4 min

Dust off your boxing gloves

Activists and Village leaders prepare for battle with new mayor

Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (CWVBIA) manager David Wootton

Activists and queer community leaders are bracing for the worst and preparing for a fight in the wake of a mayoral election that signals a dramatic shift to the right over the next four years.

This week, Xtra’s been working the phones, getting reaction from prominent people and agencies that may be affected by funding cuts to social services and the arts, or by changes in city policy.

One thing is abundantly clear: almost everyone interviewed expressed relief knowing that Ward 27 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam will be a vigilant warrior at council, ready to battle the new mayor when queer issues hit the agenda or valued social services and funding are on the chopping block.

Zahra Dhanani, a human rights lawyer and local DJ, said she’s “devastated and disheartened” by Rob Ford’s stunning landslide victory on Monday.

“As someone who reads policy and works in communities on a daily basis, I see the impact of different leaders,” she said. “I’m scared because he said he will stop funding to social services, arts, culture and festivals like Caribana and Pride.

“Ford is also terrible for Toronto’s international reputation. He has no global ethics, environmental awareness or appreciation for justice and equality. Toronto made a huge mistake.”

Dhanani worries that voters were dazzled by unrealistic promises of tax cuts and memorable, yet meaningless, catch phrases, without actually fleshing out what the new mayor’s platform will be.

“He won through medieval voting,” she said. “People just heard ‘tax cuts’ and ‘stop that gravy train.’ What do these things mean?”

Rev Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto is taking a pragmatic perspective on the election results. At first, he said, he was disappointed that George Smitherman lost. That feeling of sadness was quickly replaced by “real fear” about Ford’s plan for Toronto.

“Toronto had the chance to elect an openly gay mayor, which would have been an incredible show of progress for the city,” he said. “I just hope Ford won’t be that extreme in his policy, that he governs more centrist than his campaign was.”

Always the optimist, Hawkes said that during times of political trouble, people tend to get more involved in civic issues and get organized to effect positive change.

“A challenging government in office is a good chance to build political movements,” he said. “You can feel sad and mourn for a few days, but then you have to get up and get organized.”

Hawkes cautioned that people should not jump to paranoia quite yet, but he expressed genuine concern that non-profit agencies may have to start depending on increased donations for revenue.

“There will be cuts to social services,” he said. “It’s the job of the government to take care of people, so I worry about the push to take services that the government should be funding and downloading them to charities.

“Charities and non-profits are already working so close to the line. They’re stretched to the limit. We need to be vigilant about this.”

At AIDS Action Now, Tim McCaskell sighed mournfully when asked about Ford’s win. He said he was shocked so many people voted for Ford at all.

“The bright spot in all this is Kristyn Wong-Tam won her seat, and she is so great for the queer community,” he said. “But that’s a lot of responsibility on one person’s shoulders, especially a new councillor. But if anyone can shoulder it, she can.”

McCaskell worries about funding for public health initiatives, such as AIDS and HIV organizations, “things Ford would see as a frill.”

“Our general quality of life is now under threat,” he said. “We should be concerned about things that affect the downtown, like transit, arts and culture. The city will be a less fun place to live in.

“I only hope he is such a buffoon that he won’t do that much damage.”

Some non-profit organizations refused to speak to Xtra, citing fear that their funding from the city may be under threat. At some agencies, contingency plans are already in development for alternative funding streams in the event the city starts slashing.

Brendan Healy, artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which received funding from Toronto Arts Council, an organization possibly facing cuts, said he worries most about the information Ford hasn’t yet given voters.

“His platform is so unclear on pretty much everything,” he said. “We feel under threat. We’re not in the process of slashing our budget yet, but we’re trying to be as frugal as possible because we anticipate cuts. It’s such a time of uncertainty.”

As always, Healy said audience members at Buddies can expect to see the city’s new leadership being reflected on the stage.

“We’re ready to fight if we have to,” he said. “[The gay community] has been fighting for 30 years. And one thing we’ve learned is you can’t take anything for granted.

“The city is now being polarized, downtown versus non-downtown.”

At the Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (CWVBIA), manager David Wootton said Ford doesn’t seem to care about the gay community or even have a clear understanding of queer issues, something illustrated during his campaign.

“I didn’t see Rob Ford once in this area in the nine months of the campaign,” he said. “His lack of support for the arts across the city is very concerning.

“The arts are very important to the gay community. I really hope he develops that over time. We as an arts community, as a queer community, are integral to the city of Toronto.”

In going door to door canvassing for Wong-Tam, labour activist Jane Walsh said she was shocked by how many gay men told her they planned to vote for Ford.

“What will happen to Pride funding? Will it be cut? These are questions the queer community wants answers to,” she said. “We plan to be a fixture at city hall. Our work has only just begun. I hope to see Brent Hawkes help us form a united front against Ford, and having Kristyn Wong-Tam is an important piece of that.”

Walsh, who also sits on the Pride Coalition for Free Speech, the Pride Human Rights Committee and holds CUPE’s Ontario Pink Triangle position, said she hopes Wong-Tam finds progressive allies on council.

“We as a community need to stand up to this big bully,” she said. “The numbers don’t add up. I’m very worried about how deep his cuts will be.”

Advocacy journalist and activist Shawn Syms said he plans to sit back and watch where the balance of power shifts to on council, right or left.

“I don’t want to portray Ford as a complete catastrophe because queers have survived worse than this,” he said. “I’m so thrilled that Kristyn Wong-Tam was elected. She will have to build a coalition.”

For Syms, Pride funding is a top concern. He suspects 2011 will be a very thrifty party.

“I am terrified about what will happen with Pride this year,” he said. “I’m dreading it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ford and [George] Mammoliti work together to get Pride funding pulled.”