City council’s race problem

Mayor-elect John Tory says he can repair the rifts exploited by his predecessor, but good intentions aren't enough. Racist, sexist and anti-immigrant invective shattered Toronto's "diversity is our strength" self-image during the municipal election. It's just the visible manifestation of the largely ignored disadvantage that more and more of us face every day.

On December 1, Mayor-elect John Tory will become head of a council whose 45 members include just six people of colour they will be overseeing a city in which “visible minorities” very nearly represent the majority.

Asked following the recent Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony how future councils could better reflect the diversity of Toronto, Tory surmised that “the only way we’re going to resolve that is to keep working at encouraging people to run for public office, remove some of the fears that exist with people… and encourage them at the fact that you can get elected, you can stand for office, that a campaign is not an experience to be feared but rather to be taken on as a challenge.”

I have no doubt he’s sincere. But while fostering individual ambitions is by no means a wrongheaded approach, it’s very much an incomplete one. Structural problems require structural solutions. From a man who’s denied the existence of white privilege, however, it may be as good as we get.

The saga of the last four years is the story of Toronto being painfully, repeatedly revealed to itself, its shimmering niceties ripped away to show a city divided along more lines than it has ever properly understood.

In 2010, Rob Ford’s election as mayor caused us to consider those who would vote for him. In the years that followed, Ford’s antics and personal issues caused us to consider those who’d remain by his side.

Other things, such as the Star’s landmark investigations into police “carding” practices, caused us to consider that many residents have fundamentally dissimilar experiences of life in the city. Maps of ever-growing economic disparity caused us to consider that Torontonians find it harder than ever to see each other across immense social and geographic cleavages.

And this election, the 2014 election, caused us to consider the strands of racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism and ableism that still exist in a city that by and large believes itself to be above such things. 

The Fords may have exacerbated these prejudices – and afforded them licence to be aired more freely – but they did not create them. To wish things would return to the pre-Ford status quo is to dream of a black-and-white Pleasantville whose patina of respectability masks the fact that all are not treated equally.

The eruptions that shattered the false pretense of Toronto as a city where “diversity is our strength” were just the most dramatic manifestations of the magma that flows beneath our feet at all times: the systemic barriers, the institutional hurdles, the structures that enforce privilege and disadvantage across too many divides.

Tory’s greatest strength is that he dangles the prospect of repairing the rifts exploited by his predecessor. His greatest weakness is his limited understanding of the conditions that create those rifts in the first place.

At a late October debate hosted by CTV Toronto, mayoral candidates talked of ways to tackle gun crime in the city.

“When you grew up here, you grew up being told the police officer was your friend,” Tory said, generalizing from his own background. “In a lot of places people have come from, that’s not the prevailing view – for good reason in some cases.”

The incoming mayor surely meant well, but his comment is typical of the ways that his privilege pops out.

It’s concerning that after years of working with CivicAction, he could make a blanket statement overlooking the lived experiences of many in the city. Tory is a test case in the limits of compassion. Can earnestness be a substitute for experience? Can a person deplore the status quo without grasping it? Is good will sufficient to create change?

The problem isn’t that Tory doesn’t apprehend the breadth of experiences in Toronto, but that he may not understand what he doesn’t understand. It’s one thing to look at the makeup of council and get that something’s amiss it’s another to view it as a symptom of larger imbalances. 

In the alternate universe in which Olivia Chow had become mayor, she would have comprehended these issues in a much deeper way but might also have found herself running up against them. Think of the organized resistance to U.S. President Barack Obama, the legions who assert he’s not a genuine American. Think of the whipped-up rage toward leftish mayor David Miller, but with added layers of racial and sexual bigotry.

That ugliness would have been hard to bear, but crucial for the same reason: it would have become more difficult to deny that things such as white privilege exist in a pervasive, ongoing fashion. Rather than returning to the realm of the marginalized, Toronto’s racism problem would have remained in the open for all to see. It would have been that much harder for those in positions of privilege to forget about the shit that so many people right here, right now deal with every single day. Race, sex and ability would frequently have been top of mind.

Still, through simply seeking public office, Olivia Chow and many other candidates of colour succeeded in exposing different angles on Toronto. 


“I didn’t expect to become a symbol,” said Munira Abukar, sitting in a Somali restaurant near her Rexdale campaign office on election night. “But I’m glad we’re even creating this space for a symbol in the first place.”

The Ward 2 candidate’s illustrated likeness, along with those of Ward 1 candidate Idil Burale and trustee candidate Ausma Malik, graced a crest that served as the icon for a movement. Created by Terra Loire, Steph Guthrie and Farah Mawani on behalf of grassroots civic engagement group Women in Toronto Politics, the image, proclaiming “Stand up for the city you want,” circulated through the #TOpoli bubble in the days before the election, spurred on by attacks on the candidates.

