The room leans male, leans gay, leans toward tricked-out leather shoes. Familiar faces linger in the back, including now-former Pride Toronto media staffer Michael Ain, writer James Dubro and Pride Toronto Human Rights volunteer Doug Kerr.
They’re gathered in a glaringly lit upper-storey room at Ryerson University. The floors are so polished they are reflective. It’s the first week of May.
Outgoing city councillor Kyle Rae arrives, and a clutch of middle-aged acolytes gather around. He’s flattered by the attention of a photographer (me), until I mention I’m from Xtra. He shoots me a sour face.
As the speeches begin, chatter doesn’t quite die down at the back of the room. The name on everyone’s lips is Ken Chan, the gay former police officer, political staffer to George Smitherman and advisor to conservative London mayor Boris Johnson. He’s returned from the UK to run for city council in Toronto’s most densely contested race, the gaybourhood riding of Ward 27.
Rae and Smitherman give short speeches endorsing Chan. Smitherman is especially warm, sounding a little like an uncle giving a 10-decibels-too-loud wedding toast.
The cheering for Chan is loud and sustained. Chan shakes hands on his way to the risers. He takes to the podium; the room is totally quiet.
Chan begins with a history of each of the ward’s neighbourhoods, describing the founding of Rosedale, Yorkville and the Church-Wellesley Village. As he launches into the fourth or fifth of these, the crowd begins to get restless.
Eyes begin to wander. Murmurs.
The minutes tick by. A history of the gay movement follows, then a family biography. There are a number of asides, some seemingly unrelated to the Ward 27 race.
After 20 minutes, I slip out the back door and head to the elevator. I’m not the only one to duck out early.
The floors, I worry, are more polished than the candidate.
Chan and I cross paths a number of times over the summer. One sunny afternoon in late June, I am stationed outside of the 519 Church Street Community Centre. Like the 150 or so gay and trans people on the hot sidewalk, I’m locked out of a Pride Toronto cocktail party for police chief Bill Blair. It is a week after the G20 and the mood is confrontational.
Inside, Pride Toronto executive director Tracey Sandilands, Kyle Rae and other gay and lesbian muckymucks are socializing. Organizers say the room is filled to capacity, a claim we later disprove. But at about 6pm, before the chief arrives, I’m short of information. When I spot Chan and a friend slip out The 519’s side door and head toward a car, I hightail it, dodging traffic to cross Church St, then heading south toward Wellesley in pursuit.
He stops when I call his name, waiting for me to catch up. When I introduce myself, I’m not sure he recognizes me. All the same, he gives me some off-the-record background information, coolly deflects my more inflammatory questions, and introduces me to his friend, a gorgeous woman in a classic black cocktail dress.
He’s not leaving because of the confrontation brewing, he tells me. He’s got another event to get to. They slip into a car, and away he goes. Cool as a cucumber. Teflon Ken.
At 4pm on an August afternoon, Ken Chan arrives for what will be Xtra’s longest editorial board meeting with a Ward 27 or mayoral candidate. Around the boardroom table there are four Xtra editors and Chan. He is one of the few candidates not to bring a volunteer or assistant.
There is a clip circulating online from this interview. It shows Chan, stony faced, repeating himself as Matt Mills and I grill him about his position on Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA). Unlike all the other queer candidates, he won’t say whether the controversial group should be allowed in the parade.
Chan’s discomfort is all too visible in his slumped body posture. The Twitterverse deemed it an interrogation, and Chan’s POW attitude doesn’t help.
Yay or nay, for seven minutes he dodges the question. It’s painful to watch. But not as painful as being in the room — that seven-minute clip is edited. Our full back-and-forth with Chan would have spread over four long YouTube clips. It clocks in at more than half an hour.
Once the video camera and tape recorder are off, Chan is more relaxed, talking about some of his personal history in the ward. Chan is happy to talk, and it’s an Xtra staffer who eventually disrupts the conversation. Chan stays for another few minutes and shakes our hands before he goes. It is almost 7pm.
In a wide field, Chan is probably the candidate who has spent the most time in Toronto’s gay bars. He is single, fit and can rattle off the addresses of all the Church-Wellesley-area apartments he’s lived in.
