“It was unprecedented.”
This was how Ausma Malik, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee who ran for office in last year’s municipal elections, described the “co-ordinated, well-funded barrage of hate, lies, and innuendo” that she faced during the last election cycle in a statement that was read to the audience.
Malik was invited to attend We Belong!, a discussion panel on “the hateful incidents and discriminatory climate in the last Toronto municipal elections” organised by the Centre for Community Partnerships (CCP) with support from the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Equity Studies Student Union, alongside mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, city councillor Krystin Wong-Tam, and city council candidate Munira Abukar.
Malik was unable to attend the event, although a statement read on her behalf re-iterated her belief in the need for an equitable public education system.
Rebecca Wolfe, coordinator, community development at the CCP, said that the aim of the panel was to provide “an opportunity to learn” from the previous election and to work towards “building an equitable and inclusive city.”
Wong-Tam noted that, after the election of mayor Rob Ford in 2010, the discourse in the city changed. “We saw language that surfaced that was extremely homophobic, and we saw that we had a mayor who was playing up racial stereotypes and was pitting communities against one another,” she said.
Chow offered an explanation for the change in political discourse. “When it comes from people in power, then it gives a licence to hate, licence to hurt,” she said.
For Abukar, the fact that political discourse in the city had taken discriminatory overtones was not surprising at all. She said she was “frustrated” that others had found it so shocking.
“The reality for someone like myself, as a young, racialised Muslim woman… is that’s the everyday behaviour of certain people,” she said.
Abukar added that this stems from the fact that political leadership does not adequately reflect the diverse demographics of the city, saying, “Our city slogan is ‘Diversity Our Strength.’ If diversity is truly our strength, why don’t I see that reflected in our politics?”
Chow also spoke of the class divide in the city and country, saying that class division leads to insecurity that manifests itself in bigoted attitudes.
The candidates also spoke about personal threats that they had encountered.
Wong-Tam said she received threats to the point that she had to change her walking patterns. “What they do is not attack your idea[s], but attack you personally,” she said.
These included attacks on her sexual orientation and her race, as well as her immigrant history, with comments telling her to “go back to [her] country.”
Wong-Tam also said she once received a death threat from a resident of “a very prominent neighbourhood that [she] represents” when one of her canvassers was at his door. The resident had said that if he had a gun, he would “put a bullet through her head.”
She noted that throughout her predecessor Kyle Rae’s 19 years in office, “[T]he volume of hate mail that he received was astronomical compared to what little I received.”
Munira had been told by a teacher that she would become a dropout and “have… 30 kids.” But rather than accept that comment, she took it as a strong motivation to succeed, “So I had two opportunities: the opportunity to give him what he wanted… or I can be ‘Munira’ and look forward to the end of my high school year and having the highest average in the high school and photocopy every award and stapling them on his door,” she explained.
The panelists also criticized the media for not adequately covering personal attacks. “I did not see the mainstream media unpack what happened to Olivia and the overt racism and sexism that was being levelled at her, and this was a city-wide race so the issue is on the forefront,” Wong-Tam said.
Najiba Ali Sardar, UTSU vice-president, equity, said she was thrilled at the turnout for the event, adding that it was “important to have this conversation.”
She also said that, later in the term, the UTSU will be holding a conference that will invite women in politics to speak about their experiences.