2 min

Recapping the Toronto Centre by-election debate

During elections, politicians have an aura of vulnerability, even neediness

I’m sitting at a particleboard conference table. Three hundred or more queers and politicos have my back.

And by “have my back,” I mean they literally are sitting behind me in the gymlike meeting space of the 519 Community Centre. To my left is a very pregnant Jennifer Fodden, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans Youth Line. To my right is Jane Farrow, an urban activist and righteous dyke, rocking Harry Potter glasses and a Blackberry.

In front of us, five candidates in the Feb 4 Toronto Centre provincial by-election are scanning the room, practically squirting adrenaline from their eyeballs.

It feels good. In between elections, politicians often seem distant, whipped by their caucus, overwhelmed by the issues and too busy to make our concerns their priority.

But not during elections. It’s like watching a tough lover go soft — during elections, politicians have an aura of vulnerability, even neediness. The whole scene is tender, sweet and a little bipolar. And I’m watching it unfold in real time, an activist panelist ready to put their feet to the fire.

My questions — on the theme of neighbourhoods — are a flop. I’ve thoughtfully hinted at some ways the province can help the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood maintain its queerness, things like infrastructure, tourism and liquor licensing. But mostly they want to talk about business taxes. A nice try, but still a dodge. A couple of times I have to stop them to bring them back to the question of preserving the character of Church-Wellesley.

The best I could get from the candidates was that probably, on balance, Toronto needs a supervised injection service like Insite. No one, not even Cathy Crowe (a street nurse running under the NDP ticket) would say if it should be built in Toronto Centre. There was no indication that any of them would spend much time on the issue if elected.

Liberal candidate Glen Murray refused to denounce legislation introduced by one of his colleagues that makes landlords responsible for tenants’ bad behaviour. Murray proposed going one better, reminding us that he championed legislation in Manitoba that made it easier to repossess the property of problem landlords.

It’s sweet to see public figures wanting to talk about their feelings, but this is the time to elicit promises.

Well, we got one or two commitments at any rate.

In hour two, Le-Ann Dolan from the AIDS Committee of Toronto corners them. She gives a chilling account of the province’s aggressive pursuit of criminal charges for HIV non-disclosure. In Ontario, poz folks increasingly can be charged with assault and attempted murder when they hook up with a negative partner.

The candidates chime in one at a time — including Murray for the Libs, Crowe for the NDP and lawyer Pamela Taylor for the Conservatives. They will fight this trend, they each say.

Dolan presses. Do they support the UK model? There, the equivalent of the attorney general handed down conditions that must be met before someone goes to court (including malicious intent and actual transmission). They’re called prosecutorial guidelines.

For the first 20 years of the movement, AIDS activists argued that HIV transmission does not belong in the courts. So far, that battle has not gone well. Dolan’s question, therefore, capitulated before it was even asked, because she didn’t demand an end to the criminalization of HIV altogether.

She told me she thinks that ship has sailed. I think her position (widely held in the AIDS establishment) is defeatist, but here’s where we agree: prosecutorial guidelines are the best we can hope for from the province. Clarification of the law can come only from the feds or the Supreme Court.

The candidates all agree to pressure the province’s attorney general to hand down prosecutorial guidelines. Murray hints that we could do more. It was rather dim as far as highlights go, but it was the most important promise of the night.

Xtra livestreamed the debate online. Watch the replay:

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