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.  

That Time I Was Racist

By Jef Catapang

The funniest joke I’ve ever heard goes like this, maybe you’ve heard it:

Q: What do you call a Paki priest?

(Pause with a shit-eating grin.)


I can’t even remember how young I was when I heard that joke or who it was during recess that told it to me, but I do remember hyperventilating with laughter. I tried repeating it to other people and it never got the desired reaction. I assumed it was my lack of comedic timing, but probably it was just because, racism aside, it’s a pretty lame joke.

At this point in my life I had never even met any Pakistani kids, let alone any brown kids. (I’m from Mississauga, so obviously that would change quickly and drastically in the coming years.) I just knew that “Pakis” existed and that everything about them was mind-blowingly hilarious. Don’t worry, I got over it.

Sort of.

Maybe because I was one of the few Filipinos in a class of predominantly Italians and Portuguese (I was told numerous times by classmates that I would end up marrying the one Filipina in my class, and I was so worried about it I avoided talking to her for years because I assumed she was in love with me by the sheer power of DNA), but I’ve been obsessed with race since an early age. This regard has taken on many forms, from my probably-curated-on-purpose multi-culti crew of friends, to my weird high school fetishes (ALL OF THEM), to my anti-racist activist phase in university, to my long-standing love for hip-hop culture.

It’s also manifested itself in the things I find funny, and yes, I laugh all the time at racist jokes. As anti-racist as I am, I am always confused by the sensitivity we sometimes have towards comedians who dare to dig deep. One, because of that old refrain that it’s their job to do it — which isn’t totally sound but also shouldn’t be totally dismissed — and two, if I’m not able to laugh at this shit sometimes, I think I might go crazy. I’m not convinced we all already haven’t. As important as it is, I don’t think talking seriously about race all the time is that healthy. It fucks up how you see the world, and all of a sudden you’re seeing things that aren’t there or obsessing over things that don’t matter. Excuse me if IDGAF about whether or not they put Asian kids in The Hunger Games. (Akira though is another story.) (Yes, there’s a difference, and no, I don’t want to talk about it!)

Everyone should draw their line somewhere, and I realize comedy is a tricky business, but I find it relatively easy. First: is the joke actually funny? Or is the punchline lazy? As Chris Rock might put it: is the joke about what somebody does, or is the punchline just about what somebody is? More broadly, it comes down to intent, and I’d like to think if you’re clear headed you’ll know it when you see it.

And once we’ve done the requisite soul-searching on why things are funny/not funny, guys like Dave Chappelle won’t have to have mental breakdowns and run away to Africa, and we can get back to enjoying jokes about grape drink.

It catches me off guard when I’m with new-ish people who don’t know me well and I say something racy or laugh too hard at a left-field Sarah Silverman punchline and I can see it in their eyes. They think I’m ignorant about race. I hate those moments because I want to get all serious and be like, listen, I’m more concerned about race issues than you ever will be. It’s ALL I THINK ABOUT. Let me have my laughs.

Aside from finding race hilarious, though, my other brushes with racism have come from travelling. When I spent some months working in Malawi one of the stereotypes I initially struggled with was Africans being lazy. (Yes, I am one of those people who says things like “that time I worked in Malawi.”) I knew this couldn’t be true, and yet I found myself constantly annoyed that Africans were always being lazy. My office mates would start the day with customary small talk, then have a long lunch break, which would be followed later by a long tea break, followed later by some dancing, and then we’d all go home early. Not to mention the occasional desk naps.

Here’s the truth of it, though. One, it was friggin’ hot over there, and it wasn’t long before I realized that taking a siesta or a long tea break filled with laughter or dancing worked wonders for overall productivity. Two, sometimes there just wasn’t any work to be done. Over here, we always do our best to act busy and glorify the fact that we’re “grinding,” or whatever, but really, we’re just playing solitaire or hitting refresh on Twitter. My co-workers had no bullshit about perceived workloads, and really, they accomplished just as much as I did, if not more, with half of the stress or printer paper waste. I don’t know if that’s a Malawian thing or not, but that was my problem anyway, looking really hard for Malawian things.

Here’s what I did wrong: I was so concerned, being in a new environment, with being culturally sensitive that I totally lost my sense of humour. Once I  settled myself and learned to find things amusing again, my experiences became clearer, not everything was about race anymore, and life returned to normal despite the fact I was nowhere near to home and everything was different.

So yeah, some of the things I laugh at are problematic. You win. But I think without that I’d have probably grown up to be a flat-out racist. (Not sure against whom. Probably against white people.) Yuk it up once in awhile, my fellow race-obsessives. Because otherwise, you know, holy shit. Trouble.