5 min

City councillors polled on Pride Toronto funding

Updated: Sun columnist urges Jewish community to 'get the emails going'

UPDATE, APRIL 6, 2011 9:30pm – Today Xtra obtained an email from Toronto Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy addressed to several leaders in the Jewish Community encouraging them to lobby Toronto city councillors to defund Pride Toronto. Read the text of that email for yourself here.

ARP 6 – Battle lines are being drawn at Toronto city council as Pride Toronto (PT) inches closer to losing city funding in what some are calling a direct attack on the gay, lesbian and trans communities.

Xtra called every city councillor to get him or her on record. If our experience is any indication, PT has an uphill battle: out of 44 councillors, 18 lean toward supporting the festival if the matter comes before council. That’s seven short of a majority, and some councillors’ support was weak or came with strings attached.

In 2010, the city granted PT $123,807, plus roughly $300,000 in-kind services like policing and cleanup.

The trouble may start as early as April 12. That’s when a city manager’s report about PT is expected to hit the executive committee, confirms Mike Williams, the manager of development and culture for the city.

PT co-chair Francisco Alvarez expects the final vote will be in May, just a month before the festival is set to kick off.

The city manager’s report will include a recommendation on whether the city equity policy was contravened last year. Last summer, council asked city staff to decide whether the presence of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid  (QuAIA) was a violation. “Then we’ll know,” Alvarez says. “But if they determine it’s not in violation, council could still decide not to give funding. It’s a political decision.”

Mark Smith, a former PT board member and part of the team advising PT, says there have been several official and unofficial meetings behind the scenes as organizers, activists and community leaders prepare for the seemingly inevitable.

One councillor told Xtra that she received a visit from gay activist Doug Elliott and Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto pastor Brent Hawkes.

Smith calls threats to funding a direct homophobic attack on the gay, lesbian and trans communities. “The withdrawal of support from the city is based on a lack of understanding of the gay community and blatant homophobia by the mayor and certain councillors,” he tells Xtra.

Councillor Adam Vaughan says efforts to negotiate with city council may be a waste of time because Ford will “whip the vote” of about 20 conservative councillors.

Ford hands out “cheat sheets” to a group of councillors instructing them how to vote, Councillor Shelley Carroll tells Xtra, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. Torontonians want councillors to vote with their brains, not with their cheat sheets, she says.

With a bitter fight heating up, conservative Jewish groups are once again lobbying city council to force QuAIA out.

Xtra obtained a copy of a letter sent recently by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the mayor and all members of council urging the city to strip the festival of its funding if QuAIA is permitted to march in the parade.

Stacey Starkman, communications manager, says the group stands by the statement it made last year. “Gay Pride Day parade has been hijacked by a political agenda which has nothing to do with celebrating the right of individuals to express their sexual identity.”

Starkman says it’s the organization’s goal to remove hate from the Pride parade. More likely, a vote would mean the end of city funding for a 30-year-old event that brings millions of dollars into the local economy.

The letter asks councillors “to support the (near unanimous) resolution of the previous council to withhold funding to Pride until after the parade.”

Alvarez says PT plans to send its own letter this week. “Regardless of what [the city manager] recommends, they could still decide not to give us money,” he says. “It’s last year all over again, but with a different council. If they single us out and [don’t] cut all festivals equally, there is a case that can be made about homophobia.”

Gaybourhood Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says lobbying efforts must concentrate on councillors in the “mushy middle” who have yet to make up their minds. “This is a mayor who consistently votes against our community,” she says.

Ford was recently the lone vote against $150,000 in funding from the province earmarked for HIV/AIDS prevention.

Councillor Josh Matlow, who plans to vote against Pride Toronto funding, insists that he’s not homophobic and says he supports the gay community. “Members of the Jewish community are deeply hurt by the word apartheid being thrown around,” he tells Xtra. “There are ways QuAIA can show support for the Palestinian people without offending our community.”

Councillor Joe Mihevc, who could prove to be a swing vote, explained his reservations to Xtra. “Last year was not pleasant,” he admits. “I represent a strong Jewish community, and my residents were very concerned last year. The ideal solution would be that the word apartheid not be part of the parade. QuAIA’s participation will be intrinsic to the decision. Nothing has changed.”

Although “Israeli apartheid” has never been determined to be hate speech under the law, many on council and in the Jewish community consider it as such. “When some people hear apartheid, they hear anti-Semitism… There’s a difference between the dictionary definition of words and how words are heard.”

Anticipating a fiery council meeting April 12, Mihevc says the last thing the city wants to see is a council chamber filled with screaming angry gay and lesbian people pitted against screaming angry Jewish people. “Now is the time for facilitation rather than drawing battle lines,” he says. “Most councillors want to figure out a way through this. I wish this would pass.”

But for supporters of PT like Smith, the battle is no longer about QuAIA. “If you don’t like QuAIA’s message, come to the parade and protest yourself. If you don’t like what you see, you have eyelids — use them.

“Everything we’ve worked for all these years is about to get flushed down the toilet.”

If PT falls under the axe, it may set off a domino effect. Councillor Vaughan says Mayor Rob Ford and his “conservative voting bloc” are determined to see all city festivals stripped of funding.

Alvarez says PT is putting together a dispute-resolution committee, which is one of the recommendations in the Community Advisory Panel report. The committee will likely be asked to decide whether QuAIA should be forced out of the parade. “We hope to have a decision on that before the final vote,” he says. “It’s so hard to predict what will happen. We are trying extremely hard to preserve funding.”

Many of the councillors Xtra spoke to took pains to point out all the benefits of a big, vibrant Pride Week. Councillor Mike Layton says he has been a supporter of and fundraiser for Pride Week for years. He says council needs to strike a balance that makes both sides happy. “If Pride Week doesn’t happen it will impact lots of people. First and foremost this event brings in a lot of money to our community. We should not be removing our support until we really understand the impact of this on our economy. This is such an unfortunate situation.”

If PT loses funding, Vaughan puts the blame squarely on the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy for stirring the pot and “campaigning for Pride’s destruction.”

“I think that Pride will be punished. It’s been identified as a target by a very influential member of the media, influential at least in terms of the Ford family,” he says. “She’s decided that the community needs to be taught a lesson for some reason, so she’s prepared to whip up a campaign and the Fords are prepared to support her. And there are others on council who will fall into line.”

—with files from Marcus McCann