Nov. 17, 2017
By Arianne Robinson
City Councillor Christin Carmichael Greb has always been behind the scenes in politics, until this term. The 40-year-old former project manager is the council advocate for the new chief transformation officer, Michael Kolm, who was appointed to the role in the spring.
In this week’s Q & A we talk with Carmichael Greb about what transformation means in the large bureaucracy of the City of Toronto, if being a woman in politics matters, why she doesn’t speak a lot at committees, and why her mission as a new city councillor means challenging the system.
This interview was conducted in person and has been transcribed and condensed.
This is your first job in politics?
Yes. I was always interested in politics. I have a poli-sci degree. I always did behind the scenes stuff on campaigns. Swore I would never run and be the person out in front, but that changed after several years. In 2014, I ran and won.
Your career between university days and now?
I worked in the family business, my family had a car dealership. After university I did a course in audio production and engineering, then thought maybe I want to go into law and worked as law clerk for several years, and started getting into project management. I did a diploma in Ryerson. I worked at Bombardier, business analyst working with the Q400 [aircraft]. Everything that I’ve done, I use those experiences now.
To what extent does that experience factor into what you’re doing here now?
Lots of bureaucracy and how to deal with people. One of the great things about Bombardier is that they are very big on continuous improvement. Now, working with the transformation officer, it’s a lot of, how do we make the city work better, run more efficiently, make sure that taxpayers money is being spent effectively and that every penny’s being accounted for.
In terms of the chief transformation officer, what’s the number one thing that means in terms of larger bureaucracy of the City of Toronto?
It’s amazing when you listen to citizens, my residents, who say, “Just get it done.” I thought the same thing when I ran for this position, and [I’ve learned] you have to jump through so many hoops to sometimes get things done. For me it’s, from a customer service standpoint, how do we make sure that residents, when they complain about something or when they have an issue, that we can get their issue fixed quickly. I want to make sure that through the work that Michael [Kolm]’s doing, that we can address some of those issues. He’s been here since May and this is a huge organization and he’s understanding how it works and the areas he needs to focus on. He’s not coming in here to fire people and cut money – that’s not what this is about. It’s really about making sure that our processes and procedures are operating effectively and that money is being spent effectively. There is a bit of changing how different departments work, but there’s also – what’s the low hanging fruit that we can act on quickly to make little incremental changes.
Leaping off transformation, you did a livestream talk-show type thing with Mayor John Tory. This type of video livestream wasn’t possible until recently. Why do it and put yourself out there in this way?
I believe I’m the first councillor to do a tele-townhall that’s been streamed live as well. We started doing phone-polling early last year because I can’t get out and knock on every door to see what residents are thinking and what they’re hearing. So I started doing phone-polling on specific issues that were coming up at council and committee so I had a better grasp on what my residents are thinking. Some will email in and some won’t. Last year at budget time we did a budget town hall. In the past I’ve done an in-person town hall at a local community centre and you have your regular attendees who come to every budget town hall who ask, what are we doing now? What are we doing now? You might get 50 or 100 people out, but you won’t get hundreds. We started looking at how can we reach out to my residents to make sure they’re being heard, and make sure I’m hearing what they’re saying. Some people might not feel comfortable in an open forum like that; they might not want to speak at a microphone or ask a question in front of other people, so we did a telephone budget town hall and it was very successful. People who would never have gotten involved otherwise. We’ve done more polling since then and decided to do another tele-townhall just as an outreach. If you have kids at home you might not want to get a babysitter to go to budget town hall with your councillor. Or seniors might not feel comfortable to go out at night to go ask their questions, so doing it over the phone and livestreaming it – the technology’s there so why not use it and open the door to more residents being able to be involved?
Other councillors have made comments to you at committee saying they want you to speak more. This isn’t typically something that happens at city hall. What’s your comment about that?
