Candidates face off on poverty in Toronto Centre by-election debate

A woman approached the microphone to question five would-be MPs in the ornate grand ballroom of the Sutton Place Hotel, on the evening of the first provincially declared Family Day.

She quizzed the candidates about the need for more affordable housing in the voting district Toronto Centre, a diversely peopled slice of territory between Queen’s Park Crescent and Bayview Avenue, stretching north and south of Bloor Street.

The pending departure of long-time Liberal MP Bill Graham has triggered a by-election for the district on March 17.

The five candidates all agreed that poverty is one of the top issues of the riding, which also happens to contain some of Toronto’s wealthiest households as well.

The woman’s question referenced Liberal Candidate Bob Rae, whose last Toronto seat was in York South during the mid-1990s, when he sat as Ontario Premiere for the NDP.

“I know Bob Rae had fought to build a lot of the housing that is badly needed in this area,” she said. “But you had cuts from the federal government and all the cutbacks went right through the provincial to the municipality.” She said there is currently 20-year waiting list for poor families to get housing.

Acknowledging a comment by 26-year-old Green Party candidate Chris Tindal to his age, Rae, 59, unpacked 30 years of political memories. “I was there in 1980 when the federal government was directly involved,” he said.

However, as his government expanded the housing budget provincially in the 90s, Rae said, the federal government made cuts, which only deepened during the Harris years.

NDP candidate El-Farouk Khaki followed Rae’s point with a dig. “The slashings were by a federal Liberal government. Keep that in mind.” Khaki, an immigration lawyer and the founder of Salaam: Queer Muslim Community identifies himself with the queer and ethnically diverse communities of Toronto Centre.

His campaign website states, “Bob Rae and the Dion Liberals are weak, divided and out-of-touch with today’s families.”

‘A $400-million nightmare’

Conservative hopeful Don Meredith addressed the woman personally. “As you know, I was in your building just the other night. My heart goes out to the residents living in these units in Regent Park and Moss Park.”

Meredith claimed to remembers the woman from his visit to a building at Bleecker Street in St. James Town, one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods. Meredith, a Pentacostal minister, is chair of the GTA Faith Alliance, an alliance of faith groups working to end youth violence in areas like the projects of St. James Town.

Meredith refers to affordable initiatives founded in Rae’s last political life as “a $400-million nightmare,” and offered to push for funding for housing in needful areas such as Regent Park.

Meredith found himself on the defensive, however, about federal Tory initiatives such as recent tax relief efforts, which Rae described as “a very modest, tiny little tax cut,” from an administration which “tends to ignore what people need and where people really live.”

Tom Clement, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto said that if funds were forthcoming from the Harper cabinet for housing, “I haven’t got the memo.”

“There is certainly a lack of affordable housing within the riding,” says Clement.

The Federation is the umbrella for a number of co-operatives, including the Bleecker Street Co-op, which will host a meet-and-greet with by-election candidates on March 1.

Clement says the Federation endorses no particular candidate, and that as far back as the 80s, “various shades of political opinion that the various governments” have not resolved issues he and the Federation have lobbied for, like subsidies for individual co-op members.

“Toronto hasn’t been well-served by various governments that have been in,” Clement says.

Rae commented on “the kind of abandonment of the city which has gone on over the last couple of years by Mr. Harper, because he has a very narrow, rigid view of the constitution. His view is that there is no federal responsibility for the cities and that’s a big problem.”