A love letter to Toronto from an ailing visionary

The Star Logo

December 09, 2009

Vanessa Lu

{{GA_Article.Images.Alttext$}}“Energizer Bunny” David Pecaut’s enthusiasm for tackling social problems once drove him to call a reporter with a new idea from his hospital bed.

CHARLA JONES/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

In an open letter, an ailing David Pecaut has issued a call to arms for those who love Toronto, urging collective leadership, not negativity, to ensure the region’s success.

It’s his blueprint for success – for his adopted hometown and the whole region.

Imagine “a city where civic entrepreneurs are everywhere and the process of bringing all the parts of civil society together to solve a problem is really how the city defines its uniqueness,” writes Pecaut, a civic visionary who has devoted seven years to heading the Toronto City Summit Alliance.

Under the leadership of this Boston Consulting Group executive, the non-partisan group has led the way on pushing diversity, investment in research, green initiatives and income security for low-income residents – all to make this city better.

Pecaut sent the letter to friends and colleagues Tuesday, acknowledging that he has been focused on his battle with cancer, spending time with his wife, Helen Burstyn, chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and his four children.

“As a consequence of my health issues, I have not had the chance to see many of you and express my appreciation for all the work we have done together,” writes Pecaut.

“Working with you on all manner of city building activities has been one of the greatest highlights of my life.”

Pecaut, who until his illness often had been mentioned as a potential mayor, writes that with municipal elections looming in 2010, the profound question will be: “What really is our collective vision for Toronto – this city region five million of us call home?”

The responses might be a long list of “what Toronto should or could be,” possibly descending into negative territory about gridlock or shortage of resources.

But Pecaut argues, “Good ideas and civic projects with a strong consensus and collective support will attract resources. Proof would be the new cultural buildings like the Opera House and revitalized ROM and AGO that were created despite naysayers who suggested it would be impossible to raise competing donations.

“To me, the potential of Toronto lies not so much within its architectural or economic or social possibilities as in what it could represent to the world as a place where amazing things get done,” he writes.

And Pecaut knows first-hand how to get things done.

Often dubbed an “Energizer Bunny,” he has eagerly called Bay Street executives and top politicians at all levels for help, from boosting tourism in Toronto after the SARS crisis in 2003 to pushing for a new fiscal deal for cities.

A fast talker, his infectious enthusiasm has helped bring people from disparate backgrounds – bank presidents and non-profit volunteers – to work together.

Pecaut’s passion and excitement often bubbles over – to the extent that he called a reporter last year about yet another new idea while undergoing treatment in hospital.

An appreciation evening that had been planned by friends and admirers at the Carlu for Nov. 27 had to be cancelled just days before because of his illness.

A native of Sioux City, Iowa, who moved to Toronto 30 years ago, Pecaut became one of the city’s biggest boosters. While he admits in the letter he didn’t know much about Toronto when he moved here, he has been struck by “how many people from all walks of life in this city were passionately concerned with making it a great city.”

Pecaut’s 1,600-word missive also talks of the city’s diverse population and how it helps cross boundaries and create openness. “That openness made it easy to connect with others on civic projects. For me, the largest of these has been working with so many of you on the Toronto City Summit Alliance.”

He helped organize the first summit, in 2002 at the University of Toronto. It helped kick off a movement that has drawn in influential residents such as former mayor David Crombie, United Way chief executive Frances Lankin, Conference Board of Canada head Anne Golden and the Maytree Foundation’s Ratna Omidvar.

The initial gathering led to many more initiatives, including the Toronto Region Research Alliance, Greening Greater Toronto, DiverseCity and the Modernizing Income Security for Working Age Adults task force.

A second summit was convened in 2007.

The alliance’s initial 2003 report, Enough Talk, called for transportation planning on a regional basis – which, Pecaut notes, came to fruition in the creation of Metrolinx.

Pecaut and media tycoon Tony Gagliano also came up with an idea for an annual arts festival; Luminato, launched in 2007, is now a fixture on the Toronto cultural scene.

Pecaut’s vision for Toronto remains bright. The city, he says, can show the world it can be “the best in the world at collective leadership.” He warns against worrying too much about global rankings, and suggests Toronto take pride in its biggest strength.

“We can be a city where collective leadership is the norm,” he writes, emphasizing a collective approach to solving problems. ” … a city where this quality is the essence of what makes Toronto so special.”

Toronto’s gift to the world, he said, could be this unique and powerful model of city building that comes from collective leadership.

With files from Raveena Aulakh

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