Sima Sahar Zerehi– Nothing makes an all-candidates debate more entertaining than a political smack down and the Iranian Canadian Congress’ mayoral debate In North York Civic Centre on Sunday, September twelfth delivered.
Debate participants included four of the leading mayoral candidates, Joe Pantalone, Rob Ford, Rocco Rossi and George Smitherman. While Pantalone, Rossi and Smitherman were all successful in engaging with the crowd of predominantly Iranian-Canadian voters by highlighting their commitment to diversity and immigration, Ford served as the punching bag of the evening.
From his opening remarks Smitherman set the scene, leading with the issue of immigration in Toronto, a topic that has created much division between Ford and ethnic communities.
Smitherman begun his comments by speaking about the city of Toronto’s motto ‘Diversity our Strength’:
“In this campaign one of the issues that has emerged and that I’m sure needs to be addressed before all of you today is whether Toronto continues to be a city that not just welcomes immigrants but actually sees immigrants as part and parcel of a pattern of growth in our city.”
He continued by highlighting his Liberal roots and commitment to multiculturalism by referring to former Prime Minister and father of Canadian multiculturalism Trudeau.
“I am someone inspired by the life and times of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and accordingly I believe that Toronto stands as a model city for many other jurisdictions in the world about how we have been able to incorporate the best and the brightest from all walks of life and all corners of the earth.
Today I want to focus on the steps that we must take to ensure that motto: Diversity Our Strength is not simply a motto, not something that we simply pay words to but that we pay homage to and that we deliver upon.”
Pantalone who delivered the next set of opening remarks, followed in Smitherman’s footsteps and positioned himself as the candidate of immigrant communities. He begun by stating: “Like fifty percent of Torontonians, I am not born in this country. My story is a Toronto story which presumably, a lot of you will have similar experiences.”
Pantalone continued his introduction by speaking about his experiences of immigrating to Canada with his parents and six siblings at the age of thirteen.
“When I came to Canada I only spoke two words of English that I had seen in the movies ‘yah’ and ‘no.’”
He commented on how his life experiences have shown him the uniqueness of Toronto in being a city that opens its arms to newcomers.
“I think we live in an amazing country and city whereby as immigrants we are allowed to work very, very hard, we’re allowed to contribute and we’re appreciated because this city appreciates that diversity adds value, being different adds value. Not many cities in the world can do that.”
Pantalone also spoke about sharing the heritage of immigrants who helped build this city from the ground up. “My father was a city builder, I say that because he helped build the Bloor/Danforth subway. He was a pick and shovel man, the technology of the age. That’s where I learned from him how to be a city builder,”
Rossi echoed Smitherman and Pantalone by positioning himself as an immigrant friendly candidate. He introduced himself as “the son of immigrants in a city of immigrants.”
Like Pantalone, Rossi shared stories of being raised by immigrant parents with a strong work ethic. He explained “my parents focused me from very early on, as you do with all your children, on my education. Hard work and some good luck enabled me to win scholarships to some great schools; to Upper Canada College, to McGill University where I graduated first in my class and at Princeton University where I graduated with an M.A.”
Both Rossi and Smitherman also made references to the Iranian community in their introduction in an attempt to connect with the predominantly Iranian audience.
Smitherman spoke about the role of the Iranian community in the city. He stated, “The Iranian community has so much to offer Toronto in part because the degree of professional and entrepreneurial accomplishment is so very high.”
He also spoke about the active role that Iranian residents in Toronto play in the development and housing market within this city. He commented, “I think it is very, very important for all of us in the city of Toronto to want to make sure that we continue to grow. The reality is that in the last number of years Toronto can see new growth in beautiful new buildings here and there in the North York Civic Centre on Park Lawn in the downtown, and we know also that many of the fine leaders of this community have been involved in building those new communities for people.”
Rossi also attempted to build a bridge with the Iranian-Canadian audience. He joked, “In our family we think of Persians as the Italians of the Middle East, because we love family, we love food, we love festivals, we love music.“
Unlike his opponents Ford made no attempt to connect with the Iranian-Canadian audience in his introduction and made no reference to the issue of immigration or the role of the Iranian community in the city.
