May 17, 2018
By Arianne Robinson
This week Councillor Norm Kelly registered to run for councillor in the new Ward 42 for the October municipal election. The 76-year-old politician has been in office as a city councillor since 1994, with a term in the early ‘80s as a federal member of parliament and an alderman on the borough council of Scarborough. After attending Western University for his undergrad, and grad school at Carleton and Queen’s University, Kelly spent some time as a teacher. He taught at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School, recalling it fondly as an experiential learning environment, and was the head of history at Upper Canada College in the ‘70s where he was part of the last contingent of teachers who wore a gown.
Kelly is known for a controversial tweet wrote in July of 2015 to American rapper and songwriter Meek Mill. “You’re no longer welcome in Toronto,” the councillor wrote on the internet, the morning after the artist criticized Toronto born Drake for not writing his own lyrics. At the time of publication, Kelly’s tweet had received 116,615 retweets, which was the most retweeted post from a Canadian account in 2015. The councillor’s Twitter account has 761,000 followers, which is not necessarily an indication of political popularity as it only captures one segment of internet users who could live anywhere, and accounts cannot be authenticated as belonging to a real person or a robot. That said (if it’s worth any context) the leaders of Ontario’s provincial parties all have a fraction of Kelly’s following. Green Party’s Mike Schreiner has 49,700 followers. The Progressive Conservative Party’s Doug Ford (or the account @fordnation) has 50,600 followers, the NDP’s Andrea Horwath has 94,400, and the Liberal Party’s Kathleen Wynne has 251,000.
The interview was conducted in person in December 2017, and has been condensed.
One of your first jobs was teaching at Upper Canada College. Did you ever think as the head history teacher at UCC, that your name would be associated with hip-hop culture – or appropriating hip-hop culture?
I take issue with the concept or the perspective of appropriating hip-hop culture. In a multicultural society, we all learn from each other and enjoy each other. I think we build bridges rather than walls around our ethnicities or our cultures. But the direct answer to your question is no.
Is it an “only in Toronto” thing that you were a head teaching master at one of best schools in the country in the first part of your career – and now later in your career have been part of a rap feud online?
Well, there’s something called the historical imagination. People who are in love with history, enjoy it, read it, research it, write it, and teach it have to have not only an inquisitiveness about the facts individually or collectively and how they can be assembled or understood, you have to have something I call the historical imagination. You have to have the ability to project yourself into different eras, different people. So it wasn’t a stretch for me in any way to project myself and my imagination into the hip-hop/rap culture. It’s history, it’s development in its present status. And it’s something I’ve been doing since I was probably a kid. The very first books I took out of the library when I was a kid were big books on the classical world – Rome, Greece, China, Egypt.
Did you learn anything from teaching or from your interest in history that helped prepare you for work in politics?
I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed being with young people and for a time I wasn’t that much older than they were. And the feedback that I get today, decades later, is that a lot of the students enjoyed the class. So my ability to connect, say, with millennials, I think stems from the fun that I had in the classroom with young people.
Most city councillors focus their public profile on advocacy for issues that affect the people who live in their wards. Your focus on the 6dad T-shirts, “Normnaments,” and even Twitter –
It’s best perceived as a hobby. And not as time-consuming as you may think. But what it has done is it’s afforded me an opportunity to send money to a whole bunch of charities, some in Scarborough, others in other parts of the city.
Is it weird to have your image associated with these endeavours?
Well I guess I’ve been in public, or on the stage, since Grade 9, in high school when I ran for office.
Do you ever worry that it’s taking away from some of the seriousness?
No, in fact the feedback I get from teachers in the secondary school system and from professors in the college and university system is “Norm, thank you. You’ve really humanized politics and the political process. They can relate to you.” So that’s something that I’m very happy with.
Ya. It’s cool.
Is there anything about your experience teaching at Upper Canada College and A.Y. Jackson that prepared you for being a politician here?
Maybe the fact that for so many years, rather than being closeted in an office, my career was in front of other people. You know, explaining, defining, explaining, teaching them how to think critically, how to ask questions, how to write answers, how to interrelate with other students in the room.
Is there an aspect of that here at city hall?
Well, that’s what you do in politics.
Is that what you try to do?
Ya. You do your reading. You read your agendas. You read outside of those agendas. Newspapers. Magazines. Books. You try to extract the relevant information, and I tell students today that I govern on behalf of the future. The trick is to figure out where the trends are going. So all the critical faculties that you bring to the teaching of history and being in front of others is at play in the political world as well.
Are there any big trends that you’re thinking about?
There’s a book you should read, Average is Over [Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation] by Tyler Cowen, an American prof, and a bunch of other books like it, anticipating the future, and the electronic revolution has, in his eyes, produced, or will produce, an impact similar to that of the industrial revolution back in the 19th century. In other words, there’s going to be a lot of dislocation, discombobulation, social tensions, rearranging of hierarchies, and what appeared to be a solid world in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was growing up is now churning, and I think that with today’s students you have to teach flexibility.
How does that apply at Toronto council?
Today on Airbnb, and Uber, there are new technologies that are coming in that you’ve got to understand and you’ve got to figure out how they fit into the pattern of life that we have in the city that individuals or families enjoy.
