Worst Behaviour: Apparently You Can Use Slurs in Toronto Now

Courtesy Rob Ford's Twitter. 

Courtesy Rob Ford's Twitter. 

By Anupa Mistry

From the outside, Toronto seems like a utopia: the world’s greatest rapper calls this city home (that’s Drake, if you haven't been paying attention), gay couples are free to get married, our healthcare system is beleaguered but subsidized, and our film festival is a barometer for Oscars. Torontonians are a happy clash of cultures; almost half the population are native speakers of another languageVogue recently named our bustling Queen West the second hippest neighbourhood in the world. THE WORLD, YOU GUYS. VOGUE.

But in the tense run-up to the municipal election later this month, there’s been a lot of drama that exposes the conservative, xenophobic face of this city’s power elites. Two female candidates, both women of colour, have publicly come forward about incidents of basic bullying hate rhetoric directed at them online and IRL, some originating from self-professed members of the ill-defined, amorphous mob known as Ford Nation.

Ah yes, so Toronto also has this mayor, whom you’ve probably heard of— and definitely laughed at. Observers of all stripes, from newspaper columnists to sidewalk Sallys, attributed RoFo’s electoral success to a platform built on outer borough discontent on the narrative of a bougie, fast-gentrifying, pedestrian and cycle-friendly downtown core that stood in direct opposition to humble, hard-working, average people. Rob’s very suss M.O. was to paint the city’s core—Manhattanizing fast, in part because of pro-business types like himself—as a wealthy, artsy-fartsy enclave guzzling a disproportionate share of the City’s fiscal resources. It also skirted over his record of boorish racism and outright homophobia.

To Ford, courting poor and/or brown constituents meant offering fast fixes while consistently, singularly voting against social policies that could directly benefit those communities across the city. His drug scandal has disproportionately impacted the communities and families connected to his dealer transactions. He refuses to acknowledge Pride. When Rob’s team announced that his cancer diagnosis was the end to his appalling stewardship of this city, a lot of people breathed a sigh of relief; surely this would be the end of Ford for Toronto. But in stepped big brother Doug Ford, with his steely death stare and watchful bull terrier stance, to announce he’d be leveraging political sympathy and antipathy toward the Ford family to run in baby bro’s stead. The deplorable, beyond surreal saga of the tenure of Mayor Rob Ford just got even more unbelievable, and that means that coming municipal election on October 27th is as locally anticipated—and as crucial, on a macro-level—as Obama ’08.

But the impact of this election should be felt beyond just who gets voted mayor and who gets voted into ward councilor positions (analysis has shown that the incumbency rate is high, at 90%), because over the past two weeks things have gotten really ugly. Kristyn Wong-Tam, a queer Chinese-Canadian councillor for the bustling Toronto Centre-Rosedale ward, and something of a media sweetheart, recently received an anonymous letter (sent from a ‘Ford Nation supporter’) filled with a bunch of racist, sexist and homophobic crap. I don’t need to repeat what was said because it pretty much amounts to geospecific YouTube trolling—it’s the same unsophisticated, fear-filled wailing that dominates Internet comment sections.

Around the same time, mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, also Chinese-Canadian, began to experience and public acknowledge a rise in racist and sexist bullying, both online and IRL. A recent investigation by the Toronto Star found Chow’s team had removed almost 1,800 “racist, sexist and other offensive posts” since announcing her campaign in March. Just last week at a community debate, open mic time was sabotaged in order to publicly fling xenophobic garbage at Chow.

Chow and Wong-Tam aren’t the only women of colour currently campaigning for political office— young women like Munira Abukar, Idil Burale and Suzanne Naraine are also angling for councilor status—but they’re a significant minority amidst all of the dudely vibes of local governance. And Chow represents the first serious mayoral bid by a non-white candidate (period) since Carolann Wright-Parks ran in 1988.

Candidates of colour are consistently questioned on their capacity to lead or portrayed as pandering to their ethnic communities, when the reality is that everyone does it—even our Prime Minister. Add being a woman to that and you’ve erected a candidate specific hurdle that the straight white men running for office are able to gleefully glide past (because they make all the rules, duh).

