Questions of race animate Jane-Finch debate

John Tory facing criticism for his response to question on white privilege


Friday night’s mayoral debate at York Woods Library almost didn’t happen. Doug Ford put it in jeopardy a day earlier when he threatened to withdraw if candidate Ari Goldkind was allowed to take part, which in turn prompted John Tory to announce he would drop out if Ford was allowed to dictate who participated. In the end organizers with the Inner City Union re-invited Goldkind, Ford boycotted, and Tory, Goldkind and Olivia Chow were left as the three participants.

The debate, which took place just east of Jane and Finch, was the only one specifically dedicated to issues facing neighbourhood improvement areas (the term the city gives to its disadvantaged communities) and thankfully, topics of poverty, racism, policing, and housing took centre stage. But as with most aspects of Toronto’s 2014 municipal election, there was also plenty of accompanying drama.

Here are the highlights:

D!ONNE demands to be heard

The debate was disrupted before it even began when fringe candidate D!ONNE Renée took to the stage and demanded she be allowed to take part. Renée loudly argued that a debate about issues facing neighbourhoods of people of colour should include a black candidate. “I serve the interests of inclusion, not exclusion or discrimination!” she declared.

Some in the audience shouted at her to get off the stage but one group of women chanted “Let her speak!” Moderator and organizer Antonius Clarke told Renee he was “totally ashamed” that he hadn’t invited her, but explained “it’s a very hard task accommodating all the voices at this table.” He allowed her a microphone, and after about 15 chaotic minutes she agreed to leave.

And he was doing so well…

John Tory, who polls place as the frontrunner, has thus far avoided the kind of unforced error that has sabotaged his previous runs for office. But in a media scrum after the debate, a reporter asked him, “Does white privilege exist?” Tory’s response: “White privilege? No, I don’t know that it does.”

“There are people who are left behind,” he continued, “I think what they need is a hand up from people of all different skin colours and religions and backgrounds. That’s what really I’ve been all about for the last number of years.”

The online backlash to his answer was swift, but the truth is he was flirting with this kind of language all night.

Earlier, when Clarke asked about the predominance of white representatives on council, Tory talked about a program he ran with CivicAction, in which “you actually brought people, consciously, from visible minority groups… into rooms across the city and said, ‘Here’s how you run for office, here’s how to get some confidence’…. We’ve got to give people the self-confidence to step up and run.”

In response, Chow accused him of blaming people for their own disenfranchisement by claiming they lacked confidence. “I didn’t blame anybody,” Tory fumed. “I actually did something about it.”

These kind of statements, in which Tory emphasizes his own supposed role in improving the lives of disadvantaged people over the efforts of the people themselves, make it sound like he believes marginalized people can’t advance without the help of rich, goodhearted people like him. They also ignore broader issues of systemic discrimination. And they could get Tory into trouble.

Odd mod

The Inner City Union’s Antonius Clarke, a decorated activist in the Jane-Finch community, was possibly the most combative moderator we’ve seen this election. He repeatedly interjected when he didn’t like a response, asked candidates to answer again if he wasn’t satisfied, and at times seemed more interested in promoting his own viewpoints than hearing the candidates’. Goldkind and Tory had more heated exchanges with Clarke than they did with each other, and in several instances they were visibly frustrated when he demanded they answer complex questions with only yes or no.

SmartTrack backlash

As expected, Tory faced questions about why his SmartTrack plan bypasses the transit-starved Jane-Finch neighbourhood. He explained that the line was designed to connect Torontonians to job-rich areas in Mississauga and Markham, and that “If you had to go from here, at Jane and Finch, to Mississauga using SmartTrack, you’ll get there a lot faster, notwithstanding it doesn’t go right through Jane and Finch.”

Chow shot back: “Your track is on Eglinton, which is very far away from Finch.” She said her priority would be building the Finch West LRT as soon as possible. “I will make that investment right now.”

Goldkind’s last dance?

Although Goldkind has proved so skilled a debater that Doug Ford, a trader of his attacks, now refuses to engage with him, this could be the last the public sees of the pugnacious defence attorney this election. With just over two weeks until voting day, the long-shot candidate hasn’t been invited to any of the remaining debates. Calling Friday’s event his potential “swan song,” he used his closing remarks to urge organizers of future debates to rethink excluding him. “My voice is about to be shut down,” he said.

bens@nowtoronto.com | @BenSpurr

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