I’ve always been of the mind, I’m not going to get up and grandstand. If I have something to say, I will get up and say it, but I’m not going to talk just to hear my own voice, cause reality is, no one else is really listening. If you go to a council meeting, my biggest frustration is when you have an issue at council and 40 of the 45 councillors get up and speak for five minutes on that thing, and then the vote passes unanimously. I feel I don’t need to get up. Unless it’s really important to make a point known that hasn’t already been made, or to push further a point. I’m not going to make a point just to get up and speak. I don’t always speak in committee meetings on every issue, because, frankly, whatever I’m going to say has already been said. I may get up and [say], yes, I’ll agree with that, but if the point’s already been made and the votes going to go through unanimously, there’s no point just adding another five minutes just to add that five minutes just to say five words. That’s how I feel about a lot of it.
Do you think that’s what’s motivating councillors to speak? Just to hear their own voice, or is it–
Absolutely. There are some who do it just for media attention. There are some who, frankly, get up just to hear their own voice and think that what they have to say is more important than any other point that’s been made. To me, that’s not an efficient way to run a meeting. Look at council records where there’s a unanimous vote and you had four to five hours of debate on it. If you know how you’re going to vote, then let’s just get to the voting. We have a system of government where we have committees and if you feel strongly about an issue, go to committee and speak. Go to committee and put forward your motions. City council as a whole should be rubber stamping issues and dealing with things that have come up since committee. You see a lot of people who won’t go to committee but then they’ll talk on an issue at council ad nauseam, and it’s because there’s more media there, or they’re going to make their point at council or committee.
I think some would say that’s a fundamental tenet of democracy. That’s what is important is to have a forum where people can talk and debate out these points.
Absolutely, and we have that at committee as well. If you feel so strongly about an issue that’s going to council, why weren’t you at committee?
I’ve always been of the mind, I’m not going to get up and grandstand. If I have something to say, I will get up and say it, but I’m not going to talk just to hear my own voice, cause reality is, no one else is really listening. If you go to a council meeting, my biggest frustration is when you have an issue at council and 40 of the 45 councillors get up and speak for five minutes on that thing, and then the vote passes unanimously. I feel I don’t need to get up.
The argument is that council is a different level, it’s a different record, it’s city council versus the committee that reports to the council.
It is, but council should run much more efficiently than it does. I’ve heard people that come in to watch and say, “How do you sit through this for three days? It’s ridiculous.” You hear similar comments about committee, but not to the same extent as council. At council, it should be the final debate. If you have a question about an issue, there’s a small chance it might come out at council, but most likely you know about that question beforehand. You can ask staff and deal with that problem beforehand.
The former city solicitor, in her farewell speech, said it’s the best show in town. Is city council an entertainment platform? You’re smiling a little bit…
11 p.m. on a Thursday night – no. No, it’s very serious. Municipal government is the one level of government that affects people the most. It’s your day-to-day living. So it’s very important and it shouldn’t be a show. Some people see it as that. I always think back to when we were talking about the green bins and Councillors [Giorgio] Mammoliti and [Jim] Karygiannis pretending to be raccoons getting into a green bin – like, we shouldn’t get to that point. Right? Everyone says, “Oh, it’s third day, and things are starting to go haywire because people are sitting in this room for too long.” It does turn into that sometimes. It shouldn’t. But that could be because we have this ability to hold these debates for so long.
At the municipal level, there aren’t parties but it’s still team sports. Your father is former Conservative MP John Carmichael, you were endorsed by Conservatives Joe Oliver and Tim Hudak. But on your Twitter there are photos of you and Liberal MP Marco Mendocino. Are partisan politics relevant at city council?
I don’t think so. That’s why I ran munipally, because I didn’t want to be held to some party line. Whether left, right, center, you know? I like municipal politics and I got involved because you don’t have to follow a line. You’re free to vote the way that you want to vote on a specific issue. I vote the way that my residents want – that’s why I do polling. So on certain issues that are coming before council, I’ll do polling and if the polling comes back that shows that my residents are very supportive one way or another on a specific issue, that’s how I vote. It doesn’t matter which way it falls. There are some councillors who are very beholden to party lines, but that’s not how I work. Yeah, I know a lot of conservatives. I know a lot of liberals. I do a lot of work with Marco Mendocino. We’re doing a safety town hall on Sunday. I’ll work with whoever’s at that provincial and federal level. I think it’s important that all three levels can work together. Because if you need something for your ward or the city, it’s good to be able to have that discussion.
