When Ceta Ramkhalawansingh led the movement to block a new University of Toronto high-rise residence, prior to her recent appointment as a Toronto councillor, Robert Prichard was far from delighted.
As a former president and still an active champion of the university, Mr. Prichard firmly believed the development was a good addition to the College Street neighbourhood, particularly for students, and was glad the Ontario Municipal Board sided in June with the developer.
Their clashing views didn’t stop Mr. Prichard from joining about 100 other local residents and business leaders who signed Ms. Ramkhalawansingh’s endorsement letter to city council, helping the retired civil servant win a bid to represent Ward 20, vacated after Adam Vaughan left to run in the Trinity-Spadina federal byelection he won in June.
“It’s just an example of a case where she and I would disagree on a matter but in no way would that diminish my respect for her,” said Mr. Prichard, adding that he still shares the same values of diversity, human rights, and the importance of grassroots activism. “Having Ceta as a city councillor makes me enormously happy even if on occasion, like many other councillors, she’ll cast a vote that I might disagree with.”
Ms. Ramkhalawansingh doesn’t plan to run in October’s election. She’ll only attend two council meetings during her short term as interim councillor, but the long-time community activist is determined to continue Mr. Vaughan’s work on community projects without interruption.
“I’m just carrying on in the fine tradition of Ward 20,” she said. “If you look at who’s represented Ward 20 … there’s a pattern there of progressive voices, community-minded voices, people who listen and work with the neighbourhoods.”
Ms. Ramkhalawansingh, who moved to Toronto as a teenager from Trinidad and Tobago, ended her nearly 30-year career as a city staffer in 2010 when she retired as the Toronto’s diversity manager, ensuring services, programs and policies met the needs of all groups. She continued to be heavily involved in planning issues in her Grange Park neighbourhood and the surrounding area. Her opposition to high-profile development projects, including the U of T high-rise and an Art Gallery of Ontario expansion, made her a recognizable figure in Ward 20.
Her goals for the next few months, she said, are to move forward discussions on revitalizing parks and the role communities might play in maintaining them, follow up on planning studies on new developments in the ward, and find a solution to reopen the field at Central Technical School, currently embroiled in a legal zoning dispute.
In an effort to speed along the process at her first council meeting, Ms. Ramkhalawansingh said she convinced councillors beforehand to vote on the Mirvish-Gehry King Street condo development without debate, even if they would vote against approving it, because all the arguments had been made in staff reports and earlier meetings. In doing so, she gave up the chance to make an impassioned speech reinforcing her support for stakeholders in her ward, an opportunity many councillors seize in heated debates.
“I’m not a career politician so when I assess something, I assess it from the point of view of a resident,” said Ms. Ramkhalawansingh, who was on a bird-watching trip in Trinidad and Tobago when the first e-mail urging her to “replace the irreplaceable Adam Vaughan” arrived from an Annex resident, a staffer for former mayor John Sewell. “I’m not shy. I’m not afraid of offending anybody, of having a different point of view.”
After disrupting the status quo at university by illegally handing out birth control pamphlets and fighting to launch a women’s studies program, Ms. Ramkhalawansingh brought her passion for human rights to the Toronto District School Board as a staffer, helping trustees revise the board’s handling of new immigrant students.
But despite waging many battles in the name of equality and better neighbourhoods, Ms. Ramkhalawansingh has few real enemies.
“You’d be hard pressed to find any kind of real animus [towards Ms. Ramkhalawansingh],” said Sue Dexter, board member of the Harbord Villlage Residents’ Association, who wrote Ms. Ramkhalawansingh’s endorsement letter after she impressed Ms. Dexter during their joint fight against the high-rise U of T student residence. “I’m not suggesting that everybody in the world loves her but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t respect her, for sure.”
Mr. Sewell, who also endorsed Ms. Ramkhalawansingh, said she’s not typical because she hasn’t gone through an election process that forces politicians to develop a public persona.
“Her persona is related to, in my mind, the community movement,” Mr. Sewell said. “She’s got very strong values and she’ll always stick up for them but I don’t think she has the same kind of edge as Adam does.”
Instead, it’s her familiarity with local issues as a citizen that earned her support.
“She knows what’s happening up and down the ward. She knows what our issues are,” said Ms. Dexter, adding that Ms. Ramkhalawansingh’s past experience at city hall is also an asset. “I’ve been watching council and she looks like she’s been there her whole life.”
Former Toronto mayor David Crombie said, “She’s probably sympatical with Mr. Vaughan’s view of the neighbourhood of the city and you have to choose someone who’s got some sort of common sense.”