Northwest Toronto hardly seems like fertile ground for progressive politics these days. In Doug Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, and Vince Crisanti, the three wards crowded into that corner of the map are currently represented by staunch conservatives who have consistently voted to support Mayor Rob Ford's far-right agenda this term.
But don't tell Idil Burale that the area is inherently conservative. At only 28, Burale is one of a group of loosely affiliated bright young progressive candidates of colour who are trying to break the right-wing stranglehold in the northwest suburbs. Burale, who is running against Crisanti in Ward 1 on a platform of investment in childcare, affordable housing, and transit says residents aren't happy with the status quo.
"There's a strong sense of disenfranchisement in this community," she says of the area where she has lived for 25 years since arriving here from Somalia.
On paper at least, the conservative streak in Toronto's northwest suburbs can seem counterintuitive. Most people living in Wards 1, 2, and 7 are visible minorities (the most diverse is Ward 1, where 81.9 per cent of people are non-white), the result of waves of immigration during the 1990s and 2000s from places like India, Pakistan, Somalia, Guyana, and Jamaica. Residents earn household incomes significantly below the city average, and many lack access to vital municipal services.
At the federal and provincial levels, the area is solid Liberal red. Yet particularly in Ward 2-where Rob Ford held power for a decade until his brother Doug was elected in 2010-and Ward 7-where Mammoliti has won four successive elections-the districts have repeatedly voted in white councillors who are broadly opposed to government investment in their communities.
This term Doug Ford, Mammoliti, and Crisanti have voted in favour of cuts to city services including programming at priority centres, libraries and transit. Although the area is dotted by ageing Toronto Community Housing developments, all three opposed a proposal to invest the 2012 budget surplus into the social housing reserve. They also oppose the construction of a fully-funded LRT on transit-starved Finch Ave. in favour of a subway that will likely never be built.
Burale is heavily involved in the community, and is a founding members of groups like Positive Change TO, Women in Toronto Politics, and the Toronto Police Services Board's Community Safety Task Force. If her only challenge was to beat Crisanti on his record, she might be a favourite.
But she also has to overcome a deep cynicism among the ward's disadvantaged residents. Only 43.7 per cent of eligible voters in the ward marked a ballot in the last election, and Burale says most of them weren't the people she believes would most benefit from her progressive platform. (Like many suburban areas, Ward 1 boasts has a high proportion of homeowners, who are usually assumed to be older and supportive of conservatives). When Burale goes canvassing in less affluent areas, many people don't even want to open the door.
"That's how distrustful and disgusted they are with political candidates. It's very hard to even get a foot in," she says.
Keegan Henry-Mathieu, who is running against Mammoliti in Ward 7, describes a similar experience.
A 27-year-old who works in communications for the Royal Bank of Canada, a major focus of his campaign is to repair the high-rise apartments that have been left to rot since they were built five decades ago. But he says it's hard to get his message across, even to people who live in those buildings.
"If it's in the apartments they don't want to have anything to do with politics because they've been promised so many things before by so many candidates in so many elections before, and their situation hasn't changed at all," he says. "It becomes a very difficult conversation to say, 'I know you've been left out before but I'm the guy who's serious about helping you.'"
In Ward 2, the Fords have famously harnessed that sense of disconnection by casting themselves as the enemies of a political establishment that has failed to improve the lives of disadvantaged residents.
"Ward 2 people feel like they are cut off from the political process. They are not necessarily more conservative," says Andray Domise, who is running against Rob and Doug's nephew Michael in Ward 2. "They feel like their interests are not being represented at City Hall, [so] they will vote for the antagonistic candidate who will shake things up... and be a thumb in the eye of the political establishment."
Domise, a 33-year-old whose parents immigrated here from Jamaica, says that while the Fords provide residents with an outlet for their frustrations with City Hall they haven't made the ward any better. In a recent Twitter essay Domise slammed Rob Ford's handling of the Woodbine Live project, which the mayor once boasted would turn "Rexdale into Rosedale." The plan collapsed last year.
"If we have a councillor that can work together with the rest of council" residents could "get some investment out in our area for which they are sorely overdue," says Domise. He believes Rexdale has the potential to become "one of Toronto's biggest I.T. hubs," if only the city could tap into the success of initiatives like Albion Public Library's video game program. He wants to create a pipeline from programs like that to the University of Guelph/Humber and companies like local software giant Ubisoft.
"We could be a hub for all of that if we just gave them the opportunity," he says.
By publicly calling the mayor on his racism and penning an open letter to members of the black community who still support him, Domise has become the highest-profile progressive candidate in the northwest. He believes it's possible for white councillors to be effective representatives for minority populations if they "care about and know about our issues," but he'd like to see a more diverse council in order to address the "blind spots" in policy that occur "when you get a lot of people together who come from the same background."
The lack of diversity on council is one reason why Munira Abukar decided to throw her hat in the ring. At only 22, Abukar, a child of Somali immigrants, is also running in Ward 2, where she has lived all her life. Council has only one black member, and is two-thirds male. Abukar questions why a city as diverse as Toronto hasn't elected more people like her.
"To my knowledge we don't have a councillor who practices Islam," she says. "I want to see myself and who my community is [in city government]. I wanted to be the person who started that change in Ward 2."
Abukar would bring more than just a shot of diversity to City Hall, however. Having served on the board of Toronto Community Housing as a tenant rep since 2011, she also has experience representing residents in need. Against her record of community engagement, the resume of fellow Ward 2 candidate Michael Ford is almost comical. In an interview last week Councillor Doug Ford listed his nephew's recent acquisition of a pilot's licence as one of his main credentials.
Yet like the other progressive candidates in the area, Abukar's passion, intelligence, and record of working with the community could well turn out to be no match for well-connected incumbent candidates (or their nephews) who have access to networks of political influence and are all but guaranteed to spend to the campaign limit.
Even Mammoliti, who has found to have violated election spending rules in 2010 and was recently docked 90 days pay for accepting $80,000 from a shady fundraiser, remains on the ballot and appears to have a chance at winning a fifth term. Should his most recent scandal rules him out, the beneficiary could well be another right-leaning candidate Nick Di Nizio, who came in second in 2010.
To overturn the status quo, progressive candidates will have to tap into the disaffected residents who would benefit from their policies and get them to the polls. Henry-Mathieu, the candidate for Ward 7, doesn't dare be optimistic.
"For the most part, residents seem to be latching on to what I'm putting out there," he says, "but I really have no idea whether it's going to translate into votes in October."