There are a lot of issues that come to the city that aren’t necessarily in the jurisdiction of the city. Councillors also become advocates for issues that maybe not all their residents are advocates of, but they still speak out for an issue. To what extent do you see your role as a city councillor to be an advocate or to speak out about things that are important to you, as opposed to the day-to-day stuff?
For me, one of the issues that I always get called out on is voting to have private trees cut down. Well, I believe that it is in private property values. If you have a tree on your property, you should be allowed to take it down – you should follow bylaws and certain rules, but I don’t think that 44 people [councillors] in this city should say yay or nay whether one of my residents can cut down one of their trees. I believe we should have trees in the city and continue to plant trees, but for me, that’s one issue where I’ll get letters from residents that say that person shouldn’t be able to cut down their tree and I’ll always vote that a private citizen is allowed to cut down their own tree. There are certain things like that where if I do believe should be upheld, then I will.
There are fewer female politicians, so by default, you might become a role model. Are you aware of that in your day to day, or how you think about the work?
It has to, I’ve got three kids. For me, I plan my days so that I can make sure I can drop them off at the bus in the morning. If I have a meeting, I’m able to get home usually before – council’s separate because that goes all day – that I’m able to get home and see them before I have to go out again. I always believe that if you’re a woman in politics, yes it will be different, because – well, I had a baby when I was here. I didn’t get a maternity leave. She was born on a Saturday morning and I was on a phone call on Tuesday, and was at a meeting the following week. So as a woman – and this is my view – if you want to get involved in politics as a woman, yes you will have to make sacrifices. You also have to have a good support system. My husband and I work really hard to make sure that if I’m out at night that he’s home, or we have someone to watch our kids. It is different if you’re going to be a woman in politics and have children and have a family and for me, that’s the way I roll. You make it work. You do what you have to do to make it work.
You have two little boys, you just had a little girl. In terms of being a role model – is that something you’re aware of? Traditionally, mothers–
I probably should think about it, but I don’t. It’s my life so I do what I have to do. If I’m going to pursue something, my husband and I need to have that conversation. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a car industry, which typically isn’t a female industry. Growing up, my mom was involved in the business and she’d put on seminars for women about how you take care of your car and what are the basic things to know. It was always: you can do everything. It may work a bit differently than a man has to do it, but you do what you want and you get to where you want just be persevering and nothing’s going to hold you back. That’s how I grew up. To me, that’s just normal. I’ve never felt or had the thought, “I can’t do that because I’m female.” It’s just how it’s always been.
Is there a boys club element of politics still?
I’m sure there is, only because there are more men that are in politics. Until you have more women involved, there probably always will be a bit of that, because there’s more men here. That’s just how it is. I don’t make a big deal about it and say I’m a woman, I need to do this. I’ll just do what I have to do to get my job done, and make sure that my residents are looked after and their voices are being heard.
Is it important to shift council culture away from it being a place that’s been traditionally dominated by men, to be proactive and really shake that up?
I think so, absolutely. Because the city is changing so quickly and even Canada is changing so quickly, we need to be at the forefront of what’s going on. There’s new ways of doing things. How do we stay up with the times and still make sure that democracy is being upheld? So, yes, I think council always needs a shake-up to make sure of that. There’s always traditions we need to hold on to, but if there’s a new way to do something that might be more effective, let’s look at it. Now we have a more wide range of ages on council. I don’t know where I stand. I’m not one of the younger ones, like Joe Cressy and Mike Ford, who grew up later than I did and do things differently and are making sure that we can accommodate everybody based on new ways of doing things, yet at the same time, there are traditional things that need to be upheld and laws that need to be upheld from a process standpoint.
