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Gord Perks takes on his toughest challenge yet - Toronto’s budget

When the budget under Mayor John Tory goes for final approval at council, its chief critic will be the Parkdale-High Park councillor.
Feb. 15, 2016
By Jennifer Pagliaro and Betsy Powell

Activist-turned-politician Gord Perks looks comfortable kibitzing with a crowd of protesters outside Toronto city hall on a recent mild February morning.

He’s wearing a signature look: Slim dark suit and narrow tie, in contrast to the protesters, clad in yellow T-shirts over their coats and holding signs. “Poverty affects us all,” reads one.

They share a similar, blunt opinion: Toronto needs more revenue to look after the city’s most vulnerable.

For months, the city councillor for Ward 14 (Parkdale-High Park) has waged an impassioned campaign for higher taxes - something most politicians consider death at the ballot box - leading up to next week’s budget debate on the floor of council. It’s turned him, some would say, into a de facto leader of the left.

Perks hates the suggestion.

“Mine is one voice. I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of saying leader,” he says, sitting in his office, fidgeting and scowling.

“He is the most vocal critic of John Tory and always uncovers those edges that need to be uncovered, where the reality doesn’t meet the promises,” says Paula Fletcher, another leading left-wing voice at city hall.

She calls him a “straight shooter, fearless and highly principled,” though lacking the “touch” to bring councillors together to win certain issues.

Councillor Mike Layton, a council ally, says Perks has always governed by his own moralistic values, even when it puts him at odds with close colleagues.

“I think he’s always been a leader on council, a strong leader on council, and in his community,” he says. “Don’t we need more people like that in politics?”

It’s been a hard winter for the 52-year-old, often spotted puffing on a cigarette, immersed in thought, hunched and pacing the sidewalk behind city hall.

Fiercely passionate, this is a man who was too Greenpeace for Greenpeace.

After speaking out against management and helping staff unionize, Perks was fired in the early 1990s. Pollution Probe also fired him after a successful unionization of staff.

“What they said to me was I was too much of an activist for that organization,” he states, popping an occasional cherry tomato in his mouth - acid reflux be damned.

Perks’ disquiet was on full display last month.

Addressing the budget committee - which in his view misguidedly adopted Mayor Tory’s mantra about not increasing property taxes above the rate of inflation - Perks delivered an impassioned 629-word speech.

The budget contains nothing for the working class or poorest residents of the city, Perks said sombrely. The fiscal blueprint looks after business interests.

“It was a speech that was incomplete, in that it didn’t make any acknowledgement at all of the fact that there are significant new initiatives” that bolster support for the poor, Tory said this week.

While Tory calls Perks “extremely smart” and unrivalled in his “effort to read the material and to know the issues,” he thinks he would have more “credibility” if he presented a more balanced view.

Perks says the mayor is mistaken.

“I actually think I have a really balanced view of the world that unfortunately doesn’t happen to be the majority view on council right now,” he says.

Former councillor Doug Ford certainly didn’t share his world view, but he left city hall dazzled by Perks, whom he calls a “very, very bright individual.”

“He understands every motion there is at council. I don't agree with him, but I have the highest respect for Gord Perks,” says Ford.

Ford recalls driving his large, black Navigator SUV along Dundas St. and seeing Perks - who doesn’t have a driver’s licence - waiting for a streetcar.

“If Gord had his way, we’d all be driving a horse and buggy.” On that day, Perks took Ford’s offer of a ride.

Perks is accustomed to being an outsider. The eldest of five, he says there was a “class division” even in his own family. His sisters took figure skating lessons while he mopped the floors and drove the Zamboni at a North Toronto arena.

In high school, teachers either applauded or failed him.

“If I thought that I was being taught the wrong stuff, I just wouldn’t do it,” he says. “I was that kid who got all the report cards that say, ‘Gordie, can do the work.’”

Perks spent a summer mining coal in Kentucky - “which is deeply ironic” - before taking up environmental studies at the University of Toronto.

“Neither of my parents were political activists, although they let me watch the Watergate hearings,” he says.

“I was born at the time when the things that you noticed were the beginnings of the environmental movement, the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon. I don’t understand why everyone didn’t turn out like me.”

After the late NDP leader Jack Layton persuaded Perks to run as an environmental champion in the 2006 federal election - he lost - it was soon-to-be mayor David Miller, over a beer, who convinced a wary Perks to represent Parkdale.

“I wanted to help engage a broader conversation about equality, about justice, about civics, about public finance about all kinds of things that have always been part of how I think about the world,” he says of his decision.

He edged out 13 others by a margin of 838 votes and returned to city hall in 2010 and 2014 with increasing support.

Though never part of Miller’s executive committee, Perks was an insider in the administration, helping to bring about Transit City - a plan for a criss-crossing LRT network swiftly killed under former mayor Rob Ford.

Neither Ford’s nor Tory’s administration is much to his liking.

“What I’m finding incredibly difficult right now is that very big conversations about where we want to live are either taking place behind the curtain or have been subsumed by big slogans instead of hard work,” he says.

“We’re transitioning from a city that was broadly affordable across all income groups to one that is not.”

He flashes a smile remembering the Miller years, when he worked so relentlessly on the budget that he and three others were hospitalized.

“I was working and sleeping,” he said. “But I would gladly do that every time until people are sick of me or until I drop dead.”