There is a mythic geography to most cities, and Toronto is no exception.
The corner of Jane and Finch is part of that mythic geography. In our imagination it's a place of violence, poverty and foreboding suburban design. Except when someone gets shot, areas like this or Rexdale to the west (in the ridings of York West and Etobicoke North respectively) have a hard time getting attention from the city's cultural, media and political elite, obsessed as they are with waterfront rejuvenation and opera houses.
It's too bad. Far from being just a sea of bleak public housing developments, the area is a mix of cozy post- war bungalows, large homes overlooking the Humber and a wild array of locally owned businesses and restaurants catering to 100-odd ethnicities, in contrast to the growing Starbuckification of the downtown.
After a year of deadly gun violence, community members are making a play to harness the energy for change in this federal election and turn it into a movement for a political voice.
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In a highrise on Dixon Road, I strain to keep up with the huge strides of Roy Cullen, Liberal incumbent for Etobicoke North. His half-dozen volunteers include a Somali translator and an Iraqi woman who speaks Assyrian Babylonian, which I'm told is the language of Christian Iraqis, a small but growing community in this riding. His multicultural volunteer staff is the first clue to how such a well-connected white business guy (Cullen is a former Noranda VP and Paul Martin's parliamentary secretary when the PM was minister of finance) can so comfortably get re-elected in a riding beset by poverty and violence.
And he doesn't just squeak in. He won the seat with 63 per cent of the vote in the last election. Not an overly charismatic guy, Cullen says he prefers to work behind the scenes ensuring programs get funded in his riding. "Take the $50 million we announced for social programs. I'm pretty sure $10 million of that will come to Toronto," he tells me confidently.
When he finally meets someone who challenges the Lib record, a young Somali businessman, he launches into a long list of fiscal reforms. By the time he's done, the poor guy is dazed by the verbiage. As we race to the next floor, Cullen tells me, "We've got to do more." It's not the last time I hear him say this. It's the perfect Martin-Liberal mantra, consistent with the party's post-Chretien strategy of running against themselves.
But more does need to be done, and you feel the rage barely contained under the polite surface at election events throughout these ridings. Many all-candidates meetings seem to follow a similar trajectory: polite and predictable questions, partisan responses that rarely answer the questions, and a growing wave of anger that culminates at the end in shouting and tears.
A meet hosted by the Black Business and Professionals Association descends into anger and mayhem. At another put on by the Jamaican Canadian Association, a Muslim man explodes with rage over the harassment experienced by his teenage son at the hands of the police. His anger sparks an outpouring of shrieks from others. Sitting behind veteran Black Action Defence Committee head Dudley Laws, I'm touched by his gentle attempt to console the man.
At a prayer meeting at Rexdale's Toronto West Seventh Day Adventist Church, outside of which 18-year-old Amon Beckles was shot and killed two months ago, a thousand people listen to Boston preacher Reverend Eugene Rivers. Ignoring systemic racism and the need to strengthen the social safety net for poor families, Rivers stresses personal responsibility. His sermon is spectacular, complete with writhing and stomping around the altar like a cross between Muhammad Ali and James Brown.
But when a man stands up, inspired by Rivers's call to action, saying he's thinking of inviting a troubled young gang member to live with his family, Rivers steers the man in a different direction. He suggests that Mayor David Miller should offer city property for a centre staffed 24 hours a day by church people. This sounds like a social program to me, albeit an American-style faith-based one.
Yet while the stakes are high in this community, so are the hopes. Momentum is gathering behind the search for solutions that mix personal mentoring, youth advocacy and church programs with a push for better political representation.
"There is an attempt for more political engagement here, but it isn't going to happen overnight," says Somali-born Ali Farah, a youth activist. Farah and his wife, Khatra Yousuf, are involved in youth mentoring in high schools. Farah has also been working on the Jamestown Youth Engagement program, a city-funded project that ran rec programs, taught leadership skills and operated a community kitchen in Jamestown's Elmbank Community Centre.
At the end of December, the program's funding ended. "Kids end up feeling betrayed. The next time you try to run a program, youth are more skeptical, and it gets harder to involve them," Farah says.
The youth issue is a big one for the NDP's Trinidad-born candidate in York West, Dr. Sandra Romano Anthony, one of only three black candidates running in the GTA. While she's not expected to knock political heavyweight Judy Sgro off the mound (Sgro took 65 per cent of the votes last time), she is building on her 15 per cent showing in 2004. A U of T nutrition activist and a volunteer with the African-Caribbean Diabetes Prevention program, Romano Anthony sometimes tells young people to call her Auntie Sandra.
"I really feel a deep need to try to help the youth up here, and when I commit to something I go all the way," she tells me. "I'm in this for the long haul."
I watch people meet her at at their apartment doors, first with surprise and then a pleased grin when they realize that someone with a black face is asking for their vote.
Sgro has held the riding since a by-election in 1999. Sitting in her campaign office on Sheppard near Weston, which is full of volunteers wearing Liberal-red fleece vests, she tells me, "I think the African community is really trying to get more involved than in the past."
Sgro was pivotal in grabbing Paul Martin's attention for the Coalition of African Canadian Organizations after a couple of letters the group sent to the PM were ignored. Perhaps summing up part of what has gone wrong for the Liberals' national campaign, Sgro says, "I just knew the letters weren't getting through to him.
"I think the Jamaican Canadian Association is doing good work, but it needs more resources," she says.
She's disappointed that big-city mayors, with the possible exception of David Miller, haven't waded into the federal election as they did in 2004. "Why aren't the mayors screaming and hollering?" she asks. "Just as the New Deal For Cities agenda is being implemented, Harper will no doubt cancel it."
But Sgro doesn't win many friends when she insists on crashing the all-party forum organized by new org Black Youth Taking Action (BYTA). The group brings out close to 200 young people from right across the GTA to an election meet at Lawrence Heights Community Centre.
"We're trying to organize a voter bloc of young people," says Nkem Anizor, the brains behind BYTA. "The old guard, the (councillor) Michael Thompsons and (GTA Faith Alliance chair Reverend) Don Merediths, haven't gotten it together politically. If you have a grassroots organization of between 5,000 and 10,000, you can start to make demands."
BYTA's next step is an aggressive organizing campaign at U of T and Ryerson in advance of Monday's vote. "We plan to be involved in the upcoming municipal election, too," she says.
A tense moment occurs when Sgro refuses to leave the stage after being asked to by one of the youth organizers. The BYTA folks decide not to press the issue, and the meeting continues with former immigration minister Sgro sitting on the panel minus a mic.
GTA youth advocate Ken Joseph takes the mic during the Q&A to deliver a sobering comment. He tells the candidates, "We have youth 15 and 16 years old who still can't read and write. They are asking me to help them fill out applications." Joseph works with kids kicked out of school under the Safe Schools Act.
"Do you know how difficult it is to get a youth involved in a program in the first place?" he asks me later. "Sometimes I need to take them by the arm and hold the big official glass door open for them. Otherwise, they simply will not go into an office for help."
Back in Etobicoke North, immigration consultant and NDP contender Ali Naqvi explains why he thinks his candidacy resonates in the area. "People haven't forgotten the Muslim residents here who were declared terrorists," he tells me at a civic engagement forum at Albion Library. "For the black community and the Muslim community, discrimination is huge. People are infuriated."
Naqvi came to Canada from Pakistan in 1988. Like most people engaged in the issues at play along the top of the city, Naqvi sees his involvement in this campaign as part of a long-term process.
"Our focus in this campaign is to get people out to vote," he says. "Of course, we'd love them to vote for us, but more importantly, we are saying to people, 'Just get out and vote. '"