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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Why did John Tory play the race card in transit politics?

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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.

photo by Lindsay Ensing

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



  1. The racist implication was probably the most enraging of all the misleading statements, lies, and insinuations in Tory’s op-ed. The choice is not between spending billions of dollars on Scarborough or spending nothing because we’re all racists. A lot of people are fully in favour of spending billions on Scarb. transit, but ONLY IF it’s spent on a fact-based, logical, efficient network suited to the ridership and origin-destination travel patterns. NOT if the billions are going to be wasted on an utterly unjustifiable one-stop subway extension that will serve next to no-one and cripple needed expansion elsewhere. Really, do the people of Scarborough travel nowhere within the suburb? Are there really just 4300 people there who only travel home to downtown and back? No-one needs to shop locally, visit friends, go to movies, restaurants, big box Tires/IKEAs/Home Despots within Scarb. itself? Is everyone in Scarborough thrilled to ride bumpy, jerky, noisy buses wherever they go, instead of riding on smooth, quiet LRT railcars?

    John Tory is a disaster.

  2. “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.”

    How does this line not ignite the same racist taint you are accusing Tory of? Care to identify which people those are? I think most people instinctively feel that $3 billion and going higher is too much to spend on a single subway stop no matter where it is, esp as there are cheaper, better alternatives.

  3. Thanks for this.

    While I’m a white male living in the core, I’m very much against this subway extension. It’s not because the area of Scarborough doesn’t deserve spending, nor because it might be giving too much to some communities, but because it’s really bad value, not just for Scarborough but for all of us, and the system (and all the people of all colours using it) as we really need to move away from costly subways into lower density that blight the entire system. The existing LRT plan, while not ideal, still did far more for all of the population of Scarborough, as well as leaving some money for some other situations, of which there are far far too many, most unaddressed.

    Mr. Tory’s mobility politricks aren’t too far away from Mr. Ford’s – they’re carservative first, and in strident denial of how cars are entitled and subsidized, and that ideology is part of this SSE scheme – put the transit underground where it won’t interfere with cars. It may even be part of an effort to ensure transit isn’t comprehensive by f*xing it by bankrupting it – and Tory, and those other politicians do NOT pay the price of over-runs and deficits, so what do they care??

    Truly equitable transit investment would improve transit everywhere first, and then get to squeeze the cars, and that’s far better done with the existing plan. I’d be happy to offer a sweetener; and it could be relatively cheap too. The Gatineau Hydro corridor slices all the way through Scarborough on the diagonal, and it’s very wide, and relatively unencumbered. It’d be a good place to put in a new busway, or maybe an LRT, as it goes from Vic Park and Eglinton up to the 401/Zoo area, and it also is quite close to some of the major destinations in the area. We could also – with some large spending – cross the Don River to connect to Thorncliffe Park, another area of high transit use and a mixed new community that isn’t quite as well served. Further connection could occur to the core too, if there was the political will to take away a lane or two of car traffic on the Don Valley Parkway and put in a transitway to the near-core.

    The process of actually looking at what demands are, and needs are, and solutions, however, is really ossified and unimaginative, and inadequate. If we need to squeeze the billions, and do a lot more quickly, we’ve got to contemplate less-palatable to some solutions. Busways have brought a LOT of rapid transit to some parts of the world for not so much money – Curitiba being the prime example, where subway capacity was obtained for maybe 2% of the cost.

    Yes, it’s about value, and efficiency, for ALL of us, in ALL areas of the City.