There’s also building a city that is flexible…
The sense that I have is that the electronic revolution produces serious challenges to the established economic and social order, but at the same time, because the electronic revolution has demolished barriers – when I was a kid, [if you had an idea and it] was fulfilled, it may be in a Toronto context or an Ontario one or if you’re lucky a Canadian one. Today, it’s international, it’s worldwide. So the number of opportunities today are more niche-like than they were in the past. One of my brothers went to work for Canadian General Electric at 16 and rose to senior management by his 50s. Well, you’re not going to see that anymore. But the opportunities in this whole artificial intelligence electronic revolution are amazing, and so what you have to get across to students today is to develop a sense of opportunity. To look at things, not from, say, a perspective that I would have had – ‘Holy crap the world’s falling apart, what will I do?’ – but to look at this and say, ‘What’s going on out there that I can be a part of?’
Jumping to transit – what do you hear from residents about transit, especially in Scarborough?
Well, in my part of Scarborough, they are looking for the fulfilment of the policy that I voted for as a metro councillor. That is to build a subway from the Yonge Street line to the Scarborough Town Centre. In the official plan of the metropolitan government, and the city government today as the heir of the metropolitan government, not the heir of the City of Toronto proper. Under the two-tier system metro got 75 to 80 cents out of every tax dollar. The City of Toronto proper in Scarborough and North York and others, they would be playing with nickels and dimes. So the metropolitan government in its official plan said that we should do more than focus on downtown Toronto. We should take a look at creating suburban downtowns that we could use for commercial retail and residential development, as the Scarborough Town Centre in that official plan is the economic hub of the east end of Toronto, and as a metro councillor I voted for that Sheppard line to go all the way to the town centre. In fact, the metropolitan government had a plan to build an extensive network of subways right across the city. What precluded that – the fulfilment of that strategic plan – was that our funding partners would force us to act tactically. So they wouldn’t say, ‘hey, I love that plan, let’s look at it over a 20-year period, and we’ll work out the split in terms of funding and we’ll complete that. They didn’t. What they said was, well, ‘do you want this line or that line? Do you want it now or do you want it in five years time?’ And so we were reduced because of that relationship to attempting in a piecemeal way with what should be a strategic asset to the city. [The original plan] is designed to take people – the Sheppard line – and the Danforth extension is designed not only to take people out of Scarborough, but to bring people elsewhere in the city, to the civic centre.
Are you worried that the City of Toronto isn’t taking care of that [strategic] plan?
What limits the effectiveness of municipal governments today, especially ones as big and complex as this one, is the absence of sustainable funding. [At the time the Canadian Constitution was enacted in 1867] cities of the day were few and far between and very small. What we really need today – and I’m trying to get this across to Mayor Tory, and when I was deputy mayor, Premier Wynne, and to the federal members of parliament – is that we need a rethink of the financial relationship between the federal and provincial governments and the municipal governments – especially the size and importance of Toronto. Municipalities are the children of the province. If this were China for example, Toronto would be a province, it would have provincial status. Guys that make a habit of looking into the future and try to get a sense of what could be happening argue that because for the first time in history more people will be living in urban regions than anywhere else. The 21st century will be an era of competition, not between countries but between urban regions. So the principle of subsidiarity argues that you take the decision-making and the funding associated with those decisions as close to the challenge and opportunity as possible, and that’s why cities, especially Toronto, have to become more autonomous in their decision-making.
So you want to restructure how the country works?
Ya. Because otherwise, and the present mayor has found that out, you’re at the mercy of our other two orders [of government].
Do you ever want to be mayor?
I have been.
I got the T-shirt and the hat. I was pleased with the number of people that approached me near the end of my deputy mayor’s time and offered support, but if you’re going to run, there should always be the prospect of success, and to run a campaign in the city of Toronto today for the mayor’s office is at least two million bucks. It’s a grind. It’s just incredibly – it can be incredibly physically exhausting. But as well, my wife and I talked this over, because the spouse is always involved in your life, or affected by it, and she used to tell me that when her girlfriends said, when I was deputy mayor, ‘Well how’s Norm?’ and my wife would say, ‘I’m not too sure, I only see him on CP24.’ But we needed a mayor that would continue with the calming down process. The re-establishment of a more rational order I think that came with my deputy mayor’s office, and we have that in Mayor Tory.
What’s your advice to young people or people who want to get into politics? Not who want to be mayor…
Well, there are a number of things you can do. You can run for public office, but sometimes the most influential people are the members of the kitchen cabinet, the group of people who, after you’ve talked with all your colleagues and staff formally, you sit down at the kitchen table with friends and supporters and they can influence people, as much as anyone in the formal part of the government process. You don’t have to run for political office to exercise influence. But you have to be interested in the political process, you’ve got to understand how it shapes or affects your life and the lives of others. So I would urge people, students, to become more aware of the relationship between politics and life in general and they may just simply volunteer. They may be financial contributors. They may run for office themselves.
What do you want to accomplish while you’re still in office and in the future?
Tada. Well, right now in the communities that I represent, we’ve got a lot of residential intensification coming forward, because developers either see a subway or an LRT along Sheppard Ave., and I want to make sure that this residential development integrates itself into the established neighbourhoods. I want Sheppard Avenue to come alive as a neighbourhood. I want to see people on the street walking on the sidewalk rather than just simply driving along Sheppard through the neighbourhood. So in my eyes I’ll be shepherding the creation of the last residential neighbourhood in northwest Scarborough in the Agincourt area.