is a financial one, ATU 113 spokesperson Bill Reno and board member Carmen Lint are both “high impact” donors to the TTCRiders. This is a common tactic we see with corporate lobbyists- company executives and family members covering up company influence through personal donations.
And the ATU’s influence isn’t limited to “high impact” financial support from their executives. The TTCRiders refer to them as their “allies”, and are often one of the first places they run to for assistance. Need more people to camouflage the fact we’re shipping in elderly folk in on busses? Ask the ATU for more filler! Need more money to cover operational costs? Ask the ATU if there’s available funding! Want to print out flyers? Ask the ATU! Need a transit pass for a door prize? The ATU is happy to help!
It’s a win-win partnership for the both the AstroTurfers the ATU. For example, many average riders, particularly those commuting to downtown core towers, are supporters of the idea of Public Private Partnerships- but the ATU isn’t and neither are their friends at the TTCRiders. The relationship is so incestuous that ATU Political Action Committee Director Tony Ultimo has sat on the TTCRiders’ Campaign Committee.
ATU national president Bob Kinnear was at yesterday’s protest and has participated at other TTCRiders events in the past. I took the opportunity to walk up and ask him a couple of questions. I kicked-off with a simple question “don’t you think it’s a conflict-of-interest that the ATU provides financial support to the TTCRiders?” He looked at me and said there’s no problem at all.
Next, I asked him his opinion on the fact that the organization the ATU is supporting and partnering with is led by a director with a criminal history, he got a little bit jumpy and defensive but once again responded saying he didn’t see a problem with that. Finally, I asked if he wasn’t uncomfortable with the fact that Jessica Bell’s Seattle protest robbed a whole lot of union workers of a day’s pay- he stuttered at this point, declined to answer, and gave me a rather intense looking (a little bit scary) stare.
Bob didn’t seem like he was used to journalists asking him hard questions about his strange bedfellows. I later heard him talking to a group of supporters sounding like he was in a bit of shock after that- jokingly trying to brush it off of course.
Time For The Traditional Interruption!
If you’ve been following my investigations into AstroTurf NGO’s visits to City Hall you probably already know what’s coming next. City councilors get great benefits out of AstroTurfers, the media all too often falls hook, line, and sinker when they show up at city hall-believing there’s great public support for their motions and initiatives.
We saw this in April when TTCRiders’ co-founder ACORN bussed in a group of lower income people to stand behind Kristyn Wong-Tam when she slipped a favor to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers adding a call for postal banks into one of her omnibus bills.
That same day Black Lives Matter interrupted city council taking a shot at John Tory when Layton introduced a bill taking a cheap shot at the police (I could swear I saw Shelley Carroll giggling that). This sort of thing happens a lot at City Hall, it’s pretty much guaranteed if the Molotov Cocktail enthusiasts at OCAP are in the house.
Like clockwork, right as the TTC Board hearing was being called to order, the transit union-backed & funded AstroTurfers began yelling out an interrupting. Shelley Carroll took a quick look at me (I could swear she looked nervous this time) and quickly made her way out of the room, the other councillors and board members sat quietly until the protesters decided they were finished- the image of vast public support for the day’s initiative was achieved!
TTCRiders: The Poster Child For Adding NGOs To The Lobbyist Registry
Shortly before I arrived at yesterday’s protest I sent out a tweet with a link to my TTCRiders chart. It didn’t take long before a man hiding behind an anonymous account to respond with a half-witted ad hominem- scare quotes and all. He tried very hard to justify that it’s normal that a group of “grassroots” transit riders are tied to the hip with the ATU- no conflict of interest to see here citizen!
A couple of hours later I checked out my Twitter notifications and noticed that Clr. Ainslie joined in on the thread. “But does it mean they support them financially?”, he asked, followed in brackets saying “Serious question.” It’s a serious issue, I’m not sure why he’d feel the need to say that last part- perhaps it was an attempt to imply my claim wasn’t equally as serious?
Regardless, I responded explaining how I filmed the ATU’s Bob Kinnear proudly acknowledging his people’s financial support for the TTCRiders. I also sent him a link to the TTCRiders chart and explained how I’d mapped out a good chunk of the TTCRiders’ donors. Ainsley responded with a thank you and quickly exited the thread.
The TTCRiders are a perfect example why Paul Ainslie’s compromise to track union’s lobbying activities while exempting NGOs is predestined to fail. Unions and corporations have been using AstroTurfers to shield their lobbying activities for decades. Excluding NGOs will create a loophole that will allow this practice to continue and drive unions further underground.
Ainslie needs to wake up and smell the coffee, his motion to exempt NGOs from the lobbyist registry will only serve to weaken our city’s democracy. I get why councillors like Layton and Carroll are willing to make this sacrifice, they’re unwaveringly captive to the unions, but I thought Ainslie was more independent- what’s the deal Paul?