Toronto Through the Eyes of Denzil Minnan-Wong
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong's pinstripe suit clashes with the fairyland on the wallpaper behind him, and the couch he's sitting on is flowered in the same pattern as a bedspread my mother bought in the '80s.
Working a suburban ward lined with strip malls, there are just a few choice places to be a "man of the people," and the Valley Fields Family Restaurant is one of them. We met last week, and as the Councillor sipped ice tea and waited for his large plate of fries, he smiled and told me that he just got tickets to the TIFF premiere of The Men Who Stare at Goats and would thus need to duck out in about half an hour.
The right-wing Councillor for Don Valley East was first elected in 1994. He moved into the neighbourhood when he was 8-years-old, after his parents bought a three-bedroom bungalow, their first house. We chat and easily finish the interview in 20 minutes, and then his girlfriend pops in wearing a black sequined outfit before they step into a silver convertible and head for the red carpet.
What was your childhood like?
It was great. We had great little community centre with a little outdoor pool. [It had a] very close-knit feel too it. Back then we had fireworks every Canada Day and everybody came out.
Where are your favourite places to eat?
One of my favourite places is the Lahore Tikka House down on Gerrard Street in Little India. They have fantastic, fantastic Indian food. Another restaurant is Dhaba down on King Street -- fantastic Indian food there too.
When you think of Toronto, what three words come to mind?
Great city to live in. And that's not three words, but it is a great city to live in.
Describe an ideal Sunday afternoon in the city.
Get up. Go to church. Go for brunch with some friends or my girlfriend. Then I'd come back home spend some time in my garden. I've got a big garden in my backyard. I love to cook. I'd whip something up and have dinner with friends and family.
What do you do in the city after dark?
Go out to restaurants from time to time. But because I like to cook, sometimes I like my own cooking more than that at restaurants.
What's your favourite dish to make?
I'm a carnivore so I like cooking roasts, pastas, rack of lamb. My favourite meal to cook would be rack of lamb, mashed potatoes with sundried tomatoes and goat cheese. And apple pie. I have an apple tree in my backyard that I can pull apples from.
Do you make your own pastry?
They say you can tell a good chef by two things: one of them is how well you can make a pie crust, and the other is gravy.
How do you get around the city?
I drive. I live in the suburbs and I work downtown. Ideally I'd like to take the bus but because I have to be at multiple meetings throughout the day... and I often have to go to night meetings, driving is a necessity. Plus during wintertime it's more practical to be able to drive around. We have a really good arrangement in this community and an express bus that goes from Underhill and Lawrence all the way downtown. If I was just going to be downtown all day I would take that.
Is there one place in Toronto that people should know about?
The Don Valley and the ravine system there, and the bike system and trail system there. It's gorgeous. If you want to leave the city and still be in the city, that's one of the places you can lose yourself in.You've got a reputation among cyclists in Toronto as not being so friendly towards the bike. In a newspaper editorial you wrote you suggest that "until our downtown is bike-friendly, the city has a duty to enable its citizens to enjoy the benefits of mobility, including trips taken by car." How is the city ever going to become bike-friendly if we continue to support cars?
What we have to realize is that there has to be, and there can be, coexistence between the two forms of transportation, and there are ways to do that. Not only downtown, but in the suburbs as well. There aren't enough bike lanes and one of the problems that we're seeing is that [motorists and cyclists] conflict with each other, so let's look at some innovative ways where we can separate them.
Why can't we, in suburban areas for instance, have bikes be able to legally travel on sidewalks? In the suburbs, pedestrians by and large walk within subdivisions and in communities but they don't walk a lot on Lawrence or York Mills or Eglinton Avenue. So there are places that they could have the sidewalk all to themselves. They'd have to yield to pedestrians, but there's a solution where there could be have coexistence between both cars and bicyclists.
Downtown... it's not practical in Toronto right now to have bike lanes on every north-south route, but let's determine where there might be one or two of them that they can use and let's invest in those.
But cyclists like me brave the roads at some peril. I got in an accident this summer, which left a big scar on my chin. You're taking a little bit of a risk where there are no dedicated bike lanes. And if there's maybe one dedicated bike lane and it's say on Bloor Street and I live on Queen, and there's another one that's north-south, again like five blocks away, I'm not going to cycle all the way up to that street just to take the bike lane and then cycle all the way back down to where I need to be. Having one or two big lanes isn't really fair to cyclists when cars can drive anywhere they want.
If it's not going to work to have bike lanes on every street because that's going to lead to more traffic congestion, then you've got to look at alternatives. Drivers are going to have to make a sacrifice and cyclists are going to have to understand that they can't have everything that they want either.
What about the green bin program? This summer the Star revealed a few snags in how our organic waste is being processed and you were a big champion of that story. So how do you solve the problem?
The number one thing is that we have to get the public to trust and have confidence in the system. That means that we have to start with the truth. And instead of suggesting that 30 percent of organics are being recycled, let's tell them the truth - that it's much lower. Let's also understand that we could be doing a lot more to monitor the organic system because we don't know enough about what happens to those organics. Most people think that the organics turn into compost that we can throw on our garden. A lot of it, I'm told, ends up in landfill; it ends up in places where they have land reclamation, or it's used as an absorbent on the shop floor. Let's go to the next level and start taking out some of the contaminants that make our organics so un-useable.
So you mean plastic bags and diapers?
Where do you go in the city for inspiration?
You know, there are some nice spots along the Scarborough Bluffs and along the waterfront. And if you go for a walk early in the morning and late in the evening when it's quiet, then you can think and clear your head and even come up with some really good ideas.
If you could tell City Hall to do one thing right now, what would it be?
Understand that we need to govern pragmatically and not through ideologies. We need to look at what's possible and put aside partisanship and if we do that then we'll all be doing a better job.
But you are proud of your right-wing stance, aren't you? When you were trying out cycling for the first time you made a joke about not being able to turn left, and now you're proposing this need to put aside partisanship.
And I do put aside partisanship. I've voted for a number of things that Mayor Miller's put forward. Through the last capital budget process I recommended (counter to City Hall) spending a billion dollars more on capital infrastructure rather than cutting back. I've just put forward an initiative to work toward and establish free Wi-Fi in social housing. Those are hardly initiatives that would be seen as being ultra right wing.
Have you been back on the bike since that fateful day?
Yeah, I was on one last Saturday, and I rode all the way down to King Street.
Wow, that's progress.
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