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CBC Docs POV -- Mr. Jane & Finch. When 80-year-old community activist Winston LaRose detects early signs of gentrification in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood, he embarks on an impassioned run to become councillor of the ward. The opening of several new subway stations nearby and a confirmed plan to build light-rail transit in the neighbourhood, in particular, cement Winston’s instinct to advocate for the community and protect its residents against displacement. Credit: CBC


At the moment, nothing incites intemperate hyperbole as much as politicians do. Politicians in power, that is.

We get the picture: They stalk the corridors of power with blithe insouciance claiming to do good when in fact they are simply out for themselves, their friends, their moneyed backers or some other hidden agenda that must be left hidden because voters would revolt if they knew what’s hidden. Ask Andrew Scheer. He’ll set you straight on this.

And yet, most people end up in politics to actually get something done. Something good. Something meaningful. That’s what we hope, anyway. Maybe they start off young and idealistic and then end up cynically helping themselves and their friends.

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It’s not always so, actually. The lovely and poignant documentary Mr. Jane and Finch (Friday, CBC, 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is an inside look into Toronto’s controversial 2018 municipal election – specifically one candidate and one campaign for a seat on city council.

The person running is 80-year-old Winston LaRose. He’s spent decades as a community activist in the area that has a reputation for being among Toronto’s most depressed and violent. He doesn’t think he can fix everything. What he sees, actually, are signs of gentrification and he wants his community embraced and cherished, not tossed aside in some plan concocted by anonymous people in the towers of Bay Street.

Soft-spoken and charming, but with real tenacity, he’s the guy who makes you want to stand up and cheer. In a movie, he’d be that guy. He’s fit as a fiddle and we see him exercising with a ferocity that would put many younger people to shame. “I don’t see doctors, I don’t take pills and I’m still here,” he says. Watching, you’re thinking, “Go for it!” But this isn’t a movie.

When we meet him, it’s 14 weeks before Toronto’s elections. He’s knocking on doors of people who already know him. He’s standing on the corner introducing himself to people. And then, it happens. We see Ontario Premier Doug Ford prattling away in the sing-song voice he uses when he’s delivering talking-points. He’s slashing Toronto city council. Fewer seats, a smaller council, and it will save money. It is not an edifying sight, watching a hatchet being taken to local democracy. But the premier is the boss and if he wants to violate understood expectations, he can do it. Typical politician in power, we all think.

Winston’s situation is seriously damaged. What was a quixotic campaign has been thrown under the bus. Still, he continues. He talks quietly to locals while word spreads that an incumbent councillor, Giorgio Mammoliti, has referred to some of his constituents as “cockroaches.” There are inflamed debates and accusations fly. Winston keeps on speaking quietly but firmly. He’s not giving up.

Along the way, we learn about his personal background. He came to Canada in 1964 from Guyana. He remembers the racism he faced when he tried to rent an apartment. He lost two of his five children to AIDS. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of black culture in Toronto. He doesn’t get agitated or angry because when he’s trying to help people – with jobs, landlords, the police – they expect strength from him, not fury.

It’s his instinct in helping people that is, in fact, his downfall. As the campaign heats up and there are important matters about leaflets and election signs to be decided, Winston is busy helping someone find a place to live. His small team is driven to distraction as he declines to be fully engaged in the cutthroat campaign that is going on around him. He’s busy doing one good deed at a time.

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Things go from bad to worse, as his team falls apart. It’s not giving anything away here to say that Winston wasn’t elected. But what this timely and meaningful doc (made by Ngardy Conteh George) tells us is that the realm of politics needs people like Winston LaRose. He doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body.

Most politicians try to create a narrative about their work and their actions, a narrative that looks good to voters. Then the competitors and the media attempt to dismantle the narrative and create a more sinister one. Hence the intemperate hyperbole. Mr. Jane and Finch presents an alternative narrative: An elderly man wants to use his experience for positive change. Thing is, there’s no room for that narrative. Not now, not in these pernicious, intemperate times.

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