A 21st century Toronto needs a mayor every bit as audacious in her demands for meaningful change as John Tory is in his demands for status quo.
The 2018 Toronto municipal mayoral election has largely been overshadowed by the interference of Premier Doug Ford and his band of cronies at Queen’s Park. In the aftermath of his short-sighted, undemocratic, election gerrymandering, it has never been clearer that a 21st century Toronto requires a reboot rooted in really, really, really big thinking. By the end of the next election cycle in October 2022, the gap between rich and poor will be so wide that we may have entire generations of new, young, underrepresented, marginalized, oppressed community members, friends and family in Toronto with no improved transit, no access to affordable housing, no options for child care, no improved access to information and no way to find work in fields like the high-technology sector.
The Canadian media has mostly focused its coverage on a head-to-head “showdown” between current Mayor John Tory and former Chief Planner of Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat. This simplistic narrative ignores the absence of 31 year-old civil rights lawyer Saron Gebresellassi in a mayoral race that should be described as a larger Canadian story about “old” vs. “new” Toronto. The absence of this larger lens exposes traditional Canadian media as a remnant of “old” Canada. Saron is a new kind of mayoral candidate whose story resonates deeply with me: she is the daughter of Eritrean immigrants, raised by hard-working parents who lived in the suburbs. Like many first-generation new Canadian parents, Saron’s parents preached about the importance of higher education as a tool of liberation. She is a civil rights lawyer and racial justice activist, following in the footsteps of Toronto based human rights champions like Charles Roach and Lennox Farrell.
Saron has run on an excellent, progressive mayoral platform, with a particular focus on universal affordability, indigenous sovereignty, police reform, civil rights, anti-poverty, mental health and social justice. At every turn, she has correctly diagnosed Toronto’s embedded root problems, and she has continuously proposed bold ideas to solve these problems permanently. In debates, she has argued passionately and forcefully for new thinking and new people at the centre of our politics. She is every bit as audacious in her demands for meaningful change as John Tory is in his demands for status quo. Her election platform is a blueprint document that current and future left-leaning candidates should study.
There will be some in Toronto who will vote for Jennifer Keesmaat believing she is the more “likely” progressive candidate to win. At this point, unless you support the city’s direction under John Tory, your vote should be going to the candidate that has the best chance of affecting future change. A vote for Jennifer Keesmaat is a wasted opportunity to send a message to the political establishment in Toronto that a dramatic change is necessary, and it will come whether they want it or not.
Saron, transit and me
I met Saron after the transit debate on the Scarborough RT, and we had a long conversation about the viability of “free” public transit. I loved her platform plank in principle, but I loved the conversation with Saron even more. She was honest in saying she was still learning from transit, anti-poverty, environmental and social justice activists. She was earnest in asking me questions about why free transit was such a difficult proposition, even within small overlapping circles of transit advocates. “I don’t think there’s a single answer that’s going to satisfy everyone,” I concluded. Her response: “I don’t have all of the answers, but I don’t think I have to.”
I am tired of candidates who make empty election promises. If you’re running for office, you should be able to tell me what you don’t know, what you’re curious to learn more about, and who you intend to learn it from. I don’t expect you to solve my problems unilaterally. I just want elected officials who will filter policy ideas, whether I understand them or not, through important civic values: dignity, honesty, universality, sovereignty, justice, truth, fairness, youth, democracy and equity. There is no one running for mayor in Toronto who embodies these values better than Saron.
In a change election, Saron is the only change candidate.
There are angles to Saron’s candidacy that are worthy of public discussion, even within Canadian media’s older, upper-middle-class, predominantly white gaze. If elected, Saron would be the first racialized person to become mayor in Toronto’s history, a fact that becomes more relevant as Toronto moves into the 21st century as a majority-minority city. She would also become the youngest mayor in Toronto’s history and the first female mayor in post-amalgamation Toronto. Saron is the only candidate who speaks Spanish, the only candidate who is fluent in sign language and the only candidate whose campaign office is located in the suburbs. These and many other aspects of her unique campaign should be media stories worthy of coverage.
A vote for Saron Gebresellassi doesn’t fix everything. But it’s the first step in how all of us take back a city that belongs to us.