The sexist, anti-ethnic, anti-diversity diversion that is plaguing Toronto’s recent municipal election isn’t just an overt warning sign that things are really fucking amiss at a very high level – it’s also a missed opportunity for political opponents to be leaders and rally around Wong-Tam and Chow and take an actual stand against the ideas that make this city great. No one is saying we have to vote in Chow or Wong-Tam or Burale or even Andray Domise, the phenomenal, Diddy-loving opponent facing off against the Ford family for Ward 2 councilor, but taking lateral strides to dissuade this kind of public harassment and discrimination wouldn’t just be setting a great example— it’d be upholding the Canadian Charter of Rights.

It’s important to note that this isn’t the first time a municipal election in Toronto was marred by hate: in 2010, mayoral candidate George Smitherman was the recipient of a ton of homophobic propaganda. The Ford bros. project of confusing hard-right stupidity for populism has stoked a fire in the rapidly diluting fabric of Old (Straight, White) Toronto, but directly attributing these ideas to some freak fringe of the city serves to distract from the fact that it’s this freak fringe that is in power. Despite the fact Toronto’s entire PR angle is that it’s this diverse utopia, mainstream institutions are pitifully indicative of that breadth. I mean, there’s a reason Drake had to go stateside to make it.

This piece was published in conjunction with The Hairpin, a place on the internet to read smart things, often by women. 

The Meaning of Chow

By Kelli Korducki

“I'm not male. Not white. Want to start there?”

This was how, in an April Twitter chat, Olivia Chow fielded a question from Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale on how she might politically distinguish herself from the Miller years. A non-answer on the policy level, Chow's response touched on questions that had been bubbling since well before she announced her candidacy.

From the moment city chatter settled into election mode—roughly sometime between Crackgate and early 2014—there was speculation over whether Chow could rally the Chinese communities in Scarborough and North York to tip the vote in her favour. As Ethnic Aisle contributor Simon Yau pointed out in Toronto Life, Ford's fiscal conservativism can be an appealing sell for practical-minded Chinese immigrants like his parents, who prioritize hard work and self-sufficiency over expanding municipal services through tax hikes. But Yau explained his parents weren't necessarily opposed to voting for Chow: “She's Chinese,” he noted, “and that may be enough.” Maybe something as simple as ethnic solidarity would bring a definitive end to any hope of Ford More Years.

And so we have Chow: the only not-male, not-white frontrunner for the mayoralty. As of the most recent polls, it looks increasingly likely that she'll be bested in this race by the very male, and quintessentially white John Tory.

The scare-quoted “ethnic vote” is something we've touched on here at the Ethnic Aisle, in the context of white candidates clumsily trumpeting inclusivity in exchange for ballots. But the meaning of the term changes when the candidate in question is herself an ethnic minority, for whom being “down” with ethnic communities is perhaps more than an obligatory performance.

While Chow hasn't explicitly positioned herself as a minority candidate (how that would even take shape is anybody's guess), her first major campaign fundraiser was held at a dim sum banquet in Scarborough, where Chinese community leaders sung her praises to a receptive crowd using both Cantonese and Mandarin. Chow also adopted Toronto's newly introduced 437 area code in order to secure a triple-eight number sequence in her campaign's official phone number; in Chinese culture, the number eight, and triple eights especially, are seen as arbiters of good fortune.

And yet there has been little talk of Chow potentially becoming Toronto's first non-white mayor, or what that would signify for the ethnically diverse city she would represent. In the meantime, the “anyone but Ford” cabal is evacuating her camp faster than if a hurricane personally knocked on every one of their front doors. Maybe she's too progressive or not progressive enough; maybe it's a question of charisma. Or, maybe—and here we can all share a communal wince—it's “not-white, not-male” that's the sticking point. Slurs have been hurled (“Go back to China!” at a recent debate by a Ford-supporting heckler); her accented English hasn’t gone undiscussed. Still, there's no real way of knowing whether Chow's ethnicity has helped or hindered her mayoral campaign. We can only presume that it's done both, and almost certainly one more than the other, but we're left to gut feelings and educated guesses to determine which—and, well, neither one of these research methods is exactly scientific.

What we do know is that the past four years—the past Ford years—have been a boon to bigotry. We're well beyond the point of pretending the mayor has any possibility of redeeming himself from his demonstrated misogyny, his racism, his homophobia. These behaviours have left a starker stain on the Ford mayoralty than his obstinacy or self-destructive appetites.

