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. 

Carolann Wright-Parks: Full Interview

In the full interview below, you’ll find Carolann Wright-Park’s reflections on running in her early thirties, her thoughts on Rob Ford, and shifting the stereotypes around poor people.

On how she got into the mayoral race

I was a rough around the edges community organizer. Because of my work I was well aware what all the issues were, and they were really important to me at the time.

It was an anti-poverty agenda, understanding that there is always that subtext of race that comes into that issue and how it plays out in terms of politics. 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 covered a couple of bases in being a black woman and having come from a low-income background: I had been on assistance, got to school, and got a job to work my way out of it.

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. I thought I would do this for the greater good, but I was nervous as hell and scared the day of the press conference. People thought, “This is a brave woman.” Not at all! I was terrified. But I am also a community organizer and I believe you do what you need to do to get a community agenda out there on the table.

On how race played a role in the campaign

The main organizers were anti-poverty organizers, but as I emerged as the face of the campaign, the black community became aware of this and got involved. The intention was to make sure there was cross-pollination—the intersection of these issues of race and class—making sure the worldviews of everybody who shared in Toronto were recognized and those voices could be heard through me in some way.

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.

As a black woman, I have a lens through which I see things, and race was really quite interesting. It wasn't really something that I was consciously talking about but I talk about anyway, you know? It annoys me when other people try to talk through my experience when they know they're not going through it. I was really clear with people: I'm gonna talk through my lens as a black woman who has experienced poverty, not someone who was talking about people's experiences, but talking about my own as an example of what was happening in the issues of poverty and race.

On being the first black woman to run for mayor

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?'

I began getting calls from the black community: 'Are you seriously going to do this and put yourself out there?' I think my community became nervous about it. As the campaign rolled out I think people became more comfortable. Speaking to the issue of race-relations is how you articulate and talk about race but at the same time be able to talk about those other issues. Those intersections are important and for me it was easy because I had experienced it all. I liked that campaign because it was really a people's campaign.

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.

On how crucial the issues of homelessness and low-income communities were

It was important to move those stereotypes around people who were poor. We could be smart. We could be articulate. The issue of homelessness was high on the radar at that particular moment of time. One of the overarching things was to get the city to pay attention to what was going on in Regent Park and other low-income communities: to campaign there, to pay attention, to listen to people's voices.

At the time, Toronto was not looking seriously at the issue of homelessness: we had people dying on the streets. At my time there was the G7 summit [the 14th, held between June 19 and 21, 1988] and they swept homeless people off the street for a couple of nights, and I think that was the turning point.

You can do this to impress people coming to Toronto to make it look like we don't have homelessness but that was an insult to the people who were enduring the day-to-day suffering. Being true and purposeful about the issue of homelessness is what the anti-poverty groups were trying to bring attention to: this is not a two-day thing, this is people's lives at risk here.

On increasing the vote

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. We wanted to change that optic and do some education around voting: You really need to begin to understand your civic duty and your voice.

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. When people saw that it did have an impact, it really changed the leery in terms of how they saw the campaign. That kind of work needed to keep up in order for it to hold.

On what she would have done had she won

I never really thought about it at that time to be perfectly honest with you. We were so focused on the campaign issues. Education around homelessness and housing on the agenda. On increasing the vote. And contrary to opinion at that time, I knew what it was. I remember somebody from my own community saying, ‘Don't believe the hype,' and I was like, 'I am well aware of where I am and what this is and what this was about.' I was always really clear about that. Eggleton had a really strong financial team around him to make sure he got in. Had winning been what I had prepared for, I'd probably have a better answer.

On running for mayor in her early thirties, and then again for the NDP in 1990

At that particular time I did not know a whole lot about myself. You know my sons are now around the same age as me then and I think, "Oh my God," if they were to do that now. That was something I didn't think about, but I think about it now at 56. No wonder I was terrified. I barely knew myself.

The next time that I ran was in 1990 for the NDP. That was a little more intentional around winning. People thought with the traction around the '88 campaign and some of that mobilization that I'd make a good candidate. Now again being honest that wasn't my interest really in terms of career politics but I thought here's another opportunity to do some of that.

That one was closer, scarily close. That literally scared the shit out of me. I lost out by 49 votes. They were ready to do another recount and I was like, “I'm good.” It scared the incumbent enough to make him understand that the constituency was not fooling around. They wanted him and the government at that time to represent better. That Liberal government got put out that election and the NDP came in.