With introductions that firmly entrenched three out of the four debate participants as proponents of immigration, it was no surprise that this topic dominated the evening. It wasn’t long before the debate questions took another turn towards the issue of immigration and the verbal boxing match between the mayoral candidates begun, with Ford at the receiving end of the hits.
When asked about their ideas for helping integrate immigrants into the city the gloves were off.
Instead of responding to the question Ford listed the names of Iranian-Canadians that he knew including members of his staff.
Smitherman led the attack by pointing out Ford’s failure to respond to the question. He chided, “it needs to be said to Mr. Ford that knowing a few people from a particular community and being able to mention them is not an answer to the question.”
Smitherman also pointed out the irony of Ford running for mayor is a city defined by diversity. “‘Diversity Our Strength,’ that is our motto, some people on this panel don’t believe in that. Mr. Ford, if he’s elected mayor is going to have to change the motto. I don’t know what it’s going to be but ‘Diversity Our Strength’ is not in line with this man’s vision.”
He added, “Yesterday, at a debate he said diversity is not my priority. But it is my priority, and to live up to it then the mayor also has to be vocal and forceful in helping to break barriers down, and one of the things that I think the mayor of Toronto has to do is call to attention to this reality of the Canadian experience trap, where a person gets points on one side of the earth that allows them to come to the country and than when they arrive here the very things that they got points for are disregarded and their slate is wiped clean.”
Smitherman did not stop there, speaking to Ford he challenged, “you said shut the door behind us; that we can’t deal with the problems that we have, that we’re not strong enough to take care of our own, therefore for those who seek for example family reunification that you don’t support those things that you think we need to shut the doors and shut down Toronto once and for all as a city of immigrants.”
Despite the attack Ford refused to back down from his anti-immigrant position and simply re-iterated his previous comments.
He responded with, “he says diversity is his priority, stop being the gravy train and watching out for your money at City Hall is my priority.”
Unfazed by the disapproving crowd Ford continued “we can’t even take care of our 2.7 million people that we have in the city right now, how are we going to bring in another million people?”
Rossi also took a turn firing criticisms at Ford. He commented on the fact that Ford is basing his desire to curb the influx of immigrants to Toronto on the faulty assumption that the city has the power to control federal immigration policies.
He stated, “What Mr. Ford just said, assumes that the city actually has a say on how many people get to come to Toronto, which is not the case. It’s a federal responsibility. So the people are coming, because we have an aging population and declining birth rates, the people are coming and he’s saying that he can’t take care of the people who are already here let alone the new people.”
Rossi concluded that Ford’s refusal to see the influx of new immigrants, as a reality for the city is a sign of his inability to do the job as a mayor. He stated, “What he’s saying is he can’t do the job, and if he can’t do the job he better get out of the way. Because, unlike Mr. Ford, I don’t see additional people coming as a cost to this society he’s saying that each and every one, each and every additional immigrant would actually be a cost to this society. By saying that you’re going to stop it at the number that we are today, that somehow each and everyone is suddenly going to join the homeless and that’s not the case,” said Rossi.
While the tag-team of Rossi and Smitherman dominated the debate floor, Pantalone also contributed to the fire.
He stated, “I have to agree with some of my colleagues here that Councillor Ford doesn’t really understand that immigration is what defines this city and this country.”
Pantalone also added, “Immigrants create jobs, all these high-rises we’re building, condo towers, why would you build them if there were no people to occupy them? Architects would be out of work, construction workers would be out of work, designers would be out of work, real-estate agents would not have as much jobs, the whole economy would come to a stand-still. Toronto’s skyline is adorned with a hundred construction cranes because of immigration, which is fueling our human capital as well as economic capital.”
Clearly the teamwork between Smitherman and Rossi assisted them in undermining Ford in the debate and overshadowing Pantalone. If the ICC debate is any indication of Rossi and Smitherman’s appeal to ethnic and immigrant communities, come Election Day the two are sure to have a lock on the ethnic vote.