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Why we should pay attention to women’s leadership in this Toronto mayoral election

Since late August, I’ve been pitching in on the Jennifer Keesmaat mayoral campaign. I’ve been a long-time supporter of smart people, especially women, stepping up to serve in our democratic institutions. Keesmaat comes with formidable professional credentials having served in Toronto’s bureaucracy as the chief planner. She has always impressed me with her interest in innovation, civic engagement and getting our city working better. Keesmaat was a surprise late entrant into this race, for many, there was a sigh of relief — at last, someone to go up against John Tory and challenge him on his four years in office.

I have no doubt that Tory loves this city, but I am truly disappointed at how committed to the status quo he has been — swayed into action when he is called out for a lack of leadership. On the issues that I care about most — equity, inclusion and diversity, his political will has been absent. Only when pushed by other elites is he convinced to act in the interest of all Torontonians, particularly those who have not been well served by his term in office: he was slow to respond forcefully to issues of police carding, to the opioid crisis, and to this past winter’s homelessness crisis.

Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, it has been tremendous to watch three smart, savvy women taking our incumbent mayor, John Tory, to task in this election race. Keesmaat, Saron Gebresellassi and Sarah Climenhaga have brought a focus on ideas and future directions. To me, they represent the present and future of what politics should look like in Canada. They have each brought substance to the conversation, while Tory’s decided to sit out of several of the debates. To me, watching Tory has felt like watching a caricature of a politician: someone who has worked his whole life to govern — but who has not shown Torontonians how he wants to transform Toronto. Choosing to sit out of these public debates sends a signal that Tory thinks he does not need to defend his record; that his incumbency means he deserves re-election.

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For me, Keesmaat, Gebresellassi and Climenhaga represent the new social political leadership emerging today. What’s so refreshing is that these women are all new to the world of politics. And, they are all firmly rooted in experience, community and big ideas. These women are all committed to disrupting the old political game. This is a story that should be celebrated.

This is what this election is really about.

Today, on Persons’ Day, we should be talking about why this representation matters. In the age of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous reconciliation, every institution, including our governments should be under the microscope. The relationship between all citizens and their governments is critical and we need to talk about public trust and confidence. John Tory’s commitment to equity, particularly on gender equity, has been mere lip service. Meanwhile, the political attacks on Toronto made by our new provincial premier are mean spirited and anti-democratic. Our response to Ford’s attacks must be to prove that we have better ways of being for the people: more local democracy, less bureaucracy, more participation, more love. We can choose to create new models for governing, building and maintaining this city, and Keesmaat has the conviction to do this.

Our city deserves a leader committed to new ideas and to changing the status quo. I want leadership with ethical courage that serves the interest of all of Toronto because the costs of doing more of the same is too high for all of us. The reason I’ve spent the past twenty years fighting for more women in politics is because we need women to drive the transformational, institutional change in politics today. This underrepresentation of women and people of colour represents a real deficit in our democracy.

Nearly every day in the past few weeks, Keesmaat’s come forward with big, smart ideas. Build 100,000 units of affordable housing. Create a rent-to-own home ownership plan. Gender balance in municipal public appointments. Rip down the damn Gardiner Expressway. Create an achievable integrated multi-line transit system. Reframe our approach to community policing so we can modernize our police. Lower speed limits on residential roads. The collective impact of the sum of these ideas will no doubt save lives and give us smart evidence for the city’s future. These are ideas that will carry us into the next age of our city.

To make our institutions work best for all of us, we need to elect new leaders that bring strong evidence, bold ideas and the courage to lead. In this time of true cultural, political and societal upheaval, it is time for all of us to pitch in. By sitting out of this election, we risk jeopardizing our already burdened municipal infrastructure. We’ll watch our sewers, our transit, our roads — and our democracy — fall into more disrepair. We need a city builder and public defender, and I can’t think of a better candidate for this role than Jennifer Keesmaat.

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Chi Nguyen is a former co-chair of Equal Voice’s Toronto Chapter, a past steering committee member of the Toronto Women’s City Alliance and past recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

Written by

lifetime feminist/committed keener/political junkie working hard to do good. proud momma. butter addict. heel-wearing cyclist. views are my own.

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