Worse than the unflattering light they've cast on our entire city, the past four years have been shot through with the kind of hatefulness that's viscerally painful to confront head-on. Whether or not we were complicit in Ford's election, we were all unwittingly signed up for his reality show in 2010. It's easier to avert the collective gaze than to dwell on the magnitude of Ford's ignorance, and the stranger-than-fiction plot points of his reign have done a good job of distracting from its ugliness.

Chow is the anti-Ford, and not only because she occupies a space on the opposite end of the political spectrum. The reality is much grimmer: as a woman of colour, she is the embodiment of all that our mayor disregards. Her sheer personhood defies the politician a majority of voters selected to represent our city four years ago. That's a tough pill to chew, and an even tougher one to swallow.  

Is Zoning Racist? Does It Have to Be?

By John Michael McGrath

In a mayoral race that seems scripted by Twilight Zone screenwriters, it's sometimes difficult to remember all the minor and semi-major insanity along the way. One event in particular is likely only to be remembered by the hardest of hard-core nerds: the departure of campaign strategist Warren Kinsella from his quasi-official role with the Olivia Chow campaign. That's a shame, because Kinsella's exit from the race spoiled the chance to talk about some important elements of Toronto's policies.

Photo from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons

In late August Kinsella was shown the door, if not pushed through it, after commenting that John Tory's transit plans wouldn't serve Toronto's priority neighbourhoods, which are de facto concentrations of visible minorities and poverty. “Is John Tory's SmartTrack, you know, Segregationist Track?” asked Kinsella, who quickly retracted and apologized. Perhaps in part because many Torontonians realized the accuracy of Kinsella's accusation, Tory has since amended his transit plan to unequivocally (as of publication time) include the already planned Sheppard and Finch LRTs, which would serve the neighbourhoods in question.

IIt's a shame that Kinsella made the accusation too ineptly for the Chow camp to exploit it. A real debate about the role of the City-as-government in making the city-as-place more welcoming and affordable for minorities is dearly needed. Moreover, Toronto's political left needs to acknowledge its role in building an increasingly exclusive, unaffordable city just as much as the right.

The facts are distressingly familiar: Toronto is increasingly stratified by income, race and class. We've known this at least since the Three Cities report in 2010. It's happening in a lot of places that fancy themselves “global cities,” including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

The problem is well known and relatively well understood. The poor and working class are increasingly pushed to the economic and physical periphery of our cities while wealth floods back into newly desirable downtowns. Anyone who remembers what Kensington Market was like 15 years ago knows how dramatic this change can be. The harder question is what to do about it, because all the tools of your standard, 21st-century municipal government are designed to make it worse.

Building high-capacity transit into poor neighbourhoods may simply gentrify the poor out of them—unless we make high-capacity transit so abundant that easy access isn't a luxury. Affordable housing is an excellent idea and we need more of it, but don't kid yourself: municipal governments like building affordable housing in theory but are often unwilling to do so in practice. In Ottawa, a recently restored development charge for affordable housing was suspended because council was letting the money build up in the city's accounts without actually spending it. The City of Toronto has seen major cuts from the provincial and federal governments, which is a legitimate shame, but hasn't used its own levers to make up the difference either. There are plenty of political obstacles to actually spending money on social housing: housing money competes against other priorities like balanced budgets; developers and landlords can be leery of government interference; and cities are sometimes faced with the Hobson's choice of either making housing affordable or fighting homelessness (related, but not identical problems).

We get closer to the answer when we talk about “Inclusionary Zoning.” An increasingly popular measure on the left, IZ lets cities require that a certain number of units within a large development be affordable housing for low-income people, sometimes even artists. (NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has repeatedly proposed expanding Ontario's planning law in this way, to no avail.) Here too, much good can be done but we often run aground on details. Witness the controversy around “poor doors” in New York, where the residents lucky enough to make it into affordable housing are given separate entrances from the people paying market rent. A development in Toronto's been accused of having a similar entrance. In at least one redevelopment, low-income residents requested separate entrances—to screw with our outrage, obviously.

However, municipal politicians of all stripes are loath to admit what the IZ concept implies: that the traditional urban planning, which makes up the bulk of city halls' work, is designed to be exclusionary in the literal sense. Right now, planning means keeping certain people away from certain places.

