Ward 1 candidates seek support from diverse constituency

Education and engagement are the keys to getting the vote out in Ward 1 – at least that’s the hope of a coterie of local community organizations who hosted a voter education and all-candidates meeting this week, in the last few days before Toronto residents head to the polls.

Hosted jointly by the Local Immigration Partnership (LIP), Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC), Rexdale Community Legal Clinic (RCLC), Social Planning Toronto (SPT), Education Action: Etobicoke North, Community Organizing for Responsible Development (CORD) and Good Jobs for All, the event drew about 50 local residents to Albion Library Wednesday night, Oct. 20.

Some among them were first time voters in Canada, while others were veterans; all were keen to learn more about both the voting process and what their Ward 1 candidates – incumbent Suzan Hall, Ted Berger, Peter D’Gama, Omar Farouk, and Sharad Sharma – had to say about Etobicoke North issues.

Who can vote, how to vote, where to vote, how to get language assistance when voting, and, perhaps most importantly, why it’s important to vote were among the topics discussed in the voter education portion of the evening.

Among other things, municipal governments in Canada are responsible for water, garbage, the TTC, ambulance, police, and fire departments, libraries, and snow removal, explained Richard Degaetano, a SPT community planner.

“The city collects taxes from you and your neighbours to pay for these and other services – $9 billion in tax money. If you want to have a say in how that money is spent, you have to vote,” he said.

That message is especially important in a ward that saw the lowest voter turnout in the city during the last municipal elections in 2006, with a lacklustre 33 per cent of eligible voters exercising their right to vote.

In a community that boasts a 64.2 per cent immigrant population – 27.8 per cent of those having moved to Canada since 2001 – organizers suggested there needs to be more engagement with novice voters who might not fully understand the Canadian voting system or be able to readily access their candidates through traditional media. Hence their event, which gave local residents both the opportunity to learn and ask questions about the voting process, as well as get up close and personal with their candidates.

Following the voter education session, each of Ward 1’s six councillor candidates were given three minutes to speak their piece, then rotated around six different tables of residents, where they engaged voters in “speed-dating” question-and-answer sessions.

Berger, who’s running for a second time in Ward 1, said the 2006 election served as a “warning shot” for incumbent councillor Hall, as the total votes of her seven competitors came well within striking distance her own tally of votes (Hall won the election with 4878 of the 9585 votes cast).

“That shows that there was already strong opposition to the way things were going at city hall,” he said, noting his experience as a former York Region trustee. “My agenda is to get more accountability for voters – you are the taxpayers, you’re number one. I’m only here for one reason: you, the people. I’m running not just on talk, but on action.”

Former Etobicoke city councillor Crisanti, another former Hall competitor who lost the Ward 1 seat in 2003 by 882 votes, also took the Hall to task, firstly for voting in favour of both the $60 vehicle registration tax and the contentious land transfer tax, and secondly for what he claims is a votership “fed up” with shoddy service from city hall.

“Many people have told me they are desperate for a councillor that will see them and respond to their needs so they don’t have to call Rob Ford to get the service they need. It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “I have a vision for Ward 1 which includes jobs and safe streets. I will get things done at city hall, I will fight to bring our fair share of services to our community, and most importantly I know that my role as city councillor is to serve you personally.”

Peter D’Gama, a former IT consultant and paralegal, is running on a public transit-heavy platform.

“We need to build our city and a key component to that is public transit, one of the most important services that the city delivers. It is essential to connecting our communities from Scarborough to Etobicoke to downtown,” he said, noting also the local job-creation potential of Transit City, particularly the Finch LRT line. “We also need to work with residents to ensure jobs go to them – to work with institutions like Humber College to ensure (local residents) get the training they need for these great jobs.”

Omar Farouk, CEO and president of the International Muslims Organization, said he’s running for councillor because the community is “in crisis” and needs to be healed through transparency, accountability, and good service.

“A city is as good as its infrastructure, and we need to take care of basics before we can move to grander visions. I will focus on the simple things that matter most: a TTC that runs on time, neighbourhoods that are safe, roads that are fixed, parks that are clean,” he said. “We need a police force that is well-equipped and well-informed. We need schools that are safe…I will fight each and every day to make sure that our tax dollars are respected and invested in our community. I will demand better at city hall – to cut waste and provide real value for your money.”

Councillor for the last 10 years, Hall defended her decade of service to the community, highlights of which include: bringing $15 million worth of upgrades and equipment to local parks and community centres, encouraging Toronto Police’s 23 Division to come into the ward, assisting to establish the first local business improvement area (the Islington Albion Square BIA) in the ward, securing at council a five-month lee time for local residents to apply for jobs at the billion-dollar Woodbine Live development when it’s up and running in 2013, supporting the vehicle registration tax exemption for low-income seniors, organizing towards a community hub at the old Father Henry Carr school building, establishing the Thackeray cricket grounds at Kipling and Steeles, and spearheading North Etobicoke Revitalization Project.

“That last one brought a lot of support into the community. I worked with the police, local agencies and residents to help make this a safer community. When I was first elected, there were six murders just immediately in Jamestown. They were never solved. We don’t have that problem now,” she said. “We’ve been working together to bring supports and resources in and, as a result, this community has become a safer place to live.”

Sharad Sharma, a small business owner, has promised to draw more businesses and companies to invest in north Etobicoke in order to create local jobs.

“I strongly believe that human resources are the best and greatest resource on Earth, and if used properly, can do wonders for any community” he said. “One of my main objectives is to mobilize and nourish these available human resources and engage all in a participative community opportunity, turning north Etobicoke into a successful business and vibrant neighbourhood.”