In 1998, as a 22-year-old university graduate working as an airport immigration officer, Chan moved to Toronto from Vancouver. Around the same time, his father, diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), decided to return to Brunei to be with his parents. His mom and sister stayed in Vancouver.
“It was a challenge,” Chan admits over coffee at the gaybourhood Starbucks. “I was going through my personal journey, coming out, and my mom was going through a difficult time. With work, too, everything was piling on.”
Even during that turbulent period, determined to make a life for himself as a newly out Toronto transplant, Chan found a place in the bar scene.
He went to Boots, where within a couple of months, over Easter weekend in 1998, he met a fresh-faced student named Rick Telfer.
“We were not political at all,” says Chan. “I was working for the government, and he was a grad student.”
More than 10 years later, Telfer is an outspoken lefty, a Palestinian activist, the founder of the Don’t Sanitize Pride Facebook group.
Did they go home together?
“No, not at all,” Chan says.
At the end of the night, Telfer went back to London, Ontario, and Chan went home alone. The next time Telfer was in town, they met for drinks at Woody’s, the beginning of a relationship that would last until 2005.
“We grew up,” says Chan. “Politics was also a challenge, but we grew up and grew apart. We were two 22-year-old kids. When we were both 30, we wanted different things in our lives.”
That was Chan’s last serious relationship.
During that period, he made two big career moves. First, he attended police college as an out gay man, working after graduation in Peel, north of Toronto. (Even during that time, despite pressure from his commanding officers, he refused to move from the Church-Wellesley Village to Peel region.)
“As a kid growing up, I always wanted to be a police officer,” he says. “After I came out, a lot of people told me I couldn’t be out and be a police officer. And certainly when I was studying criminology at Simon Fraser University, it was still quite controversial.”
Chan says during his years as a police officer, he volunteered for Pride Toronto’s safety and security committee but was turned away. Distrust between police and gays ran in both directions.
Next, after Dalton McGuinty swept to power in 2003, Chan applied to work as a political staffer for a number of ministers. He was hired as an advisor to the new minister of health, George Smitherman, a position he kept until 2007. Judging by Smitherman’s praise, he made a good impression.
Around that time, Chan, with a world-wandering spirit, decided to move to the UK. He had no job lined up when he applied for his work visa, only later landing work as an advisor to one of Boris Johnson’s deputy mayors.
Did he have a boyfriend while in the UK?
“I dated on and off,” he says. “I was seeing a guy who lived in New York; it was just for fun. But no, not really. But I find something about big cities: nobody wants to settle down.”
Is that true here, too?
“No, I don’t find that in Toronto as much as in London.”
The decision to come back to Canada to fight this election was a difficult one, he says. But support — especially from Smitherman — eventually tipped the scales.
On paper, the endorsements must have looked pretty good when he was deciding whether or not to run. Rae was a longtime incumbent, and Smitherman was — it looked for a while — an unrivalled mayoral juggernaut destined to win the keys to the country’s sixth largest government.
As Smitherman’s support eroded over the summer — and Rae’s Pride shenanigans came to light this spring — the endorsements began to take on a different character. At this point, the worst slogan his opponents could hurl at him would look something like this: If you like Kyle Rae, you’re going to love Ken Chan.
And that makes the thumbs-up from more controversial figures, including anti-QuAIA activist Noah Gurza and polarizing Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy, more important than they might otherwise be. Endorsements by the Toronto Star and Toronto Sun this week will surely give him a boost, and in a tight race, it might put him over the top.
In the final weeks, some of his policy waffling has been replaced by concrete plans. Certainly, his opposition to the Jarvis St bike lanes will set him apart from the bulk of his left-leaning rivals. Is it too little, too late?
In late September, Chan is at the Wellesley subway station. Kerr and university-aged volunteers are helping him distribute leaflets.
“Vote for Chan,” they say hopefully.
I take the campaign literature. The centrepiece is a glossy, folded, double-sided brochure that makes no policy statements whatsoever. It’s wall-to-wall endorsements.
It’s typical of a campaign that has put endorsements front and centre — a gamble, no doubt, but one that has so far paid off.