A Political Perspective with Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam

Part of an ongoing series profiling women in Toronto politics, community-building, activism, and other aspects of municipal or political life.

By Julia Chew

When Kristyn Wong-Tam chose to run for office in 2009, she surprised herself. As a tireless community advocate, Councillor Wong-Tam was alerted early on to societal injustices as a child of immigrant parents and as a racial minority. Five years after her first election, Councillor Wong-Tam can now look back and see political life as a natural evolution for her lifelong advocacy work and passions. We spoke to her to discuss political life, community engagement, and what the women of Toronto need.

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Q: From your point-of-view, how do we build a truly equitable Toronto? What do the women of Toronto need?

A: Women in this city need policies and decision-making that is women-centered. If you start to build communities for women, you build communities for everyone. Women aren’t just 52% of the population, there’s an intersection to womanhood that brings together women with disabilities, immigrants, young/old, vulnerable, racialized populations and many more.

In order to have gender-informed decision-making, we need to build a gender equity lens over all of policy-making. When you create budgets in the city that are women-focused, you start to re-evaluate your spending. For example, women are the majority users of public transit. Women also work in areas that aren’t in the financial district. So would we build transit lines that primarily facilitate travel to the financial district? If we were building transit with women in mind, we would build transportation that allow for greater connectivity, flexibility, and affordability.

To build a more compassionate, more inclusive Toronto, we need to start by recognizing that misogyny and sexism exists, and that decision –making has not traditionally reflected the real life experience of women. We need to acknowledge that the political and policy tools we have right now don’t address the needs of women, simply because they were developed by men for their own needs within a framework of patriarchy.

Q: How has political life shaped your advocacy work and activist roots?

A: It makes perfect sense now that what I wanted to do as a private citizen, I am just now doing in a position of power at City Hall. I am the same person, informed by the same principles, objectives, and values, but am now more aware of the political processes of policy-making.

Not every activist needs to run for office, but the activist within me was -limited to a certain extent and could not reach the next level of engagement and execution. We need to respect people for where they are. Often times, especially for progressive work, there is a level of impatience as the injustice affecting the many is so great But the struggle for equality and inclusion is not necessarily stagnant. We must build political support and awareness at every opportunity and never stop.
Q: How do you communicate and engage with the community?

A: I developed a simple process that involves the acronym C-E-P. “C” stands for communication. It is important to be clear in communications and not to insult people with heavy academic language because we are competing with other interests for people’s time and attention. It is crucial that a message have easy access points to communicate in a way that people will accept.

Communications leads to “E” for Engagement. By providing the community with greater opportunities to engage whether it is through a film, art, etc., there has to be an opportunity to respond through engagement or two way dialogue or interaction. This flow of information or a transfer of knowledge and creativity sparks “P” which stands for Participation. Now that you are keenly engaged, what is the physical action we will take? Shall we call our elected officials? Create a pop-up urban design project? How do we execute? What does participation look like for each unique individual? And how do we leverage and respect that participation will mean different things to different people.

 

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WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, September 18

 A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, April 24

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, January 30

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

  • The City of Toronto has rejected the line of credit offered by the province to balance the city’s budget. The draft budget Tory revealed last week was dependant on receiving this loan. As the budget continues to be debated in council, it is unclear what adjustments will be made to move forward.
  • Toronto police are investigating an incident that was caught on videotape this week, in which young black man is asked for his vehicle documents but never told why he is being investigated, and is eventually arrested. The exchange took place in an area where residents have previously complained about unnecessary police interactions, as documented in the Community Assessment of Police Practices survey.
  • Researcher David Hulchanski has updated his research on Toronto’s income inequality, revealing that the gap continues to widen. While incomes are increasing in 28% of the city, incomes are dropping in 40% – largely in the inner suburbs.
  • A Toronto police officer was acquitted of an assault charges this week, after beating a journalist during the G20 protests. After charges were dropped, the reported shared her story with the Toronotoist.
  • The University of Ottawa is taking steps to address sexual assault on campus by implementing key recommendations made by a sexual violence task force. The task force was created in part as a response to the sexual assault charges against members of the school’s hockey team.
  • On Monday, the Ontario government announced various policy revisions regarding the treatment of trans inmates, ensuring that trans prisoners will be housed with inmates of their own gender. The changes were prompted by the passage of Toby’s law in 2012, which enshrined gender identity as protected under the Ontario human right code. Activists are continuing to advocate federally for bill C-279 to protect trans folks across Canada.
  • Earlier this week, the two young activists behind the We Give Consent campaign joined Premier Wynne to discuss how the topic of consent will be integrated into the new Ontario health curriculum.

The WiTOPoli Guide to the #TOBudget

The City budget process can seem overwhelming and intimidating – it’s full of jargon and residents have a small window for having a direct say in the process. So, here’s our guide to make it as easy as possible for you to get your voice heard, and to make the budget work for you. This guide was prepared by WiTOpoli members and municipal politics experts Claire McWatt (follow her on Twitter!) and Neville Park (follow her on Twitter! or check out her website! or even better, crowd-fund her work to make politics more accessible!).

