2 min

Feisty Toronto mayoral debate cut short at The 519

Rob Ford may not have been at the mayoral debate at The 519 Church Street Community Centre Monday night, but that didn't stop the two other candidates or audience members from calling him a coward for not showing up.

Even before the debate got rolling, moderator Mathieu Chantelois called Ford's absence "disappointing."

"He's scared!" someone yelled from the middle of the audience, a standing-room-only crowd numbering around 300, which was largely divided between those wearing green Joe Pantalone shirts or purple George Smitherman shirts.

The debate was cut short by The 519 after Ford told Xtra last week that he could not attend due to "scheduling conflicts," said Matthew Cutler, manager of resource development and communication at The 519.

More time was shaved off the debate when Smitherman announced he too had a previous commitment and would be leaving the debate early. The debate lasted only about 30 minutes in total.

"There was a debate?" said Ward 27 candidate Susan Gapka. "I sat down, then everyone got up and left."

 Many in the crowd were shocked to hear Ford blew off the debate entirely. Ashleigh Gaul, 28, who was seated in the front row, just shook her head.

"That kinda stinks," she said. "I was really interested to hear how he reacts."

Bob Shearer, 65, said he was undecided about which candidate to vote for until the debate.

"When I see that Mr Ford doesn't have enough courage to appear in front of this group, my vote will go to Smitherman," he said. "I made my decision tonight. If Rob Ford can't set aside some time for tonight's debate, that's the end of it for me."

Before going on the attack against Pantalone, Smitherman reminded people about "the elephant in the room," vote-splitting. 

"For queers, wannabe queers and friends of queers, I have always been there," Smitherman said.

Some of the issues discussed included how the candidates will promote new businesses in the queer community, whether they support removing gender-specific questions on application forms, if they support increasing or decreasing funding allocation for community AIDS prevention work and what they plan to do about the growing bedbug problem in the Church and Wellesley area.

Smitherman and Pantalone were most divided on the question of supporting the creation of safe injection sites for drug users.

"I do not support safe injection sites because I am not convinced of its merits," Smitherman said.

Pantalone disagreed.

"So where will you put the safe injection site?" Smitherman asked. Pantalone said, "We'll find a place."

Himy Syed, a mayoral candidate not considered a frontrunner, who took Ford's vacant chair, joined the two candidates halfway through. 

Although he tried, Syed was not allowed to answer questions from the audience.

"I could have even answered from Ford's perspective," he jokingly told Xtra after the debate.