In a moment of complete candor, Mayor John Tory implied in a Toronto Star op-ed on Monday that critics of the Scarborough subway are anti-immigrant —in effect, introducing a racist spotlight in a policy debate where there should be none.
“[M]any of the subway’s loudest critics do not live or work in Scarborough, where more than half the population is born outside of Canada,” wrote Tory. “When they say this is too much to spend on a subway, the inference seems to be that it’s too much to spend on this part of the city.”
These two lines, near the end of the editorial, read like seemingly nonchalant remarks, sandwiched between comments about how to pay for transit and the city’s greater transit expansion strategy that includes the Scarborough subway.
You can almost bypass his comment, until you realize what he didn’t address: what does immigration have to do with transit? And why is the mayor of a city with the world’s highest proportion of foreign-born residents making such a comment in an op-ed about a subway system the municipality keeps failing to fund properly?
I don’t doubt these sentiments exist — actually, I’m positive they do. But as mayor, Tory shouldn’t have left his statement hanging. As a self-styled advocate of Toronto’s much-vaunted diversity, he has a responsibility to strongly oppose those who claim that anti-immigrant sentiments are driving in transit policy. He had a responsibility to prove those arguments wrong.
Instead, his silence reads like a betrayal to immigrant communities across the city. He is allowing the transit debate to turn into a very ugly matter of race and identity. That it hasn’t is a testament to the city itself, and makes me question how many anti-immigrant transit opponents there even are among us.
Tory says he always tries to be honest about his choices, but I still don’t know what he thinks about the great transit debate after reading this op-ed. He didn’t really tackle what some people instinctively feel, which is that there’s no inclination to build rapid transit in Scarborough because there aren’t enough rich, white people living there.
During my time at the University of Toronto, I’ve met and befriended dozens of students who make the trek downtown from Scarborough—all of them immigrants or people of colour. They were often the first ones into class and the first ones to leave, and had the most tragic stuck-on-the-subway stories I’ve ever heard. Tory ignored these students when he didn’t address the racist opposition he chose to highlight. The proposed Scarborough subway will serve none of them, but he’s swept aside their concerns.
I personally believe that transit is supposed to be colour-blind. Rosa Parks taught me that lesson in Grade 1. Buses are for everyone, and by extension so are trains, planes and ships. You can sit wherever you want, you can take whatever route you want. Transportation is just a means to connect all the corners of the city, make them accessible to all the residents.
But Tory’s op-ed suggests otherwise, and since it was published, he has only continued to highlight identity politics as a key part of the transit debate. In an interview with CityTV’s Breakfast television, Tory called the responses to his op-ed “manufactured outrage,” and claimed those views are distracting attention from council’s transit plan. At a press briefing later in the day, he also said that building the Scarborough subway was all about “equity” – a classic example of back-and-forth rhetoric about the potentially positive impacts of a policy decision on marginalized communities.
It’s a shame, Mr. Mayor, that you were the cause of the distraction with your decision to inject the politics of division into this debate. It’s a shame, too, that any further discussions about the Scarborough subway will be tainted by the allegations of racism that you chose to introduce.
Ironically, Monday was Multiculturalism Day. Starting with the Prime Minister, Canada celebrate its rich, diverse heritage, found in growing communities across the country. Who knew that night, the mayor of the Canadian city leading in that growth would taint a celebration people around the world were admiring?
Racism starts with a spark, and when the spark comes from the top, the consequences are dangerously problematic. Immigrants need their leaders a little more than well-established residents, especially considering that those who aren’t yet citizens don’t have any say in the democratic process. With just a few short lines, Tory let them down yesterday.
Fatima Syed is an editorial fellow at The Walrus and a contributor to Subdivided: City-building in the Era of Hyper-diversity (Coach House Books, 2016). Follow her on Twitter at @fatimasyed401