Toronto Votes

Racism runs deep in Toronto election

Photo: Alex Guibord

If it weren't for the Jian Ghomeshi sexual abuse allegations, Toronto would likely be having a serious, and long overdue, discussion about how race and class influenced the results of the municipal election.

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Toronto prides itself on its diversity. It's even the city's motto, Diversity Our Strength. But Torontonians know that's just public relations spin, a goal we've never really tried to actually achieve. It's like the Toronto election picked at a festering scab that has never fully healed.

Throughout the election many pundits threw around the term “casual racism.” But there was nothing casual about the targeted vitriol directed at the campaigns of people of colour who dared to run for public office. Most often, not surprisingly, those targets were women of colour.

The most high profile of attacks was in the race for school trustee in Trinity-Spadina. Ausma Malik, a Muslim woman with a long history of social justice activism and years of education policy experience, was the subject of a racist smear campaign egged on by Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy and a cabal of mostly anonymous Twitter trolls.

This group latched onto an old Globe and Mail story about an anti-war rally, where Malik sharply criticized Stephen Harper for supporting Israel's 2006 bombing campaign against Lebanon.

Thousands of flyers were distributed throughout the ward accusing Malik of being a supporter of “terrorism” who will bring “Sharia law” to the Toronto District School Board.

And Malik wasn't alone.

Mayoral candidate Olivia Chow faced a torrent of racism and sexism at public debates and online. In fact, Chow staff removed more than 312 hateful comments on her Facebook page after she first registered to run for mayor, the highest number of Facebook page deletions among the five front runner candidates.

Meanwhile, out in Ward 2 Etobicoke North, Munira Abukar, a 22-year-old Somali-Canadian, repeatedly had her campaign signs vandalized with swastikas and racist messages ordering her to “Go back home.”

One night, Abukar's volunteers were physically attacked by a Purolator truck driver, who allegedly stopped to hurl garbage at them while shouting “terrorist.”

Andray Domise, another candidate of colour who ran in Ward 2, also had signs damaged.

More than half of Toronto is non-white, yet the city woke up to a new city government that looks very much like the old city government. Only 13 per cent of city council's members are visible minorities and only 31 per cent are women.

(Full disclosure: I worked on three candidates' campaigns — two for council and one for school trustee — two of which were for strong, progressive women.)

Electoral reform in the form of ranked ballots would help a great deal with this disparity by giving candidates from minority groups a chance at actually winning.

We are a segregated city, divided by income and race. It's time we recognize that the status quo is unsustainable.

University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski is the author of The Three Cities within Toronto report and a lead member of Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership. Hulchanski describes how Toronto has become three cities, a change that has happened gradually over the past 30 years.

These social divisions have produced a divided voting pattern. Poverty has moved from the centre of the city to concentrations at its edges (creating what the city calls priority neighbourhoods).

“The divisions are based on socio-economic, ethno-cultural and skin colour characteristics,” Hulchanksi recently wrote for Spacing Toronto. “Indeed, the wards that supported John Tory and those that backed Olivia Chow share many of the same demographics: they have significantly higher socio-economic status and less ethno-cultural diversity.”

There's a good reason why many visible minorities voted for Doug Ford. People have been forced out of the downtown by skyrocketing rents and an increasingly expensive standard of living. Ford, much like his brother before him, exploited this reality with promises he couldn't keep. The Ford brothers galvanized this disadvantaged group under the banner of “Ford Nation.” For many, it doesn't even matter that Rob Ford is racist. The Fords are fighting for the “taxpayer” against the “elites.”

This growing separation was highlighted starkly by Tory's own transit map, SmartTrack, which fails to service many of those neighbourhoods.

In August, former Chow “war room” strategist Warren Kinsella left the campaign unceremoniously after saying that Tory's transit plans wouldn't serve Toronto's priority neighbourhoods. “Is John Tory's SmartTrack, you know, Segregationist Track?” he tweeted, quickly followed by a retraction and an apology. Despite his inflammatory word choice (“classist” would have been more accurate), many Torontonians realized Kinsella had a valid point. Tory later amended his transit plan to include the already planned Sheppard and Finch LRTs, which would serve those neighbourhoods.

Tory won the mayor's chair with an overwhelming victory despite not having a clear understanding of how class intersects with race in the city.

For now, the most important issue in Toronto will remain unaddressed.

When asked by Global News reporter Peter Kim if he believes white privilege exists, Tory coolly replied, “No, I don't know that it does.”

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