The school trustees race -- largely ignored because it competes with city council and federal elections -- is turning into a strange contest in Etobicoke and Scarborough.
In Etobicoke Centre, incumbent Donna Cansfield, a 12-year veteran of the board, is being challenged by Ihsam El-Sayed, who's best known for leading a group of Muslim parents unhappy with the school board's gay-inclusive equity policy.
Unlikely defender The soft-spoken Cansfield finds herself the unlikely defender of gay rights in her admittedly homogenous ward.
"Our equity policy indicated that we respect all individuals regardless of their sexual orientation, creed or culture," she says from her home in Etobicoke. "I voted for it, and I'm quite proud of that.'
Cansfield sees El-Sayed's support as coming mainly from the Muslim community in Etobicoke, most of whom live outside the newly drawn boundaries of Etobicoke Centre.
"I've never spoken to the woman,' she says. "She's never called me. She doesn't even live in my ward.'
El-Sayed counters, "I don't know why people keep bringing up the gay issue. The gay issue is one of 21 other equity issues. I would like to see equality where one group or one community is not favoured over the other. You have to be fair across the board to all people.
"They didn't have representation from all sections of the community," she says.
This new, canny political rhetoric has replaced the tough talk about taking on the school board and the inflammatory and virulent anti-gay pronouncements on a Web site for parents established by the group she and husband Ibrahim El-Sayed led last year. The site has since been taken down, and El-Sayed's campaign literature stresses board "accountability' and community outreach.
And about Cansfield's charges that they have never spoken, El-Sayed says, "I've spoken to her many times. She did not believe I was representative of the parents in our group, but who is she to decide that?"
El-Sayed says that even though she now lives in Etobicoke North, she knows the central ward well, having lived there for several years, and has been familiarizing herself with the issues as she campaigns door-to-door.
El-Sayed admits that she probably doesn't stand much of a chance against long-time trustee Cansfield, but she promises to be more than just a representative for particular religious interests if elected.
"We have to be sensitive to all groups. That's what diversity is about, that's what democratic society is about. If I cannot be who I am, then how are we different from any other country?" she asks. "I will bring my beliefs to the board as well as those of all the minorities in our riding."
Meanwhile, Ibrahim El-Sayed has parachuted into Scarborough Southwest, where he's also running for trustee. His wife says they have nothing to do with each other's campaigns and will both serve on the board if elected.
"We're two separate people, right?" she laughs. "There is no provision preventing us from representing our community on the board."
For her part, Cansfield isn't concerned about El-Sayed's play for her job. "I'll continue to work as an advocate on behalf of students in the centre of Etobicoke and to work on behalf of all children, ensuring that they get the very best education they can."