Twice in October, campaign signs for the 22-year-old Abukar were defaced with hateful graffiti. Following the first occurrence – in which her portrait was scrawled over, an outline drawn around her headscarf and “GO BACK HOME” and “BITCH” written – the hashtag #IStandWithMunira trended on Twitter. On another occasion, days before the election, Abukar tweeted that her “volunteers just came back to the office shaken. Man in a Purolator truck threw trash on them + called them terrorists.” (Purolator later told media the incident had been investigated and the employee disciplined.)

“Clearly, we’re being attacked because we represent something different, right?” Abukar, an elected tenant rep on the Toronto Community Housing board, said four days later. “We’re a diverse community, I’m a diverse candidate. And I think diversity scares a lot of people, right? Because they’re used to tolerating it and throwing it under the bus and kind of saying, ‘It’s there, I see it, but I don’t want to acknowledge it.’ So I think when you force people to acknowledge the fact that you have a diverse landscape in Toronto, that you have people who dress like me and are from Toronto and call it home – it scares a lot of people.”

In late September, the smear campaign against Malik began at the predictable peripheries: far-right blogs and Twitter accounts with varying degrees of anonymity a mysterious “get the facts” website registered at a column by the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy treating Malik’s participation in a 2006 rally against Israel’s assault on Lebanon as a scandal and an op-ed in the Jewish Tribune branding the candidate for the Toronto District School Board’s Trinity-Spadina ward a “radical Muslim terrorist sympathizer.” 

At the race’s first debate, on October 6, none of this registered. A candidate who brought up Malik’s involvement in a questionable U of T student election was quickly admonished by the moderator for his attack. From that point on, the event in the near-empty high school auditorium proceeded with a substantive focus on TDSB issues.

I’d shown up in search of a story about how racism and geopolitical conflict were bluntly intruding into a local contest to which few would otherwise pay attention. But I left wondering whether they were factors at all, and didn’t end up writing a story: why give greater exposure to a fuss on the fringes that had no apparent traction or bearing on the race?

In an interview the following day, Malik primarily stuck to her themes of “improving the public education system, making sure that it’s inclusive, accountable and [gives] every student the opportunity to succeed.” 

But she reflected on how those principles didn’t quite apply to the race itself. “It’s not unexpected to have attacks,” she said, “especially when you represent historically marginalized groups. I am a racialized person, I am a woman, a person of faith, and it is unfortunate that we will still have a different experience and have to challenge racism and sexism and all sorts of prejudice. 

“But I also think that it is really important and vital that we have a diversity of experiences and people who do share progressive values and a vision for this city at all levels of elected representation. And I think that’s what makes me energized by this race, and why I think that it’s really important to continue to move forward.”

The Sun’s Levy, in her subsequent column, introduced the candidate as “Muslim Ausma Malik” and deployed “But let’s get back to our Muslim candidate” as a segue.

The next debate, at Ogden Junior Public School on October 22, did not go as smoothly. The breakdown occurred in the final minutes, and was described by Kate Hammer – then an education reporter for the Globe – in a series of tweets: “During closing remarks, some members of the audience heckled Malik, accusing her of lies, supporting Hezbollah and racism…. They called her ‘Jew hater’ and demanded that she answer their questions, all the while preventing her from responding…. This continued for about five minutes…. Malik’s team expressed concern that the hecklers appeared to be waiting for her at the school entrance. She left through a back door.”

By the third and final debate, police were on hand to eject unruly attendees (and did).

Anti-Malik literature, meanwhile, was distributed through the ward monochromatic photocopies gave way to full-colour leaflets and glossy door-hangers that put a photo of the hijab-clad candidate atop the flag of Hezbollah. Some person (or people) had invested real money and time in the effort.

My earlier decision to ignore the backlash increasingly seemed like a poor one. Denying it the oxygen that it didn’t deserve also deprived it of the sunlight it did: away from scrutiny and exposure, the anti-Malik movement grew happily in the darkness. Such things shouldn’t be a candidate’s burden a public response is only possible if the public is aware. 

In a field of eight, Malik took the seat in a landslide, earning 40 per cent of the vote – more than twice as much as the first runner-up.

Council candidate Abukar wasn’t so fortunate, finishing fourth in the north Etobicoke ward that will once again have Rob Ford as its councillor. In Ward 1, Burale finished a distant fifth against Ford yes-man Vincent Crisanti.


You’d never know it by looking at who’s there, but it is extremely difficult to get a spot on council.

Over the last four elections – 2003, 2006, 2010 and 2014 – incumbents ran in 144 of 180 races (including those for mayor), or 80 per cent of the time. In those 144 contests, only 11 incumbents – 7.6 per cent – were defeated. And of those 11 upsets, at least a third involved circumstances in which the incumbent had screwed up (or were believed by their constituents to have screwed up) in very specific ways.

In the same period, 33 candidates were elected in open races in which incumbents didn’t run. Of those 33, most were already connected to the political establishment: six were previously TDSB trustees two had served as Catholic school trustees five had worked as councillors’ assistants two were councillors in previous terms one had been an MPP another an MP five were sons of former councillors two the offspring of sitting MPs and one the son of a sitting MPP. (There’s some overlap, with certain people holding multiple distinctions.)

