By PAT WATSON
A late start and a confusing debate format might have had some impact but the mayoral debate before a gathering of Toronto’s African Canadian voters over the weekend showed how engaged members of the community are in the municipal political process.
The meeting, organized by the Diversity Advancement Network, was held in North York and drew a capacity crowd of more than 400 with standing room only, as well as a very strong media presence.
On the dais with frontrunner mayoral candidates Olivia Chow, Rob Ford, David Soknacki and John Tory, were Dewitt Lee, a repeat mayoral candidate, and D!ONNE Renée.
During opening remarks, Renée thanked the organizers “for allowing us to be sitting at the table, us to be included in the discussion, us to have a voice”.
The first topic raised was the decline in spending on social assistance, child care and seniors services over the past 12 years, having gone from 27 per cent of spending to 20 per cent. Chow blamed the decline on “failed leadership at city hall” and promised that as mayor she would invest in jobs.
Investment in jobs was a recurring theme among all the challengers to the incumbent Ford.
On subsidized housing, the backlog of repairs and the level of unemployment among residents living in Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) neighbourhoods, Chow said residents should be managing their housing stock and functioning as cooperatives.
Ford offered excessive praise of conditions within TCHC sites under his watch, but Soknacki noted that if people keep asking about the matter of the repair burden in public housing, estimated at more than $860 million, then it means the problem hasn’t been solved. He called for decentralization of housing management to put repair contracts into the hands of residents as a form of job creation and personal ownership of community.
Renée said that residents are not being properly included in the decision-making about what needs to be done in subsidized housing and said the responsibility for bringing housing stock up to standard is ultimately the responsibility of the landlord, which is the City of Toronto.
When over-policing of young Black males – carding – and racial profiling by the police was raised, Lee said the police owe the Black community an apology for the trauma caused by this “promotion incentive tool” and the damage to relations between the community and good cops.
He added a call for more diversity on the frontlines: “We don’t have to worry about profiling when we have brothers and sisters on the frontline.”
Lee, Renée, Soknacki and Tory all called for accountability and reform of the program, while rejecting racial profiling. Soknacki in particular said policing in Toronto needs an overall review because so much has changed including policing technology, while the way policing is being done has not changed in more than 20 years. Chow stated firmly that she would end racial profiling. Ford gave an unfocused, rambling response, but stated nonetheless that the police didn’t profile and that “everyone is treated the same”.
In terms of money from Caribana going back to the community, Soknacki said events should be put into the various communities so that businesses there could benefit. Tory said funding contributors should add 10 per cent to their funding for an endowment fund that would go to youth development which would then be matched by government funding. He foresees a “couple million dollars” accruing each year with this project.
With the exception of Ford, the question of Africentric education programs being expanded was endorsed by all the candidates. Ford’s response was met with loud jeers, which grew louder when he characterized current programs as “segregationist”.
The final question raised was regarding the selection of a new police chief and whether it wouldn’t be better to look within the force. In that vein, the names of deputy chiefs Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders, both of whom are Black, was mentioned. All agreed that the search should be worldwide in order to select the ideal candidate while Tory warned against the “anointment” of any individual.
In addition to the debate, Diversity Advancement Network invited other candidates in the room to introduce themselves and speak briefly on their platforms. Among them were Idil Burale and Patricia Crooks, Ward 1 – Etobicoke North; Andray Domise, Munira Abukar and Benn Adeoba, Ward 2 – Etobicoke North; John Chambers, Ward 7 – York West; and candidates for school board trustee Tiffany Ford and Michelle Minott, both in Ward 4.
All the candidates asked for financial support for their campaigns and for more volunteers.