Politics can be a rough business. I know. I have worked on more than a dozen campaigns and won election to city council. I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong.
During last fall’s municipal elections, politics took an ominous turn in Canada’s largest city and we should all be alarmed.
Much of what I am about to tell you I have only shared with loved ones and friends, but I believe the people of Toronto should know what I encountered and should take heed.
It started on a warm day last August as I was touring the John Innes Community Centre in Moss Park, something I had done many times in my eight years as a city councillor for the area. Out of nowhere, I was suddenly accosted by a group of large, muscular men, led by an individual who had run against me unsuccessfully in a previous election and who had put his name on the ballot again in 2018.
With phones pointed in my face recording, they launched into a barrage, making a series of false, defamatory and outlandish allegations, accusing me of “corruption,” and owning 28 condominiums, which were allegedly acquired under questionable circumstances during my time in public office. These were vicious, ridiculous and easy-to-disprove lies. I co-own exactly one condo with my sister. Our retired and pension-less parents live there, and we work hard to cover their expenses.
But the truth did not matter – I was trapped in an episode of staged political theatre, designed to capture video for an online slander campaign. It was also intended to intimidate and in that moment it worked.
I have been in the middle of many heated political debates, but this was something different, something threatening and unsettling.
I am a small-frame, gender non-conforming, queer Asian woman and I was confronted by a large man, accompanied by his large friends who had joined him from the weight training room at the centre. With his non-stop barking of questions and allegations and no way to de-escalate the situation, I was forced to leave.
Feeling shaken and unsafe, I reported the incident to the Toronto police, but there was nothing they could do about the online assaults that followed.
The video of the incident was quickly distributed via social media, followed by offensive memes and racist and sexist attacks from an organized community of alt-right sympathizers who enthusiastically promoted the condo lie.
An admirer of white supremacists who was running for mayor re-tweeted it to her large following. It gathered momentum as Twitter bots jumped in citing “corruption” and “elites.” They tagged mainstream media outlets, accusing them of only pursuing #fakenews and not reporting on this “news” story of public interest.
It reminded me of the social media tactics that produced the birther lie that dogged former President Barack Obama and the Pizzagate fantasy promoted about Hillary Clinton.
These amplified conspiracy theories had fanned the flames of xenophobia, racism, sexism and misogyny that would incite real and harmful violence south of the border. Now it had arrived in the Toronto municipal campaign.
This year’s election was already like no other in recent history.
Premier Doug Ford’s decision to slash the size of council in half was bad enough. But now I found myself the target of predatory politics, one where civil discourse is denigrated and where misinformation, character assassination and outright lies are employed as campaign tactics, not unlike the malign phenomenon that elected and nourishes Donald Trump.
It got worse.
I discovered afterwards that my tormentor had been spreading other lies about me, telling members of the community, some of them quite vulnerable, that their cherished John Innes Community Centre was going to be torn down to make way for condominiums – again utterly false.
As the Twitter assaults continued, I received several death threats from anonymous accounts on other platforms. Concurrently, I was being stalked at community events by another individual who was publicly accusing me, an out queer person, of supporting child abuse and pedophiles, all the while recording those staged homophobic interactions on her phone.
Black-and-white flyers with the “28 condo” fiction were distributed to confused coffee shop patrons in the Village. Coming on the heels of the summer blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, it was a blatant attempt to leverage the dog whistle of anti-Asian racism and a housing crisis blamed on so-called “foreign buyers.”
I considered legal action but was advised it would only give more oxygen to my accuser.
When I thought the election could not become any more surreal, an anonymous voice recording, originating in New York of all places, threw out yet another scandalous accusation, claiming I used my political office to advance my spouse’s career. The recording was posted on different social media channels and promoted through paid ads on Facebook.
Sadly, some of the other candidates in my ward picked up on the lies, printing them on their slickly produced campaign literature that was distributed door to door. It was a cynical tactic, given they knew that I was not responding to the falsehoods because I did not want to bring any more attention to them or further incite the alt-right Twitter bots.
Despite all the attacks, the people of Toronto Centre elected me with a very strong majority, for which I am deeply grateful. The voters refused to believe the lies.
But I was shaken, and I am now speaking out about it because I care about our democracy. I also care deeply for the cause of broadening representation in our public institutions, especially women from diverse communities.
Almost two years ago, I started to focus this passion by working with others with similar goals to create Women Win TO, a grassroots organization dedicated to recruiting and training progressive women from diverse backgrounds to run in the 2018 Toronto election. We ran training sessions on campaigning, fundraising and how to stay healthy when opponents attacked.
Then Ford blew up the election and some wonderful candidates had to step aside because they lacked the resources to run campaigns in the new, larger wards.
The goal of closing the gender gap may become more elusive if the decline of decorum continues in the political arena.
A 2017 poll by Abacus Data confirmed what every woman considering a run for political office already knew: that they are less likely to participate in politics because it is an arena defined by “conflicts, negativity and personal attacks.”
Our democracy benefits from a greater diversity of voices in decision-making positions. If women and people of colour don’t run for political office, they don’t get elected. If they don’t get elected, progress will not be made and democracy suffers.
But I fear we will have to adjust our curriculum to address the ugly new reality that I faced, a reality that is sadly common. Women running for public office, especially racialized women, experience this kind of harassment far more often.
As we challenge the structures that define and uphold power, there will be those who make it their mission to discredit us, delegitimize us and intimidate us. I say this with strength, love and determination to continue creating a more inclusive and equitable public office.
When I first considered running for political office, I sought the counsel of my Buddhist advisor. She shared that “politics is dirty if you think politics is dirty.” Her advice was cryptic to me then, but eight years later, at the end of this Trumpesque election, I finally understand.
If politicians believe that negative campaigning is a sure path to winning elections, then they will sink as low as they can to come out on top. And social media provides new tools to facilitate dirty tricks and bring truth under attack.
There is another way. To make democracy work for us all, we need it to reflect our values. Our moral compass must always point to truth.
Toronto is capable of politics that is collaborative, hopeful and intelligent. If that is the politics we expect, then those are the politicians we will vote for and that is how they will govern. The sooner we all realize this, the stronger our city will be, and the better democracy will become.