Can I ask how old you are?
So you’re not that much older than…
I am. Michael’s only 23. He’s young. Joe’s 30 or 31. I’m a little bit older.
Getting back to how long councillors have been around…
While I don’t believe in term limits, personally, I believe that eventually you lose your effectiveness here. You know how the system works and you just kind of move along with it. My first council meeting, a councillor turned to me and said, “Man I hate my job but I can’t find someone to replace me.” That was someone who’s been here a long time.
Why do they need to find someone to replace them?
I assume because they’ve been a councillor for so long they still want that control over what happens in their area. I feel like you need a new book every once in awhile. You need people who will come up with new ideas. Have different backgrounds than your traditional business or TDSB trustee or whatever background. Now they say millennials will have a new job every three to four years, and have four to five careers. You’re going to have a lot more experience, and different types of experience, if you, after a while, step down and let someone new in. I’m not doing that next time, but…
But break it down, what’s really the difference between someone who has been here a long time and someone who hasn’t. Is it effectiveness in terms of working together, is it effective in terms of working with the city? What’s really the difference between someone who comes in, and is young, and brings all the culture and norms of a young person–?
I think more willing to challenge the system. I came in and one of the first big issues I dealt with was road hockey. A bunch of my residents were given notices of violation for having hockey nets and basketball nets on the public right of way. There’s no sidewalks, they weren’t impeding any cars, they moved when the cars come along. Three times other councillors have tried to get rid of the road hockey bylaw. I came in and said, “I’m not going to stand down just because you say, ‘No, because we don’t want it.’ That’s not good enough.” We don’t need to have rules in place to cause red tape, just to cause red tape.
And that’s what it is?
In that case case, it was, “Well, it’s liability, but maybe not liability.” I wanted to challenge the system. Why? Why do we have to do this? Or, why are we not allowing it? And there was no good answer. So that’s why I came in and started working towards changing the bylaw. Because my residents shouldn’t have to worry about their six year-old having to hike a hockey net or a basketball net back 30 feet onto their lawn or their driveway at the end of the night, if it’s not hurting anybody or inhibiting any road flow or garbage pickup or snow removal. That’s just an example of what I think fresh blood can look at. They’ll be more willing to challenge the system, whereas when you’ve been here for too long, you get complacent and, “Oh, that’s just the way it is,” and it shouldn’t be that way. We should always be challenging things and trying new things.
It sounds like the question “is politics a boys club?” isn’t the right question. Is it about age, length of time you’ve served, or approach?
It’s being around here for too long and getting complacent. You could be around here long, but as long as you’re continuing to learn, and seeing what else in the world is going on, you can still be effective, but if you’ve been around here for too long and you hate your job and just do it because it’s your job – when this becomes your job, then that’s an issue. Being a – I never called myself a politician. I know people say because you’re in politics you’re automatically a politician, but to me politician has a bad connotation. If you’re a politician, then you’ve been here for too long. You have to be able to leave this place and do other things and be effective outside of this building. You have to be able to pick up new skills, continuous learning, all that stuff, to be effective there.
You’re talking about councillors who’ve been around for so long they aren’t doing things to change how things work. You’re the council advocate for the chief transformation officer (which is at the bureaucratic level), but you don’t advocate for term limits, so what’s the solution to the problem that you’re talking about?
You can talk electoral reform, but that’s terms limits, ranked balloting, which I don’t support. It’s up to people to decide when their time is up, and up to residents when their councillor is no longer effective. Don’t just vote for the people whose name you recognize. Make sure that you’re voting for someone who’s going to work for you, and actually work, and not be gone all summer and all Christmas – every break they dissapear and you only see them close to election time. Make sure that you still have someone who’s out knocking on doors and going to meetings and advocating for their residents. It’s not something that can be changed by a system. With all the electoral reform, except for term limits, you can still have people who will be around here for 20 and 30 years, and not be effective. It’s really up to residents to make sure that they’re voting for someone who will do their job and answer to them.