Several of the leading candidates in the Toronto mayoral race squared off in a debate Monday, the first since nominations closed.
Hosted by the Daily Bread Food Bank, the debate focused on “the city’s key issues of affordability, food insecurity, poverty and more.”
While there are a record 102 candidates registered to run in the election, the organization says it invited the six who are polling highest.
The debate included Ana Bailão, Brad Bradford, Olivia Chow, Mitzie Hunter and Josh Matlow.
Polls so far have consistently placed Chow in the lead, with Mark Saunders often coming second, though they have also indicated that around a third of Toronto voters remain undecided.
Saunders was invited to attend but his campaign said he would not be able to due to a conflict with another event. Saunders did attend another debate last week hosted by the small business community on Queen Street West.
Tonight’s debate marks the first involving most of the leading candidates in the polls, as Chow, Bailão and Matlow did not attend the small business debate.
Here are the highlights from the evening:
“To those that are using food banks, I understand how tough it is out there,” Chow says. She asks people to join her to “create a city that is affordable, caring, safer, where we all can come together and feel we belong.”
Bailao says she will be ready on Day 1 to “fix services and build housing” and says others wouldn’t be able to work with other governments or build housing. She vows to “bring back” the Toronto she remembers from her youth.
Bradford says he’s running to be a “strong mayor of action.” He says there are a lot of candidates who spend too much time on Twitter rather than listening to people and adds that “career politicians are not the answer.”
Matlow says “the people who I really wish I could debate here tonight are not here. Mark Saunders — Hi Mark if you’re watching — and Doug Ford, who needs to start stepping up and coming through for the people, for the people who he said he’s gonna serve.”
Hunter says “if you think that everything is just A-okay then vote for someone else.”
She says the city needs different results and that “we need to fix the Six.”
Now to audience questions
Hunter gets a question about how she would pay for social programs. She reiterates that she will provide a fully costed program ahead of election day.
Question to Chow is difficult to hear. She says more needs to be done to address mental health.
Bailao asked how she would address homelessness for women and children who are impacted by gender based violence. She says a housing approach that takes them into account is needed.
Bradford gets a question about what he would do to help people with disabilities. He says there is a lot of work to do and accessibility needs to be a priority in all city projects, especially with an aging population.
Matlow gets a question about what he would do for those in shelters and encampments. He says people are turning to the TTC because they don’t feel safe in shelters. He says the best way to address homelessness is to ensure people have homes.
A protester has stormed the stage with a phone, yelling, and has been tackled by security. The backdrop behind the candidates came down in the scuffle. Debate has temporarily paused. None of the candidates appear injured.
After a few minutes, the debate is continuing.
Bradford pitches a question to Chow now too. He says people are “terrified” about possible tax increases she might bring in.
Chow hits back: “People are terrified when they lose their homes. They’re terrified when they have to come to the food bank. That’s what they’re terrified about. They’re terrified when the bus never shows up.”
He comes back and asks “How much are you going to jack everybody’s taxes here in Toronto?”
Chow says she knows there are many people in the city who are “house poor” and can’t afford a big property tax increase. She says furthermore she never voted for one as a councilor.
Bailao also puts a question to Chow. She says Chow’s platform indicates she would need to raise taxes and asks her how she could justify that given there’s an affordability crisis.
“I am not a person that would behind closed doors, negotiate some deal because it doesn’t work. We’ve seen it not work,” Chow says. She says negotiations need to take place with other levels of government in a transparent way and says that hasn’t happened since David Miller’s time.
“Olivia, it’s actually concerning that you don’t understand why and how and where it’s coming from, the $1.5 billion hole in our budget when you’re running for mayor of Toronto,” Bailao says.
Bailao quips, “you’ve been building the NDP party, we’ve been building a city.”
Chow responds; “I’m sorry. The time I was not in government? I was building people up. I was training them.”
She adds “I didn’t go and work for a private developer” and “don’t tell me that I don’t know how to read a budget for heaven’s sake. If you actually talked to anyone I worked with at City Hall, (no matter) which party or which political side they’re on, they will tell you that Olivia Chow knows that budget really well.”
Chow uses her question for Bradford. She asks why he voted for TTC fare hikes while cutting service.
Bradford says “being in government is about making tough decisions” and receives boos.
He says her plan is to tear down the Gardiner and find “fictitious savings.”
He says the city needs to work with other governments to “get a fair deal for Toronto.”
“I’m just concerned that with you in a leadership position, those conversations would not take place,” Bradford says.
Chow hits back that Bradford has been on executive committee, but there are no shovels in the ground for the city’s program.
He says he’s done lots to advance housing, but blames bureaucratic programs.
Hunter also uses her question for Chow, taking aim at her housing plan, asking why she’s only promising 30 per cent affordable housing.
“I agree with you,” Chow says. “I totally agree with you that 10,000 units is a drop in the bucket. I agree. But it’s better than none whatsoever.”
Chow says the rest of the housing in her plan would not go to developers; it would be city-owned.
“On top of that, I don’t believe that we put everyone that needs subsidies into one building. That’s called ghettos,” Chow says.
Candidates now get a chance to pitch each other questions. Matlow goes first, saying Chow’s math doesn’t add up. She responds that she hasn’t been on council for the past 10 years and isn’t sure how council got itself into a $1 billion budget hole.
