Jane-Finch community activist Suzanne Narain is no longer running for city council but that doesn’t mean she’s given up her goal of unseating long-time incumbents.
Following news last week that a 25-ward election is to go ahead after unprecedented uncertainty, Narain decided her time will be better spent engaging Humber River—Black Creek residents in the upcoming election, rather than splitting the progressive vote.
“There’s a common misconception people in this neighbourhood are not attuned to politics or interested in voting, but people do want to get involved,” said Narain. “But things like this (25-ward system) make it so impossible to go forward.”
Narain, a daughter of Guyanese immigrants, is one of about 75 candidates who campaigned for one of 47 wards in the election’s original incarnation, but will not be running in the 25-ward election after the province slashed the number of wards. Many of these former candidates identify as visible minorities, or because of their gender or sexual orientation didn’t feel adequately represented by council, a situation that’s unlikely to improve in this election, according to critics of the province’s move.
“By slashing city council in half, we’re likely to end up with even worse representation,” said David Meslin, a community activist focused on civic engagement. “This tragic consequence can already be seen, simply by looking at the list of candidates who have dropped out of the election as a result of (Premier) Doug Ford’s brutal attack on local democracy.”
Narain faced a huge challenge in the 25-ward system. The elementary school supply teacher would’ve been running a grassroots campaign with limited resources, which she determined would be far less effective stretched across roughly double the geographic area and number of households than what she’d originally signed up for. And she would’ve faced not one, but two incumbents with considerable financial backing — Giorgio Mammoliti and Anthony Perruzza.
“It feels like the incumbents and people with resources are fighting one race, and the people with less resources are in another,” said Narain, who grew up and continues to live in the North York neighbourhood. This problem is exacerbated by the 25-ward system, she said.
In 2014, Mammoliti and Perruzza both received more than $40,000 in campaign contributions, even more than they were allowed to spend. (Surpluses are turned over to the city clerk, according to the province.) How much candidates are allowed to spend is linked to how many eligible voters are in their wards, so this year in expansive wards like Humber River—Black Creek, they’ll be allowed to raise more.
Narain, who ran in the same ward as Perruzza and came third, raised less than $1,300.
Aiming to represent marginalized residents, Narain didn’t believe extra donations would be flowing into her campaign under the 25-ward system, putting her at even more of a disadvantage.
“A lot of people are being pushed out of the system. It’s not that we don’t want to run. It’s that we can’t afford to anymore,” she said.
Under the original 47-ward election there were at least 10 races without an incumbent, which would have added fresh faces to a city council that’s traditionally been white, heterosexual and male. Ford’s unexpected cut to the city’s wards in the middle of the election means there are now only two wards where no incumbent or former councillor is running. Incumbents, running off name recognition, have a far greater chance of winning than new candidates.
“At a time when cynicism towards politics and politicians is at a record high, this drastic erosion of local representation is a monumental leap backwards and will serve only to further feed people’s frustrations and anger,” Meslin said.
The Humber River—Black Creek community deserves more than “career politicians” who ignore or dismiss the most pressing needs of her community, Narain said. It will be up to residents to vote strategically if they want change and someone new, and she’ll be there to help them figure out who they think that person should be, she said.
Former parking enforcement officer and well-known road safety advocate Kyle Ashley was planning to take on incumbent Jaye Robinson. After the province’s cut to council, he said, donations came to a standstill as everyone waited to find out which ward system would win.
Then, faced with running in Don Valley West, a ward with about the same population as all of Milton, Ashley figured his campaign would be ineffective so he refocused on supporting other candidates across the city.
“When 13 is the new majority on council, which is very, very frightening, and it becomes ever so more important to get progressive councillors voted to council,” Ashley said.
Also working behind the scenes in Toronto’s downtown is Suzanna Kavanagh — another aspiring council candidate whose campaign ended with the 47 wards. She’s doing walkabouts with at least two incumbents to share some of her knowledge about issues including large upcoming developments, the St. Lawrence Market reconstruction and park refurbishments.
The reason she chose not to run for one of the “super wards” is because she didn’t want to represent an area that large, a job she envisions is like that of an MP or MPP, and she didn’t want to run against incumbents Joe Cressy for Spadina—Fort York, or Kristyn Wong-Tam for Toronto Centre. Her decision was despite having “well over” 100 volunteers and raising and spending $25,000 on the campaign, Kavanagh said. Donors who supported a 47-ward candidate who is no longer running can still apply to the city’s rebate program.
“It was fun while it lasted. I just wish I had the opportunity to run in the 47-ward system because I had a lot of support,” said Kavanagh, admitting she shed a few tears when the change became certain. Now, she’s figuring out what to do next.
“There is no point in complaining,” Kavanagh said of Ford’s ward cuts. “The best thing we need to do is get ourselves organized and figure out how to work with the resources we have.”
She’s president of the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Association, a role she said will be more important than ever when councillors have roughly double the number of residents to serve and not as much time to advocate on their behalf.
In the meantime, she’s going to take a spontaneous trip to Newfoundland in October with her 84-year-old mother.
Other candidates out of the race
About 75 candidates under the 47-ward system either didn’t register or withdrew from the 25 ward race. Here’s a sampling of those not running:
Jennifer Hollett: The former MuchMusic VJ and Twitter Canada executive, and Harvard graduate, was set to run in a newly created east downtown ward with a platform focused on housing, connecting green space and creating more transit options.
Chris Moise: A gay, Black school board trustee, he’d hoped to be part of a city council shakeup by running in a new and open ward in downtown. If elected, he would’ve focused on repairing tensions between the police and the Black and LGBTQ communities. He will seek re-election as a trustee.
Rocco Achampong: A practising lawyer and son of immigrant parents from Ghana, he signed up to run in the area where he grew up and would face no incumbent. He was the first to apply to fight Ford’s Bill 5 in court.
Ausma Malik: When she was elected as school board trustee in 2014, Malik was believed to be the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to be elected to public office in Canada. She had planned to break down more barriers as city councillor of a new downtown ward with a promise to include residents in more decision-making.
Han Dong: The former Trinity-Spadina Liberal MPP who lost to the NDP in this year’s provincial election wanted to continue to represent the community as city councillor of the same area. He previously told the Star he wanted use his MPP experience to push the PC government to deliver on funding promises made by the Liberals that mattered to Toronto.
Samantha Beattie is a city hall reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @samantha_kb