Since 2000, the proportion of women elected to council has hovered between 27 and 33 per cent, and people of colour between 11 and 13 per cent. Just two councillors in Toronto’s history have identified as gay, both representing the ward that includes the Church-Wellesley village.

It can be tricky to separate the particular obstacles facing distinct groups from the more general barrier of incumbency.

“There’s something unique about municipal government,” says Alejandra Bravo. “And if you look at the way the provincial and federal election results have played out over time, there’s some clues there about what could be different.”

As a three-time runner-up to Councillor Cesar Palacio, Bravo knows the uphill battle involved in taking on an incumbent. And as the founder of the Maytree Foundation’s School4Civics, which equips members of diverse communities with the practical skills needed to run for office, she knows about the challenges specific to racialized candidates.

She lists a number of potential structural reforms that already receive intermittent consideration: moving from a first-past-the-post system to ranked ballots extending the municipal vote to permanent residents moving forward the August 1 date by which councillors are no longer allowed to send out promotional newsletters during an election year.

But she also finds herself warming to the idea of political parties, which Ontario’s Municipal Elections Act doesn’t currently contemplate. Citing Maytree and CivicAction’s 2011 Diversity Gap report, Bravo points out that visible minorities were “by far” most underrepresented at the municipal level – 7 per cent of the Greater Toronto Area councillors, compared to 17 per cent of its MPs and 26 per cent of its MPPs.

She says she understands the fondness for the city’s current party-free model, but “if you look at the way the federal and provincial levels are advancing more quickly, it does send a message that that’s something to consider.” She brings up Vancouver and Montreal, cities whose “civic parties look at their slate and make a deliberate attempt to recruit, mentor, support and get elected people from diverse backgrounds, because it’s of interest to the whole movement.”

In Toronto, women and racialized candidates “find that it’s very difficult to make the case that this is what a leader looks like, that this is what a leader sounds like when you have English as your second language,” she says. “But at the federal and provincial levels, the party narrative, the party platform, the message of the leader, the fact that you’re part of a team mitigates some of that.”

(Councillor Mike Layton, whose late father, Jack, was a councillor and MP, says that while a “name’s only gonna get you so far,” it does have the connotations of a party brand, i.e., “This is the political space this individual probably or more than likely fills.”)

Olivia Chow was a school trustee from 1985 to 1991, a councillor from 1991 to 2005 and an MP from 2006 to 2014. But she says she never experienced racism like she did when running for mayor.

“I was quite surprised,” she says via Skype from Tunisia, where she’s helping monitor that country’s first democratic elections. “Maybe other elections weren’t as intense. In 2006, I had the ‘chow chow dog’ [comment on a Liberal’s blog], but it was slapped down immediately. I didn’t have as much intense hatred.”

The most brutal attacks came online, but the most widely seen remarks were made in person.

At an October 1 debate at the Joseph J. Piccininni Community Centre, an audience member asked how Chow was qualified to be mayor despite being an immigrant who’s lived off the “public purse.”

Chow smacked him down harder than she did anyone else during the campaign. “I believe that everyone counts,” she affirmed with remarkable fire. “No matter where we came from, what colour of our skin, what background, what income level, what neighbourhood we came from, it doesn’t matter. We are good Torontonians in this good city of ours, in this beautiful country.”

The other candidates, including Tory, declined the opportunity to chime in.

“I think [they could’ve made] a statement to say ‘We’re all Canadians’ or ‘Whether Olivia Chow is an immigrant or not has nothing to do with what we were talking about,'” she says. “I think they could have stated that. They chose not to.”

She doesn’t seem bitter. Just somewhat resigned.    

Five ways to a more diverse council

1) Ranked ballots Candidates could no longer squeak into office with a small fraction of the electorate’s support. Potential challengers would no longer have to calculate whether they might split opposition to the incumbent.

2) Give permanent residents a vote A recent Maytree study discovered a strong inverse relationship between a ward’s voter turnout and the proportion of its residents who are immigrants. Extending the municipal vote to permanent residents would encourage badly needed engagement in the political system. 

3) Municipal parties Political parties make a deliberate attempt to recruit and field diverse slates of candidates who would run and get elected on a shared set of values instead of just name recognition. 

4) Campaign finance reform Toronto has a generous rebate system for campaign contributors. The city refunds a large chunk of donations. But that requires donors to front the full sum, which is harder for some people than others. New York City takes the reverse approach: candidates who meet certain thresholds can enroll in a matching-fund program that contributes $6 of public money for each dollar in donations up to $175 by NYC residents.

5) Rein in councillor self-promotion Until August 1 of an election year, city councillors may use their office budget to distribute newsletters, buy advertisements and host community events. Communicating with constituents is a legitimate objective, but these materials and events can have significant self-promotional components. Given that election nominations open on the first business day of January, incumbent councillors can spend up to seven months publicizing themselves on the public dime without its counting toward a campaign spending limit. | @goldsbie

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