We dress that up in a number of ways, by fretting about “neighbourhood character” or “overdevelopment”, but the reality is that our planning laws function as tools for people who already own homes, as weapons against everyone who doesn't.

There's an interesting case in Thornhill, where a builder wants to develop shops and condo towers around an existing community centre marketed towards Muslims. The locals in the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood are vehemently opposed. Even if you assume there's no sectarian angle here (and for the record, the locals say their problem is density and overbuilding, not the faith of their prospective neighbours) there's a basic question of whose rights are paramount: the incumbent property owners, or a rapidly growing community which owns a parcel of land they'd like to have homes and shops on.

Should the would-be developers have to go elsewhere to spare their would-be neighbours the irritation? At least as importantly, where should they go? The GTA's greenbelt contains sprawl, thankfully, but also increases competition for the land within its bounds. The 21st century is going to be one of growing acrimony over already-settled urban space, instead of the 20th-century sprawl that was environmentally destructive but politically easy.

Multiply these decisions by thousands per year, and the segregation and stratification of our cities starts to seem less like a policy mystery and more like the obvious outcome of our preferences. Councillors and activists on both the left and right enjoy the catharsis of railing against greedy developers, and don't trouble themselves with the collateral damage of people who, unable to find single-family homes they can afford in an area they like, make do with higher prices and fewer choices.

The solutions aren't obvious, but most of them start with cities getting over their love of urban taxidermy and building more, and none of them start with freezing development, as seductive as that is to some. Not one of the US's expensive metros got that way because it built a lot of housing. Building more is also good for minorities. In the US, cities where building is easy tend to be less racially segregated. We can see this in the GTA, where cities that grew rapidly during particular waves of immigration have been reshaped by them (e.g. Brampton and South Asians, Markham and the Chinese). In New York, the Satmar Jewish community has managed to develop a ton of affordable housing because they're politically savvy enough to get the city to clear out the thicket of regulations.

One common objection to development is that fast-growing US cities may not be as racially segregated, but they can be segregated by wealth. However, the Pew Research survey that foundHouston to be the most wealth-segregated city didn't attribute the income inequality to growth. Given that income inequality is increasing in both fast- and slow-growing cities, that would be a hard case to make. And if you find income segregation distasteful in your city, consider that for many minorities, the alternative offered by slow-growing cities isn't the diverse neighbourhoods of a Jane Jacobs fairy tale: it's the impossibility of actually moving out of bad neighbourhoods. This American Life has the essay-length treatment of this, or you can listen to Chris Rock.

Growth doesn't need to mean the Manhattanization of Toronto (though I'm basically ambivalent about the height of buildings.) We could accomplish a lot by allowing streets of bungalows and detached homes to be rezoned for three-storey townhouses. And If you look around this city, you'll find plenty of old streets where three- and four-storey apartment buildings have long since become urban wallpaper—though they were thought to herald the end of the world back when the building permits were issued. As a bonus, building more affordable family-sized homes across the city instead of in a handful of condo clusters would help preserve Toronto's public schools.

For advanced credit, we could look at solutions like Germany's baugruppen, where in some cases as few as a dozen families have financed their own modest-but-dense developments with the help of decent, imaginative, progressive public policy.

Building more housing won't solve all the ills faced by the disenfranchised urban minorities, not by a long shot. It has nothing to say about racist policing or the shrinking middle class. But current policies are making thing worse than they need to and are justified with claims that don't stand up to evidence. We need to dismiss any argument that says we can have our cake and eat it, too: preserving the city in amber results in exactly the stratification we've seen. The point isn't to drop highrises everywhere, but to recognize that the status quo is unsustainable. The first step to building a city where we welcome anyone is to make room for everyone.

Toronto’s First Black Female (Almost) Mayor: An Interview with Carolann Wright-Parks

By Jaime Woo

In 1988, community organizer Carolann Wright-Parks became the first black woman to run for mayor of Toronto, against incumbent Art Eggleton. Born and raised in Beechville, Nova Scotia, the oldest indigenous black community in Canada, Wright-Parks had lived in Toronto for nearly a decade when she ran. She finished second in a field of nine with 24,479 votes, or 17.4 per cent. (Eggleton won with 64.9 per cent of the vote.) Wright-Parks was always realistic about the purpose of the campaign—to drive awareness rather than to win—but she nonetheless made history.

