At a public meeting last week, Olivia Chow was asked to outline the extent of the racist and sexist abuse directed at her during Toronto's mayoral campaign last fall. She hesitated for a moment, and said with a weary laugh, "How many hours do you have?"
She mentioned the hundreds of "racist and vulgar" comments left on her campaign's social media platforms, and the Toronto Sun cartoon that portrayed her as a Maoist puppet riding her late husband Jack Layton's coattails. She talked about the man who got up at a meeting and suggested that, as an immigrant to Canada, she had no right to hold public office here. She didn't even get around to the man who yelled at her, on the street two days before the election, "Get the fuck out of here. This is Ford Nation, bitch."
I should mention that she was running (unsuccessfully) for the mayoralty of a city whose slogan is "Diversity Our Strength." Maybe that should be changed to, "Diversity Our Convenient Tourism Slogan, When It Suits Us." At least that was the message offered by two other female candidates on the panel, Munira Abukar (who ran unsuccessfully for Toronto council) and Kristyn Wong-Tam (a gay councillor who was re-elected).
Ms. Abukar, a 22-year-old spitfire you'll definitely be seeing more of on the public stage, talked about how 200 of her campaign signs were stolen, and others were defaced with the words "go home." Home, as the Somali-Canadian pointed out, is Etobicoke, a western suburb of Toronto that is the stronghold of the Ford brothers, Doug and Rob, whose poisonous influence on municipal politics leaked like acid through this campaign.
Ms. Wong-Tam received death threats, both verbal and written, during the campaign. She was told "I hope you get AIDS and die." She was told to "Go back to China." Considering that she was born in Hong Kong, this suggests Toronto voters' grasp of geography and history is slipping at the same rates as their civility. Ausma Malik, whose successful campaign for Toronto District School Board wasn't capsized by anonymous flyers suggesting she was a member of Hezbollah, couldn't make the meeting, but sent a note condemning "the well-funded barrage of hate, lies and innuendo" directed against her.
All four of the candidates are women. Two of them wear headscarves. They are all from what used to be called "visible minorities." Ms. Wong-Tam, being gay, also belongs to an invisible minority. These are precisely the kinds of people this cosmopolitan city is supposed to embrace – until they try to grab a slice of the power pie.
Of course, Toronto, with its pieties and smug slogans, is supposed to be beyond these racialized differences – the melting pot where hate had dissolved. But the women agreed that last fall's election campaign revealed tensions normally hidden beneath the city's placid surface. The retrograde bigotry of Mayor Rob Ford's time in office allowed people to step forward and say publicly what they otherwise might only have whispered in private. Which, in many ways, is a good thing – at least you can fight what you can see and hear.
"Closet bigots felt they could speak," Ms. Wong-Tam told the packed meeting on the University of Toronto campus. "It was an honest conversation [because] it exists in our city and our country."
It's not just Toronto, of course. This week's controversial Maclean's cover story claiming Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada highlighted the virulence of anti-aboriginal sentiment in the last municipal elections. As mayoral candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette told the CBC last summer, "If there's one person saying it, there's 1,000 people thinking it." (It should be noted that the man who was elected mayor, Brian Bowman, is Métis.)
As Ms. Chow said, "We've become complacent." Because Canada's largest city mostly trots along in peace and prosperity, it's easy not to notice the bitter undercurrents that the past four years stirred up. Or perhaps to think that they've disappeared, along with the brothers who did the stirring. But that would be wishful thinking.
Politics is, of course, a hurly-burly – a brutal, elbows-up game. I don't think any of the women who were on that panel thought otherwise when they stepped into public life. "I have very thick skin," Ms. Chow said. "Probably too thick." What they didn't expect was the idea that they had no right to be in the game in the first place.
But those are precisely the kinds of candidates who should be playing the game. If we're presented with more of the same faces touting more of the same platforms, an already apathetic, disillusioned electorate will switch off – in which case everyone loses.