I dunno from budgets – where do I start?

First things first, check out this amazing  WiTOPoli Budget Primer document. It’s got a handy glossary to help you navigate the sea of budget-speak, and breaks down data from the 2014 budget (as taken from the City Manager’s 2014 budget presentation and the 2014 budget outline).

In it, you’ll find information like this, presented in an accessible, easy-to-understand way.

Two Types of Budgets

Okay, I’m ready! Where is it?

The budget will be launched online at www.toronto.ca/budget2015. The City Manager’s presentation will serve as a good overview read, but make sure to keep the glossary page handy! Beware of short forms like “SOGR” (which means State of Good Repair). The Acronym and Abbreviation page is a good resource to help you with this.

What should I know about the City Manager’s presentation?

It’s important to remember that this is a very political presentation, and it should be read critically. The City Manager seeks to ‘sell’ the Budget as it is, and as a result, there is a lot of ‘good news’, and positive content. The same can be said for the Budget Outline (at-a-glance). The goal is to make readers feel their money is being effectively spent, and their tax rate is competitive. Consider in detail points like a constantly falling crime rate, while the Police Budget remains the top expenditure.

I’m ready to go deeper – now what?

If you feel confident, read the background file. There are backgrounders and detailed budget breakdowns for every department, from Community Development and Recreation, to Public Works and Infrastructure. This is where you may find something that has slipped by the attention of the media. Find a department you are most interested in, and focus from there.

How can I let Council know if I see something I don’t like?

Remember, the budget is NOT FINAL. Changes can be made by the Budget Committee, the Executive Committee, and by City Council. You can have a say, too – make a public deputation (pssst, we have a guide for that here), send a written one in for consideration, email your councillor, start a petition … (pro-tip: just make sure in your petitions you collect postal codes, so pressure can be put on individual councillors, as they can see their constituents specifically care for this issue). You can also attend one of these public meetings to make your voice heard…

Budget Town Halls by Councillors

Wards 11 and 12 – Francis Nunziata and Frank Di Giorgio

February 9th, 7PM, York Civic Centre

 

Wards 13 and 14 – Sarah Doucette and Gord Perks

January 29th, 7PM, Bishop Morocco

 

Ward 18 – Ana Bailao

Feb 21st, 1-3PM, Bloor-Gladstone Library

 

Ward 19 – Mike Layton

January 21st, 6:30PM, Trinity Community Centre

 

Ward 31 – Janet Davis

February 9th, 7PM, Council Chambers, East York Civic Centre

 

Ward 33 – Shelley Carroll

February 18th, 6:30PM, Fairview Library

Ward 20 – Joe Cressy

February 23rd,  7:00PM, City Hall, Committee Room 2

Ward 22 – Josh Matlow
March 3rd, 7PM, North Toronto Memorial Community Centre

Ward 27 – Kristyn Wong-Tam
January 31st, 1:00-3:00PM + Participatory Budgeting Workshop from 3:00-4:00PM, 519 Community Centre

This is a working list, compiled as a result of emailing all Councillor’s accounts, and offering them the opportunity to respond. Please feel free to contact us with details about your budget town hall at womentopolitics at gmail dot com.

Social Planning Toronto is also hosting a series of Budget Forums that you can read about here.

The schedule for the full process is:

Budget Schedule

Above all, remember that Budget belongs to Council and, by extension, you. It’s yours to discover! Holler at us in the comments if you want help!

WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, October 24

A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

  • Anonymous flyers were distributed in Trinity-Spadina this week attacking TDSB Trustee candidate Ausma Malik, claiming that she supports terrorist organizations along with other unfounded claims. Unfortunately, this is not the first instance in which Malik has been confronted with this hatred. She released a statement addressing the issue several weeks ago.
  • A study on voter turnout in Toronto municipal elections sheds light on how immigration or visible minority status may impact citizens’ likelihood to vote.
  • John Tory and Olivia Chow called on Doug Ford to apologize to Jennifer Pagliario after reports surfaced that he called the Toronto Star reporter “a little bitch”. Though Ford denies the incident, several confirmed the claim including CTV news VP Joanne MacDonald. Also, it should be noted that this is not the first time Ford has offended a female reporter.
  • A group of students addressed a TDSB committee meeting on Wednesday to raise their concerns regarding homophobic and transphobic tweets published by Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos. Over 200 students signed the petition presented at the meeting, arguing that Sotiropoulus has violated Ontario’s Accepting Schools act and the TDSB’s code of conduct.
  • In light of Harper’s failure to launch an inquiry on missing and murdered Aboriginal women, Aboriginal women’s leaders have begun developing new strategies to address gendered violence in their communities
  • After Toronto poet Emma Healey published a piece about an abusive relationship she endured with a professional colleague, author Stacey May Fowles elaborated on the backchannels that exist within the Canadian literary community as women try to warn each other about potentially threatening male writers. Toronto blogger Neville Park echoed a similar sentiment, describing how these backchannels operate in different tight-knit communities, including #TOpoli circles.

