When cultural connection garners votes

Sweet aromas fill the air above the patio of The Greek Boy restaurant along Toronto’s Danforth Avenue. The owner Dimitri Liasardakis is hard at work behind the counter.

“I was born in Greece and it feels like home (here) in Greektown,” he said.

Liasardakis also feels at home with his current councillor.

“It’s very important to me that our city councillor is Greek, because I feel that they will understand us better,” he said.

Mary Fragedakis has been councillor of Ward 29 (Toronto-Danforth) for four years. In the current municipal campaign she’s been canvassing at homes, fun fairs and on the streets of Greektown.

“These are my friends, my neighbours,” she said. “East York is my life. It’s where I live, where I have always lived. That is how I know these issues first-hand.”

About 25 per cent of the East York demographic is Greek, so her own Greek heritage gives her a bit of an advantage over others contesting the ward.

“The older people in East York are fluent in Greek, and I can speak with them (about the issues) in their mother tongue,” she said. “(But) I am relatable because I know this community first-hand. I know the issues because I grew up with them.”

On the other side of town, in Ward 44, Ragu Thanabalasingam, an IT student at Centennial College, is running for council for the first time.

“I remember in the last city election, four years ago,” he said. “I had a Muslim candidate knock on my door. He said I should vote for him because I’m ‘his people’ because I was brown.”

Thanabalasingam decided to run for council himself this time. But he’s running based on issues, not on his culture or religious affiliation.

“First off, we need forums and people to go to them so they will vote on ideas rather than identity,” he said. “In the absence of information, people are more likely to vote based on something more closely related to their demographic.”

Thanabalasingam added that Scarborough needs better representation at city hall.

“Our motto is ‘diversity our strength,’ but I get the feeling sometimes that’s our weakness,” he said. “We don’t have a common voice and sometimes end up with councillors that are unqualified to handle the issues.”

Restaurant owner Liasardakis believes Coun. Fragedakis’s Greek background makes her highly qualified for the Greektown seat. He said that she reflects the values Greeks hold dear.

“Greek people … like to keep our streets clean and to be friendly to one another. I have seen many opportunities of this … with Coun. Fragedakis,” he said.