John Tory, Toronto’s incumbent mayor, quickly took aim at challenger Jennifer Keesmaat in Tuesday’s mayoral debate, accusing her of putting up “roadblocks” to the creation of new housing when she was chief planner.
Mr. Tory has taken criticism for refusing to participate in any debate that pits him alone against his primary challenger. However, he spent a lot of time in Tuesday’s event at the Toronto Region Board of Trade downtown headquarters focusing on Ms. Keesmaat – even though published polls so far show him with a large lead.
In one heated exchange, Mr. Tory said four-year delays caused by the city’s planning department were to blame for constricting the housing supply: “The roadblocks were in your department. You called yourself the chief planner, that’s what you were.”
As both candidates talked over each other, Ms. Keesmaat countered that accelerating the process of building affordable housing, as she has proposed in her campaign, is the mayor’s job: “The buck stops with you, Mr. Tory.”
The former chief planner also went on the attack, holding up a map of Mr. Tory’s promised SmartTrack transit network from the 2014 campaign, which he originally promised would include more than 20 stations. It has since been whittled down to six new stations on the province’s GO Transit network.
“Let’s face it, we knew it was concocted on the back of napkin,” Ms. Keesmaat said. “But you ran on it.”
Ms. Keesmaat also accused Mr. Tory of failing to stand up strongly enough to Ontario Premier Doug Ford when he cut Toronto’s council almost in half with the municipal election under way: “You choked. You didn’t do anything about it.”
The pair clashed almost as soon as the debate got under way over Ms. Keesmaat’s pledge to tear down the eastern section of the crumbling Gardiner Expressway, which Mr. Tory said would increase commute times. Mr. Tory has persuaded council to approve rebuilding and realigning the eastern section. Later, Mr. Tory also accused Ms. Keesmaat of “making this stuff up,” as the pair tangled over whether the city had dragged its feet on turning over city land to build affordable housing.
Mr. Tory also said that, even with advance polls opening Wednesday, Ms. Keesmaat had yet to release a promised fiscal plan that would outline how she would pay for all of her promises on affordable housing and building public transit. She argued that the city needs a greater share of federal and provincial revenues. But Mr. Tory said she would have trouble winning concessions from Mr. Ford if she is at “constant warfare” with his government.
The debate, sponsored by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and The Globe and Mail, included Mr. Tory and Ms. Keesmaat, as well as lawyer and activist Saron Gebresellassi and community activist Sarah Climenhaga. The event was livestreamed online by The Globe, and was moderated by Nicole MacIntyre, the paper’s deputy national editor.
It was the fourth major debate of the mayoral campaign attended by Mr. Tory, with less than two weeks to go before the Oct. 22 vote. But it comes after weeks of controversy over Mr. Tory’s refusal to debate Ms. Keesmaat one on one. Last month, he skipped a transit-themed debate to attend a previously scheduled fundraiser at a private golf club. The CBC announced last week that it would not hold a televised mayoral debate, after Mr. Tory refused to face just his main challenger alone.
Mr. Tory says he has insisted on the presence of other candidates at the debates – although no one with hateful or white-supremacist views − in the interests of democracy. But his critics have said the move is a political strategy meant to deny Ms. Keesmaat, his only challenger with more than double-digit poll numbers, a platform.
Asked about his strategy as the debate began, he noted he was on stage with Ms. Keesmaat: “I am right here debating. You are Jennifer Keesmaat, aren’t you?”
Mr. Tory also said that when he launched his first bid for mayor in 2003, he was at around 3 per cent in the polls, and that it was only fair to invite a range of candidates, even those with lower profiles than the front-runners.
Ms. Gebresellassi told the audience that Torontonians were tired of the two leading candidates: “This city is one of the most diverse cities in the country and the world … and two status quo politicians cannot relate to the everyday struggles of working-class people in the city of Toronto.”
Ms. Climenhaga, who advocates for cycling and pedestrian infrastructure and increased city services, said afterward she was pleased to be included in the debate: “There’s been a lot of focus on the main two candidates. And I think that is healthy, we need to hear from the front-runners. But it is important to hear the other voices because we are raising really important issues for our democracy.”
As the debate got under way, a protester jumped and started yelling that this was a “rigged election,” demanding that Faith Goldy, a far-right fringe candidate, should have been invited. The protester was escorted out after a brief delay. The proceedings were disrupted again several times by a handful of Ms. Goldy’s supporters, who were all escorted out.