There's Probably A Book In This... (or, Mr. Filion Goes to City Hall)

by David Nickle, Senior Advisor on Policy and Communications

It would have been 2001, when Board of Health Chair John Filion told the city hall press corps he was disappointed I’d skipped his news conference.

The councillor from Willowdale, who then was a relative rookie with just 19 years in elected office, had been looking forward to seeing my face when he revealed the first list of restaurants shut down for health violations in the city’s brand-new DineSafe program.

It turned out that one of those restaurants was an unassuming little hole-in-the-wall up the road from city hall. A bunch of us in the Toronto City Hall Press Gallery liked the place, and some of us had been there just a few days before. And based on the results of that health inspection, I’d almost certainly had a sprinkling of rat feces with my chili chicken.

Clearly, John was in a good mood that day. And why wouldn’t he be? Dine Safe was off to a very good start. The restaurant rating system was an initiative that he had shepherded, and one that over the years, I’ve come to understand reflected his values.

Over the years, John’s led a lot of initiatives like DineSafe.

While serving in the former North York and later in amalgamated Toronto, John pushed for a smoking ban in restaurants and bars. Worried about unhealthy, over-processed food from street vendors, he set up a city-run food cart program, a la Cart, intended to offer up healthier and more diverse options for street. He fought for Transform Yonge, a redesign of Yonge Street to make it more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.

All of them were hard fights for what John has understood to be for the public good. The fight for the ill-fated a la Cart food cart program was too hard and ended badly. But that was an exception. The tobacco lobby and all its money couldn’t stop John, the Board of Health and finally City Council from enacting tough public smoking bans in bars and restaurants. It was a solid enough plan that a version of it extended across the province.

Transform Yonge, which will put cycle tracks on Yonge Street along with other amenities, survived an up-hill battle first at council, then in the 2018 municipal election, and finally again at Toronto Council.

It’s not always been a council battle.

The Cultura Festival, which animates Mel Lastman Square on Friday nights in July, was an idea John came up with to make sure that Willowdale residents had access to the same kinds of public festivals and concerts that downtown residents might take for granted. It’s not an exageration to say that Cultura was more an act of personal and political will as it was legistlative finesse.

But legislative finesse has been a part of John’s legacy too. In 2013, when the late former Mayor Rob Ford’s bad behaviour and substance abuse had become too outrageous to ignore, John drafted a set of motions that effectively stripped the mayor of his powers and let council put the city back on something resembling an even keel. This went on while John was plugging away on his council- insider account of Rob Ford’s life and tenure, The Only Average Guy.

It’s 2022 now, and John has announced that this term is going to be his last. When his career wraps in November, it will have been 40 years that John’s served in politics – a nice, even number on which to go out. He tells me he might write another book when he steps into private life.

I wouldn’t presume to say what that book should be about. But as an observer from the outside as a journalist, and just lately from the inside on John’s staff, I can confidently say there won’t be a lack of material.

On beautiful Friday evenings in July, there's nowhere I'd rather be than with you in Mel Lastman Square. For more than 10 years, it's been my joy to be there on those nights, satisfying my creative ur