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Toronto Public safety, policing and racism at the forefront of fight for single council seat in Toronto’s Humber River-Black Creek riding

The Jane and Finch area may be united within one larger ward after the thinning of Toronto City Council, but it is at the heart of a tense race that has reignited old debates.

The North York neighbourhood, which has long struggled with shedding a pervasive reputation for violence, is just one part of the new Humber River-Black Creek ward. And this fall, the area has become a central battleground in the fight for a single council seat between councillors Giorgio Mammoliti and Anthony Perruzza, and up-and-coming challengers such as Toronto District School Board trustee Tiffany Ford, who has garnered strong backing in the race.

The heated Ward 7 race is guaranteed to unseat at least one of the incumbents, who combined have more than three decades of experience on city council. And their race has stirred up a long-simmering debate on policing, public safety and racism in a pocket of the city that has experienced “relentless stigmatization,” said Uzo Anucha, a professor at York University’s School of Social Work.

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In this 2014 file photo, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti speaks to the media as he leaves the Etobicoke Civic Centre in Toronto.

Matthew Sherwood

"The stereotypical portrayal of these complex communities as just crime-ridden and dangerous neighbourhoods has a negative impact on youth who call these communities home,” Prof. Anucha said.

The area’s historic reputation for violence looms large over the debates playing out in the race, although examples of such violence lately have been sparse. While a 25-year-old man was killed in the neighbourhood in a shooting on July 8, it was the area’s first homicide since February, 2017.

The recent shearing of city council means the Jane and Finch community, which was previously fractured between Mr. Mammoliti and Mr. Perruzza’s domains, is now one united electorate.

“We have an opportunity, unfortunately, because of what Doug Ford has done,” Ms. Ford said in an interview. “Now the ward is one community. It’s united, and one person can represent all of Jane and Finch.”

Jane and Finch isn’t the only area these candidates are vying to represent, although it has become a central hub of debate. The new ward is hemmed in Jane Street and Keele Street to the east, winding up through Humber River to the west, down to Highway 401 south and Steeles Avenue to the north. That combines Mr. Mammoliti’s old ward with much of Mr. Perruzza’s. In the last election, Mr. Mammoliti won his ward with 46 per cent of the vote, Mr. Perruzza won with 71 per cent, and Ms. Ford won her trustee election with 39 per cent. All in, Humber River-Black Creek is home to nearly 110,000 Torontonians, according to the 2016 census, and Statscan data indicate about 22 per cent of the local population identifies as black.

Continuing issues in the community are more wide-ranging than just violence prevention. Byron Gray, who grew up near Jane and Finch and worked at the local community centre for more than a decade, said a great deal of the tension in the area right now surrounds the threat of gentrification. Additions to local transit, such as the planned light rail or newly-built subway stations, have brought hope for economic development, but also concerns that residents may be edged out in the process.

Mr. Gray said some local residents are being displaced from where they grew up or raised families, as Toronto Community Housing Corp. looks at demolishing and revitalizing their buildings. Residents have been told they’re invited back once the units are completed, Mr. Gray said, but the units may not be the same size – which could deter some families from returning. “And then the whole makeup of the community will change,” Mr. Gray said.

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If elected, both Mr. Perruzza and Mr. Mammoliti say they would knock down community-housing units and rebuild them. Ms. Ford has campaigned on increased funding for repairs. Mr. Mammoliti recently faced backlash from the community for comparing the eviction of criminals from the city’s community housing with “spraying down a building full of cockroaches.”

Beyond the community housing system, Mr. Gray said support for newcomers, access to affordable healthy food and housing, and the quality of public schooling are important concerns for residents in the area. “There’s more need in these communities to resource our schools better. But they’re not actually seeing the resources come.”

For Mr. Mammoliti, though, public safety has taken the spotlight. Mr. Mammoliti, who has demonstrated his penchant for theatrics over his 18 years on council (he calls it “a particular flavour”), is campaigning on a platform of increased police presence on the streets, the elimination of welfare cheques and the return of police carding – a practice of street checks criticized for disproportionately targeting members of the black community and other visible minorities.

Mr. Mammoliti said in a recent interview he finds “the whole racist argument” to carding “ridiculous.”

"This is about people that have come in and out of jail, and need to be babysat because they’re going to break another law unless we do this,” he said.

Mr. Mammoliti said he’ll have to cut the “grandstanding” of his past if he’s elected into office again. "Will I continue being Mammo?” he asked shortly afterwards. “Yes.”

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Taking an opposing stance to Mr. Mammoliti is Ms. Ford. She’s pushing for more “upstream” responses to gun violence such as youth programming. “It’s this cycle of poverty that breeds violence,” Ms. Ford said, talking about door-knocking on the campaign and finding children home alone. “There’s hardly any after-school programs. There’s barely any before-school programs."

Mr. Perruzza is supporting increases to community policing, but not the return of carding, although he recently voted yes to requesting a provincial review of the Police Services Act “with due regard to providing police with the necessary intelligence, information and evidence gathering tools needed to respond to contemporary gun violence crimes.” At the end of the day, he believes his constituents are most concerned with simple, local issues: clean streets, the state of local parks, services and safety. And at their doors, he said, “people seem to be sticking to the things that they care about.”

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