When registration for Toronto's mayoral election opened on May 1, Saron Gebresellassi was one of four candidates to add her name to the list. A proud alumnus of WomenWinTO, an organization that trains women from diverse backgrounds to run for political office, Gebresellassi spent more than a year planning her run and boasts over a decade of community organizing experience. She says that her decision to run was not only about bringing a progressive agenda to Toronto but was also a response to the many communities that have been encouraging her to run for years. "I have ties to so many communities that have never seen political representation at City Hall ever and so that was a big driving force for me," says Gebresellassi.
A human rights lawyer who speaks seven languages including American Sign Language, Gebresellassi has represented or provided counsel to many clients experiencing discrimination based on family status, immigration status, gender, ability, and race. She maintains strong connections with people incarcerated in facilities such as the Toronto South and Toronto East Detention Centres, which she says constitute a large part of her support base. While the people incarcerated in these facilities cannot vote in the upcoming municipal election, Gebresellassi asserts, "they are all part of family units that do." For Gebresellassi, the respect and trust earned by a proven track record of advocacy and deep roots in community are critical to victory: "I know that we have the numbers to win the election with, just for example, the Eritrean community, the Ethiopian community, the Somali community, the Latino community, the deaf community."
Gebresellassi draws inspiration for her first electoral campaign from the recent victory of 28-year-old Alexadria Ocasio-Cortez in New York's Democratic Primary. Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina organizer in the Bronx and socialist, shocked political observers by unseating 10-term incumbent Representative Joe Crowley in June. For many, Ocasio-Cortez's breakthrough victory signalled a desire for progressive policy-making and social change that may hold implications north of the border. "She has zero electoral experience and zero campaign experience on her own behalf and she unseated Jim Crowley," observes Gebresellassi. "I saw so many parallels with what we're achieving here in Toronto with the mayoral campaign."
Gebresellassi is running a "Toronto for all" platform focused on six key points which she has dubbed "the six for the 6ix." The points include the right to housing, right to transit, right to fair allocation of city resources, right to employment outside the downtown core, the right to mental health and accessibility, and the right to diversity in city politics and hiring.
With respect to housing, Gebresellassi is calling for a specific focus on purpose-built rental housing, greater development of affordable co-op housing, and improved institutional support for refugees and their families. Gebressellassi also believes that creating a clear definition of "affordable housing" is critical, as it will address inconsistencies within and between all levels of government that effectively mask the severity of Toronto's housing crisis.
On employment, Gebresellassi calls for waiving business registration fees and commercial property taxes for a set period of time in order to incentivize and stimulate economic growth outside the downtown core. This process would also include targeted grant programs to assist business owners with hiring new workers in those areas, bringing much needed economic development to many Toronto communities.
Gebresellassi advocates a shift toward free transit, noting that many people in the city cannot afford public transportation in Toronto. She describes the current system as "punitive" and presents her own community of York-South Weston as an example of this. "I know right here in Weston Road, people in our community don't leave Weston Road. They won't hop on the UP Express which will take you right downtown, because it's $5.25 or something like that," she says.
For Gebresallassi, free transit will not only address climate change and gridlock, and reduce road maintenance costs, but will also make the city and its many events more accessible.
A city divided
Each of these points speaks to the many ways that Toronto has become a city divided, a city of immense income polarization, geographically segregated along lines of race and class. These divisions are also apparent in the media coverage that has characterized the lead-up to the election. In the four months since registration opened, the list of mayoral candidates has grown from four names to 35, yet coverage has remained squarely focused upon two candidates, current mayor John Tory and former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat.
Even before Keesmaat announced that she was running, mere hours before registration closed, she had already received more coverage than all candidates combined. Articles speculating about whether she would run and her potential for success quickly outnumbered those focused on registered candidates and their platforms. The result has been an election in which many key issues have yet to receive attention, and a public discourse desperately in need of invigoration.
Gebresellasi recently attended the annual National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) conference, a gathering of Black journalists, students, and media professionals from across the United States. Reflecting upon her campaign, which has generated interest in the U.S. and in Eritrea, Gebresellassi says "[it's] bizarre in some ways that our campaign gets received more in the press in foreign countries than in my home city." She acknowledges that the dearth of Black journalists in Toronto and in Canada not only affects the coverage of Black mayoral candidates but also raises questions about the coverage Black diplomats and dignitaries receive when visiting Toronto: "I worry because the Canadian media, white media, have a way of shrinking Black leaders who are really renowned nationally and internationally. The Canadian media have a way of just erasing them."
To date, the city of Toronto has never elected a person of colour as mayor. As WomenWinTo points out on their website, "Out of 45 elected officials, there are only six Councillors who are racialized, only one of whom is a racialized woman, and less than a third of Council are women. There are no Black, Indigenous, trans, or disabled women on Toronto City Council."
Despite these challenges, Gebresellassi remains confident that she can win:
"The path to victory is very clear from my perspective. It really means getting more votes than my main contender who I've identified as John Tory. There's of course Jennifer Keesmaat who's in the race and there's other candidates as well but really it's about mobilizing the grassroots and getting more votes. So, while it is a major challenge for our community, it is not rocket science. I've been saying this to our community over and over again: we are absolutely capable of getting more votes than John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat."
For more on Saron Gebresellassi's platform, please visit https://saronformayor.ca
Phillip Dwight Morgan was the recipient of the first Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship, supported by rabble.ca and the Institute for Change Leaders. He is a Toronto-based journalist, poet, and researcher.
This is the first part in rabble's "Toronto Votes 2018" series, which will cover the 2018 Toronto election. Follow the series here.
Photo credit: Wooden Panda
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