It is vain to talk about a community without understanding the issues of the community. Benn Adeoba, a candidate for Toronto city councillor in Ward 2, shared these powerful words in his one-minute speech to a packed room of community leaders, business professionals, youth and elders, gathered together for the Black Canadian mayoral forum presented by the Diversity Advancement Network in North York.
With his one statement, Adeoba, who immigrated to Canada in 1998, shed light on a central underlying theme of the forum. With six speakers at the podium – the incumbent Rob Ford, Olivia Chow, David Soknacki, John Tory, Dewitt Lee and D!ONNE Renée – the basis of the evening was to see who could get the heart of very specific matters pertaining to the Black community in a way that resonated.
Through five questions ranging in breadth from “police carding” to Africentric schools, moderator Hodan Nalayeh (founder/host of Integration TV on CITY) provided the candidates with an opportunity to share their platforms and promises to a packed audience. Amongst the many rounds of applause, some heckling, some boos and some grumbling, this is what transpired.
$876 million in backlogged repairs
Getting the evening underway, each candidate was asked to share his or her position on social housing and how the decision would directly impact the African-Caribbean Canadian community. After making a bold statement that nobody has done more for Toronto Community Housing (TCH) than he has, Rob Ford pointed out that he would not increase affordable housing units until the current status of $876 million in backlogged repairs that leaves residents living in what he called “deplorable” conditions is cleaned up. He also went on to say that as much as he would love to increase social programs, he will not, because doing so would mean higher taxes. That being said, he noted that in his four-year term he has created 59,000 jobs, and a job is what he calls the “best social program.”
The rest of the panel strongly opposed Ford. Olivia Chow made it clear that the time is now to invest; not only did she promise 15,000 new affordable housing units, but she also promised after-school programs and most importantly, vowed to return the power and control to the residents to renew their own TCH communities.
During the entire conversation, there was little talk about the impacts on the Black community, though, until Dewitt Lee reminded the audience of the original question, and pointed out that what is really needed is a mayor who will ensure that after the smoke and mirrors of the campaign trail disappears, he or she will follow through on campaign promises. He pointed out that with over $2 billion in backlogged infrastructure expenditures overall, the city has its work cut out for it, and until someone deals with that challenge, low-income families living in TCH will not see the results they need. Picking up off a concept David Soknacki introduced of “sweat equity”, Lee challenged the candidates: “Let’s get some of the people living in the communities with small businesses working on their own buildings … I heard the words sweat equity – that’s something we are born with.”
A complete police services review
It is no secret that the history of race relations between the Black community and the Toronto Police Services has been strained to say the least. Racial profiling, particularly of young Black men, is a constant issue. Upon hearing from the moderator of the disproportionate number of Black people who were subject to police carding in Toronto last year, candidates were asked to speak to whether or not they would abolish the practice. Although no candidate came out and said he or she would completely abolish “carding” per se, Chow promised to sit on the police services board (on which the mayor is given a seat, but can appoint someone else – councillor Michael Thompson currently represents Ford) and stop racial profiling, which she called “demoralizing” and said alienates people of colour. Lee said he supports carding, because it keeps us safe, but he did point out the initial process was brought about with a major promotional incentive for police officers, which resulted in a disproportionate number of incidents involving Black people and for that he felt the community deserved an apology.
A second issue of policing – why the city is searching across North America for a replacement for Police Chief Bill Blair, when Toronto has three highly respectable and competent deputy chiefs, two of whom are Black (Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders) – divided the candidates. Ford, Soknacki and Tory agreed that an international search would garner the best person for the position. Chow took a different stance: go to the public and find out what the people want from a new chief and use the data to guide the process in seeking the best candidate. Lee and Renée agreed that increasing the diversity on the police services board and the frontlines would, in turn, decrease racial profiling, police brutality and ensure fair hiring practices were put in place for positions like the police chief. Perhaps, amongst all of the discussion surrounding the controversial topic of policing, Soknacki’s quiet voice rang through most prolifically: “We need an entire review of the police services board in this city, we have not changed how we look at policing for 25 years.” The applause in the room signaled that no matter who is elected mayor, this is one change members of the community are demanding.
A second issue of policing – why the city is searching across North America for a replacement for Police Chief Bill Blair, when Toronto has three highly respectable and competent deputy chiefs, two of whom are Black (Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders) – divided the candidates.
A brighter future for children
Children and youth were discussed often throughout the evening. Chow stressed the importance over and over again of investing in children – more kids are living in poverty and going to bed hungry than they were four years ago, she pointed out. She is dedicated to bringing more after-school programs into the communities that need them the most. When the topic of education arose, specifically the question of expanding the current Africentric schools that the Toronto District School Board is operating, she also said she would ensure the TDSB got the resources to maintain and expand the programming. In fact, the entire panel was in agreement on the issue – if it’s working and engaging children, the Africentric curriculum needs to be honed and expanded. That is, with the exception of Ford. He made his position clear. “I don’t believe in segregating communities in a multicultural community,” he declared. He followed that up by adamantly claiming that no one has done more in the city for Black youth than him. To which, some applauded and others grumbled, but Lee had this to say: “There’s no way this administration did what it could have done for this community; we are not going to accept BBQs, football teams, fly by night promises – we need education, we need jobs, we need change.”
“I don’t believe in segregating communities in a multicultural community,” Ford declared.
Reading between the lines
Through all the rhetoric that was delivered during the forum, it seemed that at times some of the candidates lacked the type of understanding of the community’s issues that councillor candidate Adeoba first spoke of. While the right words were used and generated applause and cheers, the promises made only scratched the surface of the complex issues Black Canadians face daily. Whoever is elected, as Lee and Renée pointed out numerous times throughout the night, needs to be held accountable. Most importantly, the new mayor needs to ensure that the underrepresented and marginalized voices of Toronto are heard at the decision-making tables.
Perhaps where more poignant messages were delivered and relevant experiences shared was during the one-minute councillor candidate speeches prior to the mayoral candidate discussion. Munira Abukar, who is running in Ward 2, spoke about knowing what it’s like to grow up the middle child of nine, travel two hours each way to get to school and sit on the TCH resident board. One of her opponents, Andray Anthony Domise, challenged the audience to understand its own power. For so long the community has been stripped of that power, he said. And perhaps most memorable of all, Ward 1 candidate, Patricia Crooks said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” If everyone in the room felt the way she did, the odds are that change is on its way.
For once, the visible minority vote (a demographic that doesn’t typically make it out to the polls) will be heard on October 27.