Black Canadians Mayoral Debate, or, Why the Toronto Black Community Desperately Needs to Learn How to Do Politics

Mayoral candidates at a debate hosted by the Diversity Advancement Network at the Novotel in North York Centre, August 29, 2014. Photo courtesy of Black Canadian Awards.

Mayoral candidates at a debate hosted by the Diversity Advancement Network at the Novotel in North York Centre, August 29, 2014. Photo courtesy of Black Canadian Awards.

I was invited to share some opening remarks at the Black Canadian Mayoral Forum presented by the Diversity Advancement Network – the organization responsible for the Black Canadian Awards. I got myself dressed up and showed up on time at the Novotel in North York Centre. I was told I would be able to present my remarks after the council and school board candidates in attendance were introduced, just before the debate was set to begin.

What happened next is a lesson in how not to run a political event.

First of all, it started grievously late. Secondly, the aforementioned political introductions were to be one minute long. Hands up – how many of you ever met a group of politicians who are capable of introducing themselves and their pitch in a minute or less? So that segment ran long too, causing the lead organizer to cut off the introductions mid-stream, cut my remarks entirely, and move directly to the debate proper, in the interest of time.

Sometimes you have to make decisions like that in the overall interest of the event. I understand those choices because I run events too. But what you NEVER do is cut someone from the program without notice, then give the person a half-hearted “we were running late” shrug halfway through the debate.

Why am I airing this on my blog? Because this event was meant to focus attention on the Black community. Despite the solid turnout (which was encouraging) and a few other positives, the event was, for the most part, a dog’s breakfast of confusion, tardiness and muddled messages. If we in the Black community want our political events to be taken seriously, there are a couple of really basic things that need to be handled:

1. Start on time, dammit! Don’t excuse “Black people time” by pushing things back until people show up. In the world of political campaigns, time is everything. Don’t waste the politicians’ time. The people who organize campaigns are around a lot longer than political candidates tend to be. They remember stuff like that and may not be willing to waste their time with you four years in the future.

2. NEVER cut off a politician once they’ve been promised the chance to speak at a political event. The fact you’re running behind schedule isn’t their fault. It’s yours. Deal with the ramifications at that point but let them touch the mic, especially if other candidates were granted the opportunity; campaign events are supposed to be non-partisan affairs on the part of the organizers. So if you cut someone off you will appear to be playing favourites, even if that’s not your intention. You also come across as an organizer who doesn’t honour their word and that is devastating for earning buy-in from candidates for the next debate.

3. Communicate any potential program changes to affected parties BEFORE you change it. This is so elementary it’s frustrating I even need to say it. People took time out of their busy lives to appear at an evening event on the Friday of a long weekend. Give them at least the basic courtesy of letting them know the preparation of their remarks (which also takes time) has gone in vain – as a personal courtesy and an absolute necessity to protect the integrity of your organization. Not doing so makes you appear callous, insensitive and ungrateful.

4. Acknowledge everyone invited to participate directly in the event when you wrap up the evening. To pour salt in the wound, no one said anything about the fact I was supposed to speak, had prepared comments and had made the time to be present. The opportunity to connect with others in my community about issues I care passionately about that affect their lives profoundly had been denied cavalierly by the head organizer. Not even taking the moment to say “thanks for coming, sorry about cutting you off” from the stage was the final indignity for myself and for the candidates who were denied the chance to speak.

It’s time for the Black community to mature in its interactions with the political process. It’s not enough to say “we had lots of people, they heard the candidates, so we’re happy” as if that’s the only thing that matters from an organizational perspective. It’s time for us to pick it up and show we know how to make this game work for us. As laudatory as it was to have a room filled mostly with Black people and news cameras to talk about issues that impact the Black community, we also broadcast our dysfunction, lack of respect for other people’s time and disorganization for the whole city to see. That was NOT a good look, Toronto Black community. WE CAN AND MUST DO BETTER.

For those who are curious, here are the words I intended to share with the audience at the Novotel that night:

 

Good evening. 

When we speak of politics we often hear them described using war or sports analogies. Politics is a bloodsport. Participants battle with no holds barred. They get down in the political trenches and attempt to blitz each other during the war of attrition we call campaigns. 

There is one undeniable truth in all this talk of battle, fighting and war – In order for any of those analogies to make sense one must be participating directly. It’s impossible to be blitzed by an effective ad campaign, for example, if your name is not on the ballot. 

The United States in 2008 did what no one thought would happen in this lifetime – elect a Black president. When does anyone believe we will elect a Black Prime Minister? Premier? Party politics may not produce a Black leader for decades provincially or federally. But today we focus on the local level, where the constraints of party do not apply and we have direct access to those of diverse backgrounds seeking to wear the chains of office right here in this room. 

The politicians you will see here tonight are doing something that is critical to our future – they are personal participants as political candidates. They are seeking support by not just pointing out what is wrong but by advancing ideas they feel offer the best solutions for the future. One can agree or disagree, and part of why we’re here is to be witness to the clash of ideas so we can see which perspective best aligns with our own. It’s our system at its best. 

Politics is much more like war than it is like sports. 

The sports fan may care passionately about the successes or failures of their favourite teams but championships or first round exits do not determine the price of milk. They are pastime – important for the soul but not foundational to the shape of society. 

War creates winners who earn the right to shape policy and political structures while the losers are forced to live with the decisions others make on their behalf. War is, like sports, rooted in conflict. But who wins a war DOES have an impact on the price of milk. Or the rate of taxation on development. Or the cost of riding the TTC. 

I say to the Black community that we do not have the luxury of allowing others to shape policy and political structures on our behalf without diligently working to improve our community’s lot and forcefully declaring our intentions at every point of access to the process. The current state of affairs has been found to be biased against us in many cases, flat out racist in others, and beyond our scope to directly influence and shape in all cases where we do not directly participate. 

We do not inherit our world from our ancestors but rather borrow it from our children. Disengagement is not an option for anyone who believes in this principle. I believe in it. That is why I am here today and I hope that is what has drawn you here as well. 

It’s not as though we do not have a strong history of Black political leadership in this city. When Councillor Minnan-Wong a few months back floated the idea of renaming Union Station in honour of Sir John A. Macdonald, I responded in my CBC poem that week that perhaps we should consider naming it Hubbard Station instead, in honour of the father, William, a former city alderman and the son, Frederick, a former chair of the TTC. We have been part of the political shaping of this city and it is now when we must press forward once again and assert our collective voice with mature and assured confidence. 

We must work to elect more diverse voices but electoral politics is but one access point to democracy. We have another lever, the franchise, which we can and must exercise in October and every four years hence. Let us seize the opportunity to hold current leadership accountable for the choices of the past and demand candidates for future leadership convince us of the best ways forward for all citizens of this growing and prospering city. 

For the sake of our children we must make decisions today that result in the Toronto we want to leave for them. Let’s do what we can this evening and in the weeks, months and years to come to ensure not just our voices but also our ideas and passions are planted firmly in the processes of our city. Pay close attention to see who can carry it forward from the group we witness tonight and identify those among us who will loudly and passionately fight for what we believe to be right once new people are elected this fall. 

It’s our city. It’s time we lead it. Thank you. 

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