The Silencing Effect of Toronto’s Community Grants Policy

In light of Toronto’s upcoming municipal election, the PPGR is dedicating this week to a special series of posts that focus on municipal policy issues. Be sure to browse this week’s content to read up on other topics of municipal interest.

Marina Makris

Back on October 9th, the “Gender and the City” mayoral debate was cancelled following a chain of unfortunate events. With less than a week until the debate, the organizers – a coalition comprised of the Toronto Women’s City Alliance, North York Women’s Centre, Women in Toronto Politics, METRAC, and the Toronto-York Region Labour Council – were informed by City of Toronto staff that they had misinterpreted who they (a city-funded group) could invite to participate.

According to the City’s Community Grants Policy, the organizers were obligated to invite every candidate officially running for mayor – and so those invited to debate went from the three front-runner candidates, Olivia Chow, Doug Ford and John Tory, to all sixty-five candidates in contention.

Once it was communicated to Chow, Ford, and Tory that the debate would now include up to 62 additional candidates, they almost immediately rescinded their participation. In contrast, those who had not been issued an original invitation jumped at the opportunity.

Having been extended to include a rather ridiculous number of participants, many of whom that had registered to run for mayor but had yet to register on the polls, the “Gender and the City” mayoral debate was cancelled. The organizers, over 300 hundred registered attendees, and those planning to follow on social media or tune in at home were no doubt disappointed.

Indeed, the ‘Gender and the City’ debate had been organized with the goal of highlighting key issues untouched by other debates — namely, how mayoral candidates would respond to concerns experienced by the City’s most disadvantaged groups, including immigrant women, seniors, members of the LGBTQ community, and women. At the time of cancellation, the organizing group issued the following press release:

This was the only event looking at issues impacting the women of Toronto, from the lack of affordable housing (which has resulted in women staying in abusive relationships), to the number of women working in minimum wage jobs with little to no job security, many of whom are recent immigrants. The debate would have also touched on the need for improved childcare options in the city for families, more diverse services for seniors, and the importance of prioritizing women and trans people’s access to safe community spaces.

While it is disheartening that these concerns will never be debated by the front-running candidates, this cancellation begs a closer look at the complex rules and regulations that publicly-funded debates must grapple with.

One of the greatest and most disturbing characteristics of a democratic elections process is that virtually anyone can run for office. With sixty-five candidates currently in the race for the office of mayor, it is clear that this principle of democracy is both realized and thriving in the City of Toronto. What is not clear, however, is why the City’s Community Grants Policy is out of touch with the reality of elections –  namely, that only those reported in the polls have any real shot at winning.

Not surprisingly, the organizing coalition for the “Gender and the City” debate assumed that by extending the invitation to the front-running candidates and not issuing an invitation to long-shot or fringe candidates, they were creating a forum for discussion and dialogue between the community and those with a sufficient likelihood of becoming the next mayor of Toronto.

By mandating that publicly-funded organizations open debates to all candidates, the policies of the City of Toronto are in place to protect the City from accusations of favouritism.  Yet this (arguably unfounded) concern over partiality has primarily worked to supersede the complex and important issues represented by many such groups.

The result? These rules limit the ability of public groups to hold mayoral candidates (those with potential to actually win) accountable to key issues often overlooked in privately funded debates, such as safe spaces for women and trans people, or how the lack of affordable housing has a real impact on Torontonians in abusive relationships. This type of constraint has significant implications for the future of leadership at the City: how candidates respond to resident concerns not only influences voting preferences, but answers put forth at debates may also influence future policy agendas for City Hall.

By weakening the ability for publicly-funded groups to effectively produce a forum for issues important to many of its most vulnerable residents, the City’s Community Grants Policy has given clear advantage to privately funded debates. In doing so, they have also systemically contributed to creating an unequal electoral environment.

Marina Markis is a 2015 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University Toronto. She holds a Bachelors from Queens University. 

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