Mayoral candidates discuss diversity issues – Ford passes on debate at Innis College

Avvy Go, a lawyer working with Chinese and Southeast Asian immigrants, follows Toronto’s race for mayor and for a month she’s felt depressed.

Ever since Rob Ford spoke of his desire to close the door on newcomers – saying the city can’t take care of the people it has – “it seems like everybody else is trying to race to the bottom along with him,” Go told a mayoral debate this week.

Members of her own community have echoed Ford’s comments, said Go, representing the Colour of Poverty campaign aiming to close the growing income gap between visible minorities and other Torontonians.

Ford was the only major contender for mayor not at the Tuesday night, Sept. 14, event organized by a coalition of labour, social justice and other groups promoting “equity issues” in the city.

The Etobicoke councillor is also the only top-six candidate who hasn’t met with the coalition to discuss its proposals, including employment equity in city hiring and extending the municipal vote to non-citizens.

Toronto sets the gold standard for diversity, but diversity is easy; ensuring fairness and inclusion for everyone who lives here is hard, Hamlin Grange, a journalist and diversity consultant, told a crowd of 160 at the University of Toronto’s Innis College.

Some groups in Toronto feel excluded, and some people have been ignored for too long, he said.

During on-stage interviews with broadcaster John Tory, a former mayoral candidate himself, George Smitherman said as a gay man he is also from a community that has faced discrimination, including at the hands of Toronto’s police.

Smitherman, after declaring city government needs to reflect “what the composition of a subway car looks like,” said he doesn’t “oppose the conversation” on whether some city jobs should be outsourced,

Cleanliness on the TTC, he said, is one place he’d use “supplementary resources” instead of regular unionized employees, he suggested.

From the audience, Zanana Akande, a former MPP, asked Joe Pantalone why, despite city policies meant to ensure the city hires contractors employing minorities, contracts are consistently given to companies that don’t meet the criteria.

Pantalone, who has been deputy mayor the past six years, said he’d ask for an independent panel to find out why and make recommendations.

He added he supports letting permanent residents vote, and would expand city investments in Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods, adding tax incentives for companies who will build in them.  “I will fight tooth and nail against selling city assets,” he added.

Rocco Rossi, on the other hand, would sell some city assets. It’s a tough choice, he said, “but it’s the type of hard choice you should expect leaders to make.”

The candidate said he supports managed competition and outsourcing but would keep the city’s fair wage policy intact.  “We have to look at re-inventing how we deliver services.”

Sarah Thomson would “shift the job structure” to put more city workers on the front lines of service delivery, rather than have them fill “bureaucratic jobs” at city hall.

She would have the city provide more portable rent subsidies so people can live where they want, instead of being trapped in “pockets of poverty” in the priority neighbourhoods, but added she would restructure Toronto Community Housing – which she called “the worst landlord in Toronto”- by giving non-profit companies a chance to run its buildings.

Rocco Achampong, another candidate, said over 40 per cent of people who work in the city don’t live here, so he’d have a residency requirement for the city’s new hires, particularly in the priority areas.

But Achampong upset some in the crowd by criticizing the “very ostentatious salaries” of unionized and non-unionized employees at city hall. “When you are taking up half of my operating budget as a mayor, that’s a problem,” he said.

Himy Syed, also a candidate for mayor, sat patiently beside the others but wasn’t invited to speak – possibly proving even a debate on fairness can’t be fair to all.

“We are a city that has been built upon institutional or institutionalized racism,” Syed said afterward.

“People within this city have realized they can create their own institutions,” and the city must do business with them and hire from among them, he said.

This year’s mayoral debates (Syed has been shut out of almost all of them) look like Toronto of the past, Syed added. “It is the council debates (in the wards) that are more reflective of the city we are becoming.”