Gebresellassi called out Keesmaat for leaving the debate early. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

A mayoral forum on affordable housing held on October 14 descended into disarray as protesters and audience members clashed over controversial white nationalist candidate Faith Goldy.

The forum was held in the auditorium of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and organized by the Toronto Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

While the candidates who were announced to attend the debate were Mayor John Tory, Jennifer Keesmaat, Sarah Climenhaga, and Saron Gebresellassi, Tory declined the invitation to attend. The debate was moderated by Angela Robertson, a social justice activist.

Prior to the debate, Keesmaat, Climenhaga, and Gebresellassi had signed a housing pledge that committed their efforts toward eliminating homeless deaths and establishing capital funding for Toronto Community Housing. It also defined ‘affordable housing’ as based on income rather than the current definition, which ties and caps rent increases to the Consumer Price Index. The pledge also supports inclusionary zoning, which requires new developments to include a percentage of units that are affordable.

While all the candidates took to the stage, another candidate who had not been announced at the debate, Dionne Renée — who spells her name D!ONNE Renée — sat down at the space onstage reserved for Tory.

Robertson began her opening statements but was interrupted by another mayoral candidate, Kevin Clarke, who called out the event organizers for not inviting him to the debate.

Soon after, protesters in the audience began shouting, “Let Faith debate,” calling for the organizers to let Goldy participate in the event. A similar protest occurred on September 26 at a mayoral debate at UTSC.

The controversy surrounding Goldy stems from her white nationalist views. A former contributor to The Rebel Media — a far-right media outlet — Goldy was fired in 2017 after covering the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and then appearing on a neo-Nazi-affiliated podcast.

Since then, Goldy has repeated white supremacist language and adopted alt-right conspiracy theories.

Shortly after the commotion began, Keesmaat, Climenhaga, and Gebresellassi left the stage while Renée remained.

Clarke and the protesters were asked to leave by the moderator and organizers. One organizer spoke into a microphone attempting to calm the audience, referencing Tory’s absence by saying, “The enemy didn’t come… Why are we fighting each other?”

In a statement to The Toronto Star regarding Tory’s absence, spokesperson Keerthana Kamalavasan wrote, “Mayor Tory is attending an event Monday night for Box 12 Association – a volunteer group that provides support to Toronto Fire. Our campaign had asked for an alternative date but none were provided.”

The candidates, excluding Keesmaat, returned to the stage after multiple police officers and Campus Police escorted the protesters and Clarke out of the auditorium. Robertson continued the forum with Renée, Climenhaga, and Gebresellassi by asking each candidate five predetermined questions.

Regarding Keesmaat’s early exit from the debate, a spokesperson for Keesmaat’s campaign told The Toronto Star: “Jennifer left the stage when it seemed there was no longer an opportunity for open discussion. It’s unfortunate tonight’s event was so chaotically disrupted and she hopes no one was injured.”

Gebresellassi opened by calling out Keesmaat for leaving the building and Tory for not attending, saying that both had “failed the working-class people of the city.”

Gebresellassi promised to declare a “state of emergency” on housing if elected and also promised to defeat the “machinery” of Tory and Keesmaat.

Climenhaga committed to issues mentioned in the housing pledge, including the development of more shelters and inclusionary zoning.

“I don’t have new ideas or new solutions. I just want to follow the ones that exist. All we need is political will and funding.”

In addition, Climenhaga advocated for the use of city lands to develop affordable housing and municipal co-ops.

In her opening statement, Renée claimed that she was being deliberately excluded from media coverage and also alleged that the other two candidates — Climenhaga and Gebresellassi — had left at the direction of Keesmaat during the earlier commotion.

Renée heavily emphasized the need to keep rent tied to income and also called on the provincial and federal governments to identify housing as a human right.

Referencing the HGTV show Property Brothers — in which two brothers quickly renovate and develop a house with a limited budget and timeframe — Renée felt that affordable housing could be developed quickly and funded by cutting wages of provincial employees who make more than $100,000.

More protesters emerged toward the end of the forum, claiming that Goldy was being barred outside the auditorium by police. Goldy was seen outside the room, where police stood in front of the entrance, giving comments to her supporters and responding to counterprotesters.

The event concluded with statements from other mayoral candidates in the audience, including Knia Singh, Kris Langenfeld, and Chai Kalevar.

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