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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

DOUCET: Cities can’t survive on coffee and donut politics

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It’s easy to understand why Mr. Harper is so enamoured with the coffee and donut franchise. They are everywhere from fishing villages on Cape Breton Island to the largest cities, and the Tim Hortons logo is omnipresent at the Brier, at the World Juniors, at the Olympics. Wherever Canadians gather, Tim Hortons is there. They even have the contract for the Kandahar cafeteria.

No wonder Mr. Harper loves to be photographed wearing the Canada logo and near a Tim’s. I like Tim Hortons. I love Canada. I like Mr. Harper. It’s as easy as one, two, three. The trouble is , it isn’t. “Tim Hortons politics” doesn’t work for cities.

Cities are where 80% of Canadians live and cities are a whole lot more complicated than charming photo-op associations. Cities depend on five giant, complex pillars, 1) food and water, 2) governance, 3) infrastructure, 4) security, 5) culture. Each pillar is as important as the other. Each is inter-dependent, without one pillar, the others will eventually fail.

Without a culture that connects people together in a way that helps them believe in themselves and their role as a citizen, the city will ultimately fail. The great strength of Paris is Parisians. They and much of the world love their city. People love Paris for all kinds of reasons: It is walkable, with stunning vistas. There are great museums, wonderful parks, theatre, street trees, boulevards, universities, cafes, good food, incredible public monuments and so on. Never underestimate the power of love and that’s what culture is ultimately about. And without love for your city, there is no real belief in the city and without belief, there is no sustainable desire to see the city through the ‘hard times’ which ultimately come to all cities.

I have taken some time on culture because I hear people say that it is a ‘luxury’. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is one of the essential pillars as important as sewer and water services, as essential as food . Without a culture which promotes positive association, no amount of food and water will keep a city going. Each one of those five pillars are necessary for a city to continue and each one is complex. How many people think you can have a city without housing? No one. Well you can’t have housing without infrastructure that works and infrastructure is about roads, bridges, sewer and water and community centres, swimming pools, libraries, trees, parks and so on. The list is long.

Long story short, this brand of politics is only interested in one of the five pillars – security – and only in certain aspects, physical protection, prosecution, punishment. Physical security is one of the five pillars and it is important , always has been and always will be, but the history of cities is very clear when governments become excessively preoccupied with urban and national security, this always presages a decline.

It did under the Romans and it does today. Billions for jets without engines makes no sense. Just as it makes no immediate sense that Hannibal, the great Carthagian general could be repulsed from the very modest Republican walls of Rome. Yet, Alaric a general with a much less sophisticated army could conquer the Empire when confronted with walls around the entire Empire and the Severian walls around the city, thick and high enough to repel modern tanks.  In the days of Hannibal, Rome’s great strength was her citizens and her civic culture not her walls . In the days of Alaric, Rome’s citizens had been reduced to consumers of security. The Emperor was supposed to protect them and when he refused to do so, Rome fell like a rotten apple. Someone literally opened the gates and let Alaric in because they couldn’t think of what else to do.

The citizens of Rome were no longer citizens. They were what Canadians are becoming ­­– a nation of consumers. “Tim Hortons politics” are the politics of consumption. No democracy needs this kind of politics. No real city does. Canada desperately requires politicians of grand and complex stature who understand that our cities and nation are embarked upon a perilous period in their evolution. They cannot continue to prosper with the federal government sucking up 50 per cent of national revenue while cities receive 8 per cent, yet deliver 60 per cent of the services. They cannot continue to prosper when each year is hotter than the last. They cannot continue to prosper on Tim Hortons photo ops.

The governance inequality alone is eroding the urban infrastructure pillar, and the lamentable head-in-the sand approach to climate change will eventually stagger even our ability to supply food and water, as it is right now in many cities. We cannot continue with a federal government devoting so much time, money and effort on one aspect of one pillar – security. This lack of understanding and vision of what really matters is dragging the nation towards disaster. Mostly we see pictures of Mr. Harper wearing another Canada jersey, (how many does he own?) playing boules, lacing a child’s skates, and hanging out at Tim Hortons.

And if the story of what really ails our cities, our nation and the planet is not in front of people –not in the occasional story but as the front page of this election, how can you expect them to vote for anything else but Tim Horton politics? After all, their coffee and donuts are good. Canada is our home and Mr. Harper is our leader.

photo by Danno Hung



  1. Not sure about the Fall of the Roman Empire analogy but I’m with you on the stupid photo-ops. It’s a sad state of affairs when the thing we are most proud of as a country is a donut franchise.

  2. I wonder if this might be an aggravating issue: the longstanding
    tradition – dare I call it that? – of teaching anything from simple distrust to outright hatred of Ottawa-as-federal-HQ may be affecting the view of Ottawa-the-city. And doing so in a toxic fashion, by way of people who have spent lifetimes outside our city, raised in that tradition, move here and bring the
    taught resentments with them.

    By no means can we speak of everyone who moves here from elsewhere as
    holding such thinking…

  3. For many reasons the loss of the Portrait Gallery was the worst of the Harper Crimes. Portraits, the human face, are the greatest learning tool for history, morals, everything. But portraits are competition for the Harper thugs. Bad people not interested in cuture at all.