Moderator reiterates she wants to hear about funding plans for these ideas.
Bradford says he will be a strong advocate to get funding from higher orders of government.
Matlow says too much TTC revenue relies on the fare box.
Hunter says she would boost ridership by making the system free for Wheel-Trans users and seniors and would build more infrastructure, like the Sheppard subway.
Chow says she would invest in public transit. She says fines charged by fare inspectors are too high. She says the TTC needs a better deal from the province.
Bailao says low ridership makes up a big part of the problem and the TTC needs sustainable funding. She says the city needs to free up money by uploading the Gardiner and DVP to the province. She says it’s “smart and pragmatic” and other candidates aren’t promising it because they can’t do it.
Bradford says he would install platform edge doors, add mental health supports and make sure everyone has cellular access on the system .
Matlow says he would reverse the TTC cuts from the past two years, expand transit in Scarborough, including biking and walking trails.
Hunter says she knows what it’s like not to have reliable transit service as someone from Scarborough. She has a five-point plan to make the TTC safe, including pairing social workers with transit officers.
Chow says she would also reverse cuts, as well as build the yet-unfunded Scarborough busway.
Bailao says she remember feeling safe on the TTC when she was younger and says that’s not how people feel anymore. She says she would reverse the transit cuts, add more cameras and make sure there is wifi everywhere. She reiterates she would make transit just $2 for those affected by the end of the Scarborough RT, until the busway is built.
Next question is on TTC. How are you going to make the TTC affordable and safe for riders? And how will you finance these using municipal revenue tools?
Bailao says problems can’t be solved with “magical math.” She says she’s been able to secure much more affordable housing than Matlow.
Bradford also takes aim at Matlow’s plan and says his plan will likely deliver a tenth of what it promises.
“And so it begins,” Matlow quips.
He calls the idea that Doug Ford will upload the Gardiner and DVP a “pipe dream.” He says he would save money by building the Gardiner “on the ground.”
Hunter says Toronto is facing a “hollowing out” because rents are too high. She says her plan is based on building more affordable housing that is city-owned and rented or is provided as affordable home equity. She says “bickering” doesn’t help.
Chow says none of the plans being talked about would help people waiting for affordable housing because none of it is geared to income.
“So immediately, what I would do is to have 1,000 units of rent supplement, so that those people that are on the waiting list or the shelters that are using your food bank right now will have a home and a wraparound service,” she says.
Next question: What would your plans mean for the day to day, out of pocket expenses for those living in subsidized rental units? What would the average market rent be and how much would that leave people to spend on other essentials that they need to be able to get by?
The average rent of a listed one bedroom is now $2,500 a month, far out of reach for many people in the city. Almost 90 per cent of purpose built rentals in Ontario were built over 40 years ago. The subsidized housing waitlist has over 84,000 people on it. In Toronto, building more rental housing requires both money time, but in the meantime, renters are struggling. The federal and provincial governments in the past 10 years have shown that they cannot be relied upon to solve this issue for the City of Toronto. What approaches will you take using municipal finances and tools specifically, to address the lack of affordable rental options in the city and protect low income renters?
Chow says more affordable housing is needed.
Bailao says the city needs to do more to capitalize on community benefits agreements.
Bradford says he will work with food banks and other organizations to support their work.
Matlow says food connects to everything we do, including the Green Belt and says “if Doug Ford is going to be giving away the Greenbelt to his donors, my job is going to be to fight to make sure that we give it to our kids.”
Hunter says she would increase food security by doubling the Community Services Program.
First question: Food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, yet Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy has been chronically underfunded for years. With record inflation rates we are only seeing both poverty and food insecurity rise in our city. How will you address growing food insecurity in Toronto and how will you fund these initiatives as to how you can start?
Each candidate has a chance to provide two minutes opening remarks.
Hunter opens with a salvo at Saunders for not attending a debate focused on poverty.
“There is a candidate who is not here today. It is unfortunate because if you are running for mayor of our city, you have to care about those who are hungry and those who do not have enough,” she says.
Chow says life is so unaffordable.
“Why because we have a decade of people not building housing. And that is unacceptable. And that is the root cause of the problem,” she says.
Ana Bailao says there is less opportunity now than when she arrived in Canada at 15.
“Some candidates believe the solution is to raise taxes while others believe that it is cutting services. Well I have a better solution. I will get a fair deal for Toronto,” she says, alluding to her promise to strike a better deal with the province.
Brad Bradford says he doesn’t see affordability in the city anymore.
“For too long, we’ve had career politicians that are effectively waving the white flag on the issues that matter most,” Bradford says. “Affordability, community safety, getting the city moving, it feels like they’ve given up. I won’t give up on you and I won’t give up on this city.”
He says he’s worked at the city as an urban planner and knows that “the big bureaucracy” is holding us back. He says the problem is housing and “yesterday’s politicians.”
Matlow says this is a “smart track-free campaign,” in a dig at former mayor John Tory’s transit plan. He stresses that he is costing his commitments.
He also alludes to encampments and says “they should never be removed in a way that is so violent as the way that they experienced.”
The debate is now underway. Moderator Maggie John has just laid out the format.
All of the candidates will be asked to answer three questions, followed by other questions from audience members. Candidates will then have an opportunity to pose a question to one of their rival candidates