By Sara Hussein and Fakiha Baig
A job in municipal politics is hard enough, especially in a ward as densely populated and rife with issues as Toronto Centre, where Ryerson is located. But with the election of Ontario Premier Doug Ford in June, Kristyn Wong-Tam and other city councillors are facing a fresh set of obstacles.
Less than a month after being elected, Ford announced that he was introducing legislation to reduce Toronto’s city council by nearly half, an ominous sign of his government’s intrusion into municipal politics.
Now that the dust has settled on a chaotic municipal election, Wong-Tam, who represents more than 100,000 residents in Ward 13, the second most populous ward in the city, said she’ll continue to do everything she can to stand up for the rights of Torontonians.
“With or without Doug Ford, we can (address the important municipal issues),” a determined Wong-Tam told the Ryersonian.
The city’s first and only openly gay city councillor, Wong-Tam was elected to council in 2010, under a 44 ward system. Though Wong-Tam says the number of residents she represents hasn’t dramatically increased with the implementation of Bill 5 — the Better Local Government Act — she says her ward is growing rapidly and will increase by more than 20,000 residents over the next four years.
Even before Ford became premier, Wong-Tam was facing pressing issues, including child poverty, within the Toronto Centre ward,. A report by the advocacy group Social Planning Toronto, released in October 2018, found that Toronto Centre has the highest child poverty rate in all of Toronto. The report found that 45 per cent of children in Toronto Centre are impoverished — almost double the 26.3 per cent of kids who live below the poverty line in all of Toronto.
Wong-Tam says the high poverty rate, especially among youth, is the reason why the city is in a housing crisis and is seeing an increase in gun violence.
“There are a lot of structural deficits and part of those structural deficits are, of course, the lack of support for young people,” says Wong-Tam. “If kids don’t have after-school programs and they don’t find themselves in a safe space, and they’re left largely on their own, after school on the streets, they could be actively recruited for gang membership or initiated into a gang.”
The councillor also told the Ryersonian that advocacy for affordable housing is a priority for her, and has been for a number of years.
“Being able to provide people with a safe home that is free from crime, and also one that is affordable, is absolutely critical to developing healthy individuals and obviously healthy families.”
Wong-Tam’s ward is also the centre of the opioid crisis in Toronto, an issue she says is intimately tied to mental health. Though mental health and treatment services are provincially mandated, the lack of investment in harm-reduction programs weighs heavily on the city, and especially on Toronto Centre. On Nov. 1, the Ford government revealed the new application guidelines for safe injection sites in Ontario, making it more difficult for the largely volunteer-run sites to get funding.
For Wong-Tam, Ford’s election to the premier’s office was a reminder of the lack of collaborative spirit she’s dealt with from Ford in the past and will continue to deal with for the next four years. She said this tension makes her job especially difficult.
Wong-Tam also said Ford should think twice before he attacks Toronto and interferes in municipal affairs because it is a regional powerhouse, not just in Canada, but in North America.
“I want to say to the Ford government . . . do not harm the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Despite the difficulties imposed by Ford’s policies, Wong-Tam is adamant that she’ll get the work done, even if that means going over Ford’s head and working closer with the federal government.
She told the Ryersonian she’s already had a meeting with Finance Minister Bill Morneau, during which she encouraged the federal government to work directly with the city.
“If the province wants to participate and be part of the solution-making, then we of course welcome that,” said Wong-Tam. “But if the province comes to table [thinking] that it’s their way or the highway, then I think we have to principally stand firm in the values that we believe in and do everything we can to defend our city . . . We don’t have to kowtow to Doug Ford.”
Throughout her conversation with the Ryersonian, Wong-Tam sounded to be in high spirits, despite the challenges of the new Ford era. It was until she spoke about her recently deceased dog Francis, there was a hint of exhaustion and sadness.
“I had a really rough patch right after the campaign because I lost my 19-year-old dog…she lived a very good life.. She was a total, absolute cutie pie.”
With files from Ryersonian staff