TORONTO — The four remaining front-running Toronto mayoral candidates may have major policy differences in their platforms, but they all share the belief that the Jewish community and Israel should not be demonized by any groups in publicly funded events.
With less than two weeks to go before election day on Oct. 25, The CJN presents it’s coverage of the four main mayoral candidates, all of whom have taken time over the course of the campaign to address issues of concern to the city’s Jewish community. The following is derived from recent interviews, as well as debates organized by Jewish groups, namely an Aug. 19 event held by the Association of Jewish Seniors and the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, and an Oct. 5 debate convened by the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies (FSWC).Speaking about last July’s gay Pride parade, in which the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) was allowed to participate – despite protests from the Jewish community and initial assurances by Pride organizers that it would nota be allowed to take part – all the candidates told The CJN they would not allow a repeat of the event.
“Hate has no place at Pride, and hate has no place in any event that the public is asked to subsidize,” Rocco Rossi said. “We need to tighten up the [city’s non-discrimination policy] language, and as mayor, I will not financially support any [hate] group at any event with public dollars. Next year, no funding if [QuAIA] is there.”
George Smitherman took a more nuanced stance on this issue, saying that despite QuAIA’s presence in the parade this past summer, “the Jewish community needs to know there is a plurality of people in the [gay] community who recognize Israel is advanced with respect to rights for the LGBT community. I will continue to oppose QuAIA.”
The former provincial health minister said that as a gay man, he understands what it means to be persecuted and has empathy for the Jewish community as a result.
If elected, Rob Ford said he will refuse to fund Pride next year if QuAIA is allowed to march again.
“I think it’s straightforward. Zero tolerance,” the Etobicoke councillor said. “I’m not going to give them a dime. We can’t stop [QuAIA] from marching, but we can stop writing that cheque.”
Current Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone said that if elected, he would sit down with the Pride committee to discuss the issue.
“What I want to do after the election is get together, sit down with the members of Pride Toronto and also members of whatever community is concerned about it, particularly the Jewish community, and figure out what it is we need to do,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Pantalone added that Pride Toronto must decide whether or not they want to politicize an event that celebrates gay rights.
“What’s the purpose [of the parade]? A political dialogue? A celebration? And if this debate needs to be undertaken, what is the proper forum for this?” he said, adding that, next year, grants will be given only after the actual parade.
“It’s a balance we’re trying to strike between people’s rights and [discrimination],” Pantalone said at the FSWC debate. “Israel’s right to exist is fundamental and shouldn’t be put into question. Let’s have the conversation.”
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Rossi, the former national director of the federal Liberal party, said he wants to review and clarify the city’s non-discrimination policy, while Smitherman stated the city may not “have the wherewithal” to resolve this issue on its own.
Smitherman cautioned that there may only be one option for the Jewish community to get clarity on what constitutes discrimination at city events funded with public money: by taking the issue to the courts and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
“There is no way to predict what the outcome of that would be,” Smitherman cautioned at the FSWC debate last week.
During the debate, candidates were also asked what they would do to help Jewish students during Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) on university campuses, although many noted that this issue falls under provincial jurisdiction.
“The mayor of Toronto is not the mayor of everything,” said Pantalone, explaining that the mayor should still be part of the discussion about IAW, along with the provincial government.
“But we can’t say we’re going to do it all,” he said, adding that the mayor can’t “become the human rights commissioner of Ontario… We have to be part of the conversation, but to say we’ll resolve this problem is absurd.”
Ford disagreed, repeating his zero tolerance policy.
“I don’t like people who pass the buck [to] the provincial legislature… To say it’s not our jurisdiction, that’s a cop out,” he said. “When I’m mayor, I assure you there won’t be any of this nonsense.”
For their part, both Rossi and Smitherman said they thought the mayor had an obligation to get involved on this issue.
“The mayor should champion this issue and create discussions with universities and with police to ensure [Jewish] students feel safe on campus,” Rossi said.
And Smitherman acknowledged that while this issue may go beyond the legal scope of the city, a mayor sometimes needs to “go beyond” the legislative environment.
“A mayor has the power to broker a conversation and build dialogue,” he said, adding that he never once heard outgoing Mayor David Miller speak “at all” about the QuAIA issue at Pride or on IAW during his term.
“The mayor needs to step up to the plate on this issue,” he concluded.
Asked about their vision to help maintain Toronto as a multicultural centre, Rossi said that as the son of immigrants, he understands the value of multiculturalism and wants to be “an ambassador” for cultural communities if elected mayor.
Smitherman said that as mayor, he’d be determined to build bridges between cultural communities and turn the city’s motto “Diversity Our Strength” into a “mission statement.”