On if her run helped other female candidates

I couldn't really answer that truthfully because I don't know. I know people felt more comfortable running because they had said that to me, after seeing how it all worked out. There were a lot of people involved in my campaign who were councillors, female councillors, who had been very supportive so I knew it helped them frame their opportunities. I hope it did.

On why so few candidates come from marginalized communities

In politics you realize how candidates get beaten up even in the running. The States are notorious for it, and we're not much better. Your business is all out there, and it is what it is. But a lot of people do not like that kind of limelight and it becomes difficult because it's never about the issues that individual raises it's always about that individual.

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.” That's how you need to answer that question.

On Rob Ford’s worldviews

Of all the things Rob Ford ever did, for which I don't think he ever should have been in office for, he had the worst worldview of anybody I had ever seen. And he said it: he's not even trying to disguise this. He said things in council about Chinese people and I was like, are you kidding me? And people didn't have a problem with it.

I was confounded [by his continual support] because if that had been any other community of people he'd have been gone before God got the news. That's a saying that we have. To make those kinds of comments, it’s about the worldview in terms of a white male with money and what that means to individuals. What that means to the people of Toronto. Those worldviews need to be challenged. But the excuses people made for it: wow, how far have we not come?

On diversity and multiculturalism initiatives

I won't join diversity committees: I just don't think they're effective because there's a lot of rhetoric around this stuff and it never gets implemented into workplaces so you see workplaces with no people of colour even to this day in Nova Scotia. Or maybe one or two—and our populations are not that small.

I'm doing training around worldviews rather than multiculturalism or, even, diversity, because you never got at self-examination and how collectively that impacted other people's worldviews. 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?

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Built Ford Tough: Ward 2 candidate Andray Domise

By Adwoa Afful

Ethnic Aisle: On your blog you define yourself, among other things, as an activist.  How do you define that term and how has that changed since running for council?

Andray Domise: I’ve been agitating for civic engagement for a very long time. Usually it’s in the form of get-out-and-vote efforts around election days. What troubles me the most is the level of apathy that I run into when I speak to the African-Canadian community, specifically the Caribbean-Canadian one: “there is no point, nothing is ever going to change, why bother.” We make up 8 percent of Toronto’s population. If we actually woke up and used the voices that God gave us and used the voting rights that we have, we can actually see a lot of changes happen in Toronto.

EA: Throughout your campaign you have been pretty vocal about issues related to systemic racism that African-Canadian communities face.  What are some the challenges in talking about systemic racism so openly?

AD: The challenges in talking about race aren’t actually challenging. From my perspective, people tend to like honesty. If I, as a Black candidate, am not willing to speak openly and frankly about what systemic racism does, what stereotyping and prejudice does, the damage that, for example, the chief magistrate of our city [does when] calling our young people “niggers,” and “thugs” and “fucking minorities,” if I can’t be honest about the damage that that’s causing, then I’m just remaining silent in the face of evil. [From] my perspective it’s not hard to talk about this stuff. I didn’t get into this necessarily to just get myself elected, but to try to change the political conversation that we’re having in Toronto, which to me is toxic and it’s self-defeating. [The]  part that’s a little disheartening is that people from within my own community are saying “you need to tone it down, you gotta to dial it back,  don’t be so harsh, don’t be so forward, you gotta take your time.” If this isn’t the time for us to have this conversation, when exactly is that going to happen?

Andray Domise on the campaign trail. Image taken from his Twitter account. 

Andray Domise on the campaign trail. Image taken from his Twitter account. 

EA: Why do you think that there is backlash when you talk about race from members within your own community?

AD: Because we’re frightened and afraid and a lot of us are cowards. A lot of us are afraid that if we speak about this stuff openly that there is going to be a backlash. James Baldwin once said the only time that non-violence in America is praised is when a negro practices it.  We tell ourselves it’s not okay to speak openly and honestly our experiences because we might make people uncomfortable.

EA: So do you see yourself as a lightning rod in this campaign, as the person who’s going to help agitate or reverse that pattern of apathy within the African-Canadian community in Ward 2?

AD: There are people like Idil Burale running in Ward 1, and she’s facing an uphill battle against Vince Crisanti. Idil is so amazing, she’s on the Somali liaison unit for 23 division, to help foster a better relationship between Rexdale police and the Somali community. And I look at somebody like Lekan Olawoye running in Ward 12 against John Nunziata, Kegan Henry Mathews who’s fighting an uphill battle against Giorgio Mammoliti. These people are doing the work by themselves, they’re doing it alone. The fact is if you have a problem with the way that we’re treated in the city and the way that we’re represented, it’s up to you to get your ass up off your chair and do something.

