Barely three months into his tenure as premier, Doug Ford has already caused a level of calamity so alarming it has earned criticism from human rights organization Amnesty International.
Now that the court’s have ordered a stay of proceedings, Ford’s hostile takeover of city hall and plan to reduce the number of city representatives from 47 to 25 has turned upside down a municipal election that, before he intervened, would have featured one of the most diverse pools of electoral candidates ever witnessed in Toronto.
“This to me is almost an act of treason,” says Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam in a phone interview with NOW.
It is not insignificant that Ford’s plan to reduce the size of city council comes just when governance as diverse as the city’s populace seemed on the horizon, says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University.
“This election was going to be a game-changer,” says Siemiatycki. “The main hit will be [taken by] racialized communities, the LGBT community, minority religions, all of whom finally stood a chance of making breakthroughs in seeing increased, or in some instances for the first time, election of their own community members onto city council.”
For nearly as long as judicial institutions have existed in Canada, marginalized communities have had to look to officials with whom they do not identify, and who therefore cannot suitably represent their specific needs, to advocate on their behalf, which has left many under-resourced and overlooked.
According to the latest census data, single-parent households are three times as likely to be low-income. That rate is much higher for households headed by single mothers.
While the average poverty rate in Canada has hovered around 11 per cent, the poverty rate for racialized communities is twice that. In Toronto alone, 62 per cent of all communities living in poverty are racialized, while more than half of the LGBTQ community reportedly live on less than $15,000 a year.
As someone who is LGBTQ and one of the few Black trustees on Toronto District School Board, Chris Moise says, “I really wanted to represent that community.” He had planned to run as a candidate under the 47-ward boundary system.
But under Ford’s deceptively named Better Local Government Act, the consolidation of ward boundaries has left a logjam. For many potential candidates, this has meant bowing out of the expensive and confusing race for council.
Organizations like Women Win TO have been training women interested in running for public office. The group was successful in helping a number of first-time candidates win seats during the recent provincial election, including the NDP MPP for Toronto-St. Paul’s, Jill Andrew.
“As a Black, queer woman I have experienced discrimination first hand. Whether through our education system, size or appearance-based discrimination, our health care system or even in how our communities are policed,” Andrew says. “Running for office means that my lived experience and others like mine will be represented. I will work from a place of equity. Now that I’m here, I’m ready to continue building bridges and breaking down barriers so our next generation doesn’t need to face similar experiences.”
NDP MPP Faisal Hassan has a similar story. Hassan, who represents York South–Weston, is a Somali immigrant who moved to the city’s west end as a child and has lived in the area ever since. He first ran for public office in 2015 to improve services in his area that have been neglected for years.
There is a common thread linking many of the stories of municipal candidates like Moise, Tiffany Ford (Ward 7), Kalsang Dolma (Ward 4), Walied Khogali (Ward 23) and Naiima Farah (Ward 1). All hope to bring services and visibility to vulnerable and marginalized communities, from which they draw their experiences.
“The most important thing for me is inspiring first-time voters,” says Ford, who is taking on long-time incumbent Giorgio Mammoliti.
Ford says most people of colour in her ward have historically not voted. “It’s kind of like [councillors are] just coming here and just keeping a seat.”
Should the city see a reduction of the number of wards (the province’s appeal of a court decision putting a stop to the plan won’t be heard until after the October 22 election), we can all count on representatives being far less available to work in service of our needs, with half the number of councillors tasked with overseeing a rapidly growing city of over 2.8 million people. A significant portion of the population – the 51 per cent of us who already do not see ourselves represented in governance – can also expect adherence to the status quo.
The benefits of allowing a larger council with more progressive and diverse voices wouldn’t just flow to communities of colour. It would also mean advocacy with positive outcomes for people who face similar city-wide issues – the underemployed, working families, households with children who attend public school, those who rent, people who lack access to medical resources and care and transit users.
How a government treats its vulnerable and communities of colour is a barometer by which we can measure a city’s quality of life. What’s worse, a smaller, less diverse council leaves unchecked a premier whose sanctioned power far exceeds his sense of duty, and risks allowing greater abuses for years to come.
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