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St. James Town's political awakening Add to ...

It seems like a dim place for a political awakening, this small room deep beneath 240 Wellesley St. E., on a level so far down it's called the sub-basement.

But it's here, in a room at the end of a worn and slightly fetid hallway, that a small band of volunteers has been working to stir its neighbours to take heed of the federal election campaign.

In St. James Town, one of Toronto's most dense, diverse and desperate neighbourhoods, people are used to working below the line, out of sight of the privileged and powerful. The volunteers in this office hope to change that tonight, as the low-income, high-rise community plays host to the first candidates debate in its 35-year history.

Starting at 6:30 p.m., six candidates from Toronto Centre riding will square off nearby at the new Wellesley Community Centre, 495 Sherbourne St.

"I'm going to be setting up 200 chairs in the gymnasium," Everett Collrin, a debate organizer and seven-year resident of St. James Town, said yesterday. "My hope is to see that gym filled."

With more than 25,000 people, many of them recent arrivals to Canada, occupying 22 buildings, St. James Town encapsulates many of the major issues to emerge in this campaign -- from accreditation of foreign-trained professionals to child care to community safety.

At the same time, voter turnout here is typically low, since many residents are not citizens. Many work two or three jobs, while others steer clear of the polls, if not politics entirely, out of fear of the violence and corruption they experienced in their former home countries.

Gene Lara, a 67-year-old volunteer who recently founded the St. James Town Safety Committee with Mr. Collrin, said the debate could go a long way to allaying such fears.

"We have freedom here," said Ms. Lara, a onetime candidate in provincial politics. "We have the freedom to vote without being killed, without being mugged."

Ms. Lara understands those fears and the importance of overcoming them. In 1981, she and her journalist husband, Ben, fled the Philippines for Canada after he was targeted for articles exposing irregularities in government handling of a teachers pension fund.

Mr. Lara had been a star reporter of national renown in the Philippines, but had to settle for a catalogue-writing job in Regina.

Ms. Lara, meanwhile, arrived in Canada with a business degree and experience as a trade union leader, television host and promoter of self-help projects for women, but initially, could find work only as a hospital clerk.

She eventually became executive director of Immigrant Women of Saskatchewan, and moved to Toronto six years ago to work for INTERCEDE, an advocacy agency for domestic caregivers.

When she moved to St. James Town, she encountered countless others setting out on the same path she had taken two decades earlier, when she left the Philippines.

"The majority of residents here have two or three jobs; they work Monday to Sunday just to live comfortably," she said, adding what has become a common Toronto refrain -- that she knows doctors, pharmacists, engineers and architects who are working as domestics, volunteers and taxi drivers.

While the city's housing authority owns and subsidizes some St. James Town units, other buildings are privately owned and fetch rents of $1,100 for two-bedroom units. This leads many to doubling up.

In Mr. Collrin's building at 200 Wellesley St. E., crime continues to be a problem, with two dozen crack dens operating in various units, although "we are making forward steps," he said.

These issues will no doubt get an airing at tonight's meeting. The six candidates to confirm attendance are: Bill Graham (Liberal incumbent); Lewis Reford (Conservative); Michael Shapcott (NDP); Chris Tindal (Green Party); Johan Boyden (Communist Party); and Liz White (Animal Alliance Environment Voters Party).

The fact that one of Canada's wealthiest neighbourhoods, Rosedale, shares their riding is not lost on the organizers, who know their northerly neighbours need far less persuading to get out and vote.

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