EA: You brought up Idil Burale who is running for council in Ward 1, and has worked to create initiatives that addresses issues like police carding, which disproportionately affects Black Torontonians. Would you ever consider collaborating with other councillors on initiatives meant to address issues that affect African-Canadian communities across Toronto?

AD:  Absolutely! Etobicoke North has the highest diagnosis rate for type 2 diabetes for young people for all of Canada. That’s because there is a lack of access to recreational facilities, lack of access to nutritional foods, lack of access to transportation and that has led us to have very sedentary and junk food laden lifestyles and diets. It affects the South Asian community also, but you know it’s magnified on us, it affects white people in the Ward, but it’s magnified on us.

EA: Your background is in insurance and you worked for large companies like SunLife Financial, and you talk a lot about proposing business based solutions to address some of the issues facing Ward 2. How can the business sector or the private sector help address some of the issues you’re campaigning on?

AD: We have a ton of green space and a ton of undeveloped land, you don’t even have to have a business background per se, you can simply take a look around. It’s a very, very undeveloped area. Development skipped over Etobicoke altogether and headed over to Mississauga. I was just over at Square One yesterday, and there is just so much development happening. Because they had all that open real estate Mayor Hazel McCallion saw this and said “we’re going to build right here,” and they’ve been at that work for the last 20 years and it’s amazing how much change has happened.

What really makes me sad about that is that the Applewood area of Mississauga is a very low-income area. You can compare it to Rexdale in a lot of ways, in the sense that it’s lower income and very, very diverse. You could do the exact same kind of work in Rexdale. You could have a partnership with those developers to say “look, if you want to build here that’s great, but what you’re going to do is provide neighbourhood services, green spaces, public spaces, rec centres, better access to transportation.”

EA: You have also talked eloquently about the stigma that surrounds Rexdale and other communities in Ward 2, as a result of being designated as a priority area.  What do you think the rest of Toronto has to learn from the communities in Rexdale?

AD: Churches and charities, they’re the glue that holds this neighbourhood together. People may not be politically active, but they are socially and consciously active, in the sense that they want the best for themselves and their neighbours. There are people who volunteer at the Rexdale community health centre, Pathways to Education, [and] churches. My own church, for example, before school starts we'll go and knock on doors in our neighbourhood and hand out $50 gift cards to Staples to make sure that people who don’t have enough money to get back to school supplies for their kids at least have something.  We have done the hard work of filling in the gap that our political classes refuse to fill. And something that I am really proud of is that we come together as a community in times of need and make sure that we provide for each other.

EA: What is your favourite spot in Rexdale, where do you go to chill or where do you go to re energize yourself?

AD: During the summertime, Pine Point is a really awesome place, and I just like to go jogging up there, or take the car up and read a book. The Humber trails are some of the best walking trails that you’ll find in Toronto. The amount of parks and trails that we have here in Rexdale is amazing.  

Innocent Bystanders

The nightmare that has been Toronto’s political news scene for the past three years seems to have finally reached its awful zenith. With allegations that Mayor Rob Ford may have smoked crack and made homophobic, racist remarks on video, there is no end to the ill effects of this latest head-shaking fiasco: the continued reduction of our municipal political sphere to a never-ending circus; the serious harm done to Toronto’s international image by a man who claims to be raising its business profile; and the simple fact that a city that was finally starting to hit its stride has been seriously set back by its woefully inadequate mayor.

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Rob Ford's Diversity Distraction

Since 2006, it’s been City of Toronto policy that all advertised civic appointments—both paid jobs and hundreds of volunteer opportunities—make a direct appeal for applications from “women, youth, First Nations, people with disabilities and racialized communities.” In late September, a damning report by the city’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean, (who is, in fact, a woman) revealed that mayoral staff tried to delete the line calling for diverse applications during the appointment process for 120 citizen positions on city boards this past spring.

The revelation of mayor Rob Ford’s interference was another troubling window into his administration’s dismissive approach to inclusion and diversity. It also shed more light on Ford’s bizarre political posturing: even as he trumpets his private commitment to charity for marginalized people, the mayor reassures to his base that public, systemic change is out of the question.

Ford’s response to Crean's report was a standard denial and dismissal. “That’s a ridiculous question,” he said when asked if he was against diversity. In the face of such a serious accusation, it would have been easy to drag out Toronto’s well-worn “Diversity, Our Strength” motto to placate concerned residents. The mayor's refusal to even pay lip service to the idea was a silent statement that those who believe in the motto, and its accompanying policies, are not worth his attention.

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