My first ever foray into the world of electoral politics began with an innocuous email from a friend and neighbour.
It was July 7, and I had just returned from a family holiday, with no particular plans for my future in mind. I had joined Ryerson University as a Distinguished Visiting Professor after an eventful decade as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. The appointment had ended in June, and I thought I was now finally retired from working life.
My friend had been closely involved in the historic win of Jill Andrew in Toronto-St. Paul’s as the first-ever Black and queer NDP MPP to be elected in the riding. I had rejected previous approaches to seek electoral office. But this time I agreed to put my name forward for the NDP in the riding. Thus began my 107-day journey through the thickets of Canadian politics.
As a Canadian of South Asian descent, I was the only racialized candidate in the riding. And as a result of my long involvement with the oversight of Toronto’s police service I had a considerable public profile as well as a sometimes controversial social media presence.
What role did any of this play in my campaign? More than two months since the October 21 election I am still reflecting on the question.
I was not the first person of colour to seek elected office in the riding. St. Paul’s is one of the city’s most affluent ridings encompassing parts of Forest Hill, Davisville and Mount Pleasant. But the riding is also characterized by a very high degree of racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity. It includes the second-highest population of renters in the province. With a median household income of $70,000, there are clearly a lot of people living in the riding who are poor, making class composition perhaps the riding’s most defining characteristic.
I believed that my track record of public service related to human rights, anti-racism, equity and policing could be turned into support from many who had in the past not come out to vote as often as those who are professional, well off and white. I was wrong. Carolyn Bennett, the long-serving Liberal incumbent, continued her stranglehold on the seat, which began some 22 years ago, primarily on the strength of votes from affluent areas of the riding.
As I was to find out, running for political office involves many challenges and the first came from within the party itself.
I had to complete a long and very detailed document giving every possible detail about me from the nearly 50 years that I had lived in Toronto. I also had to provide copies or links to all of my published writing, and access to my social media accounts. I was required to reveal if I had ever been a member or contributor to any other political party and to provide information about anything that may have happened or that I may have been involved with that could be controversial.
It was a bigger dossier than anything I had ever assembled.
It took a week to complete these forms by hand – no, the NDP does not do this stuff online – prepare a whole lot of appendices (because there wasn’t enough space on the forms), make copies of numerous documents and send a thick package to Ottawa.
In my letter, I explained that the date for the nomination meeting had been set, hoping that this would expedite the vetting process. As many as four people were rumoured to be interested in the candidacy. And if I was not cleared by the meeting date, I could not contest the nomination.
Soon after sending my package, I received a message from a long-time senior staffer in the NDP. I was told that I had been too active on social media and was strongly advised to stop posting comments and, preferably, shut down my accounts altogether until after the election.
Evidently, there was nervousness around my comments and posts on issues like policing, climate crisis, poverty, human rights and racism, which were mostly not complimentary.
I took a range of actions, but did not completely shut down my accounts. I found out that someone from the vetting committee was carefully going through my years of posts.
This scrutiny of my social media was only one factor that affected the time it took to complete the vetting process.
Many NDP veterans had told me that with my many years of very public life, it would not take the vetting committee too long to approve me. In fact, it was the opposite. When clearance finally came towards the end of August, I had just a little over a week left to prepare and build support for my nomination.
I was up against one other person, a tech-savvy PhD candidate who made a strong pitch based on his self-proclaimed deep engagement with the climate crisis and workers’ rights. He cleverly attempted to bring the age issue into the contest. In my 70s, I was among the oldest seeking a nomination.
I had been warned by a good friend – a prominent former MP – that this might happen, and I should be prepared for it.
In his promotional materials, my opponent bluntly accused the older generation of politicians, decision-makers and activists of jeopardizing the survival of those coming after them. He called for the nomination of a candidate who represented the future and would reject those old ways of doing things.
His message did not go unnoticed by many of the riding members who got it. They interpreted it as being ageist.
I was nominated on September 7. And the writ was dropped the next day.
The campaign was on but I had very little money, no office space, no staff and no volunteers except my family and a handful of close friends and supporters. We had little hope of matching the much better-financed campaigns of the Liberal and Conservative candidates.
It was also clear from the get-go that there would be no financial or other support from the national party, which was facing its own challenges with fundraising.
With what money we had raised from the nomination, I was able to rent office space and recruit a terrific campaign manager. But the first priority of my small team and the riding association was to launch a fundraising effort. We enlisted a couple of volunteers who produced campaign videos and created a social media platform for free. And slowly, volunteers started to show up to help with the campaign.
But it took three weeks to get to the point where we could actually go out and run a real campaign.
Unlike the initial hitches in seeking the nomination, the campaign itself turned out to be an exhilarating and positive experience. For me, the most enlightening part was knocking on doors and speaking to prospective voters in nearly every corner of the riding and from every background.
A single parent with two teenage children told me that she spends nearly 80 per cent of her monthly income on rent for a two-bedroom unit. She worried about not having the money for proper food and other necessities.
Another person renting the top unit in a three-storey walk-up, was due to go in for knee surgery. The hospital wanted her to go home two days after the surgery, but how would she walk up three flights of stairs without any assistance?
A retired person with no health and dental coverage talked about not being able to afford to replace his dentures.
And, of course, anxiety about the climate crisis was everywhere, particularly among the poor and working people, worried about how governments will take care of the displacements and disruptions that would inevitably result from any transition to a green economy.
On and on the stories went. I heard repeatedly that I was the first – and usually the only – candidate who had come to their door.
At around 80,000, the number of eligible voters in this election was higher than in 2015, but there was a considerable drop in votes cast. Bennett herself got fewer votes than in the last election, as did the Conservatives. By contrast, the NDP and the Green Party both increased their share.
So, there is a task ahead. It is to convince those who have opted out of the electoral system that they can make a difference. For me, the opportunity to get to experience this first-hand made the experience like no other.