Rob Ford and Toxic Masculinity

by Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks)

Violent temper. Refusal to admit wrongdoing. Penchant for expressing every feeling as anger. Penchant for expressing anger through physical intimidation. Homophobia and transphobia. Impulsive, risky behaviour with no consideration of potential consequences. Obsession with the competitive parts of politics (campaigning) and disdain for the collaborative parts. “Boys will be boys” brand excuses for egregious behaviour. Yup. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sure is winning at Toxic Masculinity Bingo.

This isn’t the first time I’ve thought about Rob Ford’s embodiment of the socially-constructed norms that shape and constrain our culture’s understanding of what it means to Be A Man. I thought about it a lot after the Mayor violently confronted journalist Daniel Dale on the property adjacent to his home, fist cocked and charging at full speed.

I thought about it after reports quoted him calling Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau a homophobic slur. And when he asked if a transgender person was “a guy dressed up like a girl or a girl dressed up like a guy.” And when he made homophobic comments about who really contracts HIV/AIDS and whose life is really worth something at the end of the day.

I thought about it when he voted (on every occasion possible) to cut all kinds of community programs that help all kinds of children and youth, believing instead that personal support of a football program exclusively for boys was sufficient to help at-risk youth in Toronto. Boy-only football programs are great for boys who like football, but not all boys do – and there’s a whole lot of other kids out there who aren’t boys, besides.

I thought about it a lot when I launched my personal blog with a post about my suspicion that Rob Ford is a woman abuser – based on the consistent history of domestic calls to his home (including one charge that was later dropped) – which I later deleted because a handful of male non-libel lawyers said it left me vulnerable to libel suits.

But it was hard not to think about it extra-hard when a video surfaced of an inebriated Rob Ford ranting in disturbingly graphic terms about his desire to “first-degree murder” someone. He was blind with anger and the evidence poured out of his erratic movements and rhetorical violence. His explosive anger appeared to be a result of things a third party had said about him; in other words, he craved physical violence as a response to some ostensible verbal wrongdoing.

The nail in the coffin came later on when his mother sneered at a television reporter that she wouldn’t want her son, who clearly has a debilitating issue with substance abuse, “off in some rehab” – she’d prefer to focus on the size and shape of his body as the real problem. It hurt to watch. It was a painful reminder of how men are socialized to never show weakness or softness; how often a man caring for himself is perceived as unmanly, how men must be strong at all times. It said a lot about why he may have ended up in the sorry state he has.

There has been a lot of talk in Toronto this last week about enabling in the context of Rob Ford’s substance abuse, which is good, but the public writ large seems to enable his toxic masculinity. People who called Daniel Dale a wuss on Twitter for being afraid of a much-larger man approaching him violently? Enablers. People who said Ford’s “murder rant” was just the kind of murderously violent speech we all engage in when we’re a little angry? Enablers.

But then, when it comes to the replication of gender norms, most of us are enablers. Toxic masculinity is not “men being awful”; rather, it is people of all genders holding, performing and perpetuating rigid ideas of who we are allowed to be. Rob Ford, in particular, has spent a lifetime striving to perform what a Rich, Powerful White Man should be (a whole other level of toxicity beyond the merely masculine). His pursuit of idealized masculinity seems unmistakably modelled after that of his simultaneous bully and protector brother, who has often been framed by the media as “the smart one” and seems to have always been perceived as more competent, more likeable, more of A Man.

Articles imploring Rob Ford to step up to some ill-defined code of manhood do not help matters. It is not useful or accurate to frame honesty, accountability and “honour” as masculine traits, nor is it ever helpful to implore someone to “be a man.” Why not just “be a decent, trustworthy human being”? Why gender that? This kind of macho posturing only serves to validate idealized masculinity and reductive, binary understandings of how gender can and should influence identity.

Consider for a moment if a woman sharing Ford’s documented track record of physical aggression would ever have been elected Mayor of a major city. More likely she would have long ago been perceived as “unhinged” and cast out of the leadership pool in her chosen field. Yet we laud – or at least will grudgingly accept – this behaviour from a man, so much so that we elect him to a prime position of public trust. His impulsive expressions of anger are part of what endears him to so many as a ‘regular guy,’ one they could ‘have a few pops with.’ Boys will be boys, right?

If we want more gender diversity in politics, we need to understand that a) a good politician can come equipped with a wide variety of character traits, not all of them about cutthroat aggression and cold calculation, and b) there is immense diversity within genders and no trait is “naturally” masculine or feminine – we choose to understand and value traits in these binary ways, and if we want to, we can choose to change that.