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Why Toronto council races could be more important than mayoral election

The 2018 Toronto civic election kicks off Tuesday with no prominent challenger to Mayor John Tory, prompting observers to expected heightened focus on the ward races.

April 30, 2018
David Rider

Chris Moise, a Black, gay and unabashedly progressive school trustee, does not see much of himself in Toronto’s mostly pale, very straight and largely conservative city council.

Moise, 46, is hoping to help change that by getting elected to council in the new Ward 25 which includes the Gay Village. The Oct. 22 civic election officially starts Tuesday with Mayor John Tory facing, for now, no high-profile challenger to his re-election bid.

Moise is not alone in hoping for a council shakeup that could, in a system where the mayor has only one vote plus levers of persuasion, dramatically shift the city’s direction even with Tory at the helm.

 “The city is supposed to represent people directly and help them in their day-to-day lives and I don’t think we’ve done that very well,” says the former St. Michael’s Hospital addictions and mental health counsellor. “If we have enough progressive councillors at city hall, that will change.”

There are similar pushes every election but council is ripe this time, observers say, for real churn. Even a single vote can turn huge decisions such as the fate of the Gardiner Expressway.

Boundary changes have made four new wards -- three downtown and one in Willowdale. Those open seats will be augmented by others left by the late councillors Pam McConnell, downtown, and Ron Moeser in Scarborough.

It’s a common election complaint that not enough new faces are elected to council but this year may be different. Shelley Carroll has already resigned her Don Valley East council seat to run provincially. Colleagues Denzil Minnan-Wong will not run in a neighbouring Don Valley ward, or fellow veteran Chin Lee in Scarborough, if they become MPPs.

Mary-Margaret McMahon has said she will not seek re-election. And there could be more.

Also new this time is an organized movement, Progress Toronto, to help get left-leaning citizens elected to council. Another group, Women Win TO, is helping train and prepare female council candidates to win so they can fight for “a more progressive and equitable” city.

Myer Siemiatycki, a Ryerson University politics professor, says the ward races this election are shaping up to be more interesting, and potentially more important, than the mayoral tilt.

“There could easily be double-digit number of new faces around city council,” he says. “That's something we haven't seen in a very, very long time in this city. We can look for an injection of new faces, new ideas, coming into this election campaign.”

Tory retains high approval ratings but Siemiatycki says the new council could be a de facto referendum on his “monolithic and one-dimensional” handpicked executive committee that often votes with a suburban-eyed view on the Scarborough subway, the Gardiner and more.

Michal Hay, the former aide to Councillor Mike Layton who founded Progress Toronto, says: “One of things exciting about Toronto is the mayor is only one vote and council is supreme.”

She adds: “The majority of our city is made up of both women and people of colour but only a third of councillors are women, only one of them is a woman of colour, and I don't think millionaire mayors help with the disconnect that I'm describing.”

A less competitive mayoral race should mean more media focus on council candidates, and more of a chance for challengers to overcome incumbents’ big advantage of name recognition, Hay says.

Progress Toronto aims to help candidates in the suburbs as well as downtown, run on issues including more affordable child care and housing, expanded, inexpensive transit options, and increasing city recreation opportunities.

The group’s first target will be open seats, Hay says. “Then we’ll look at wards represented by what we’ll probably be calling “villains” -- somebody not representing the needs of their constituents at all. Some (councillors) represent the most low-income and racialized Torontonians but they vote in ways that only perpetuate and widen the gap people are experiencing.”

In the last election Dyanoosh Youseffi, a Humber College law studies professor, finished third in the Eglinton-Lawrence ward won by Tory-endorsed Christin Carmichael Greb with just 17 per cent of the vote. Youseffi plans Tuesday to launch her campaign for what will now be called Ward 14.

“People want a councillor who is engaged and responsive,” Youseffi says. “Residents of my ward want a vibrant, inclusive city with transit that's integrated and comprehensive, and council making decisions based on long-term impacts.”

She is promising a different tack including opposition to the Tory-backed Scarborough subway extension. Still Youseffi, whose Jewish Iranian family arrived in Canada when she was 12, knows she faces an uphill battle and not just against the power of incumbency.

“Studies show when you have a name that sounds different, or is difficult to pronounce, or is alphabetically at the bottom of the ballot, those are challenges,” she says. “But I'm confident we'll overcome that by going to every door and meeting even more people this time.”

Unknowns between now and the late-October vote include how the outcome of the Ontario election will impact civic voters’ views, and whether Tory himself will run a slate of supportive council candidates or like last time, just endorse a handful.

Amanda Galbraith, a volunteer on Tory’s re-election campaign, says no decisions have been made about supporting council candidates.

“This is an important election, there's been a lot of work done for the city on everything from the King St. pilot project to SmartTrack, and those things cross political lines,” says Galbraith, a former Tory communications director.

“It's great to have other voices involved, that's the better for the city. I think the mayor would welcome that and is happy to have a big fulsome discussion about what's right for Toronto.”