Her campaign was part of a string of elections that saw women land in second place, before the six years between 1991 and 1997 that Toronto was led by June Rowlands and Barbara Hall.

Carolann Wright-Parks

She was also the first and last visible contender of colour until Olivia Chow, a unfathomable quarter of a century later. Drawing direct comparisons is unhelpful: Chow is a career politician, Wright-Parks was not; Chow is running post-amalgamation, Wright-Parks faced only old town; and Wright-Parks challenged an incumbent expected to win, unlike the three-ring Ford circus. Yet, in her own words, Wright-Parks calls it "very shocking" that there have been few viable candidates of colour since her run.

In 1994, Wright-Parks returned to Halifax. She is now the Director of Community Economic Development and Strategic Engagement at the Greater Halifax Partnership. The following excerpts are from an interview done with Wright-Parks at the end of August.

 It’s not meant as direct commentary on the current election. Instead, it is an occasion to look at our city’s past, and reflect on how some things have stayed the same.


“I was not expecting to run. I'm an organizer, not usually a frontperson. It was purely the community who said, ‘Look, we'd appreciate if you did this because it would highlight the issues that we work so hard from day to day. It would give a face to the issues of anti-poverty.' I had no political experience at that time (but now I understand that that doesn't matter!) and was not politically sophisticated at all, but I knew what the agenda was.

“When I first announced, there was a pause because I don't think a black woman had ever ran before. A black man had been in city council in the 1800's at some point a long time ago (William Peyton Hubbard, a City of Toronto Alderman from 1894 to 1914) but I think I was the first black woman who had ever run, period. So, there was some pause, like 'is it serious?'


“In politics you realize how candidates get beaten up even in the running. Your business is all out there, and it is what it is. For marginalized communities, when all your business is out there, it's very hard to concentrate on what you're trying to do when people are questioning your lifestyle.

“Like with black candidates: ‘They're only gonna represent black people.’ I got that a lot. That we're always corrupt and the racism around that. When volunteers were canvassing for me, people would go, "Oh, I'm not voting for her. She's only going to represent black people." My sisters, who went canvassing, heard that and were completely shocked. You get marginalized about who you're going to represent.

“I'd say, ‘Of course I am, but that's not going to stop me from representing you. This is why I'm running. I'm supposed to bring another dimension to the position of office in terms of understanding who I represent—it's a value-add.’

“If you're a black person, people make the mistake of saying, ‘I'm not here to represent black people. I represent everybody.’ But you are representing your community. I was representing a segment of my community. That's the reality of it. I never apologized for that.


“During that period there was a lot of police violence against young black men. The issue of race in Toronto was extremely volatile, particularly about policing. And, if you were a poor single mother in the system, and God forbid you were black, people thought it was okay to treat you a particular way. We had to not only address this in the campaign in a practical way, but get it on the Mayor's agenda.

“Young people growing up in Regent Park and St. Lawrence and surrounding areas in the city did not vote. They did not care and were not interested because they felt they were not cared about either. I think people were at that particular time fed up with the dismissiveness around low-income communities and homelessness: things that were just not on the Mayor's agenda at that time. We wanted to let people know their voice counted. It counted on election night.

“The voter turnout was excellent during that campaign because we spent time in communities doing things that were not traditionally done in civic campaigns. I never really thought about [winning] at that time to be perfectly honest with you. We were so focused on the campaign issues.”


“The way that we had been approaching it, people become really defensive and it shuts down the whole conversation. People want to protect what they have, and it becomes me-versus-you, us-versus-them type of scenario. I can paint a picture for you all day in terms of how racism affects my life but I want it to change so how do I create that opportunity for you to do that self-examination and to realize the impact of that? It flips the conversation a bit.

“How you begin is not trying to change their worldview, but to ask the proper questions so that people begin to examine it for themselves, and to challenge themselves around how they see the world and why particular worldviews hold other people hostage.

“When you tell me that you don't see colour, that is not a sophisticated or accurate analysis of the situation because you are seeing colour. You decided by saying that it doesn't matter—you decided that, but it does matter.

“How did you derive that? What do you believe? Questioning beliefs and values: how did you arrive here so that you believe this is true?”

To read the whole interview, go here.