It was a packed house at the Joseph J. Piccinni Community Centre on St. Clair Avenue when Mayor Rob Ford briefly stopped by to support his brother Doug in the mayoral debate held there.
The debate in the echoing community centre gymnasium had its own moments of drama — at one point, an angry Olivia Chow took on a questioner who questioned her status as an immigrant and alleged she’d lived rent-free in public housing.
But the ailing mayor’s arrival took the crowd aback, as he walked in midway through and took a seat near the front.
Ford didn’t stay more than a few minutes, however, before he left again.
Outside, he explained that he had overdone it, leaving home just over a week after having completed his first round of chemotherapy.
“I was just coming out and trying to return some calls and support my brother but I’m not feeling very well right now. So I’d rather just go home I might be pushing it a little bit. I just couldn’t get air into my lungs,” he said, complaining of the heat.
Inside, it wasn’t just the air that was hot — at times debate between candidates Doug Ford, Olivia Chow, John Tory and former ‘fringe’ candidate Ari Goldkind became quite heated as well.
The debate format for the evening involved almost 90 minutes fielding questions from the floor. Chow at one point was asked why she should be mayor, as a newcomer to Canada who had lived in public housing for free.
Chow responded indignantly.
“I don’t know what it has to do with me being an immigrant — I am a Canadian,” said Chow. “And you are absolutely wrong that I had free housing.”
Chow said that she had paid market rent when living in a Toronto co-op with her late husband Jack Layton, and said that she believes in affordable housing.
“I believe everyone counts, no matter where they come from. It doesn’t matter.”
Goldkind, who has only recently been invited to participate in mayoral debates, took on Doug Ford several times.
At one point, when the mother of a disabled child suffering from multiple issues claimed that she wasn’t allowed to “double dip” in multiple city programs to help her child with different disabilitites, Ford said: “My heart goes out to you. The pressure that you must feel, day in and out... both myself and the mayor always put money toward people with disabilities. I will help you.”
Goldkind responded: “I think the answer Mr. Ford says, that nobody does more for X group than me and my brother, is awful. The answer you received is that a very prominent member of the city feels your pain. You don’t need your pain felt. You need your pain fixed.”
Later, when the candidates were dealing with a question of community and traffic safety, Ford — who like his brother opposes the St. Clair streetcar right of way, answered: “The biggest hazard is running down the centre of St. Clair Avenue.”
Goldkind called that “a bit of a W.W.F. Answer to a serious question.”
The candidates were all briefly flummoxed by the debate’s very first question, from a man wondering if they felt it was appropriate for the GE Hitachi plant at Lansdowne and Dupont to be processing uranium.
“Is it safe?” asked Doug Ford rhetorically. “I don’t think uranium’s safe to be processing. Leave me your name and number.”
Goldkind, this time, admitted that he simply didn’t know enough about the issue.
“I would want people advising me of the pros and cons,” he said, after emphasizing that he wasn’t in favour of driving industrial uses out of Toronto neighbourhoods because of the impact on employment.
Chow said that she would ask the city’s medical officer of health to do an analysis on whether the plant is safe or not.
“We need transparency — we have the right to know what kind of materials are being transported in our area,” she said.
Tory, the only one of the candidates who seemed to be aware of the GE Hitachi issue, agreed that there needed to be more “transparency” in terms of what was going on at the plant.
The debate also fell into more prosaic matters, such as snow clearing on city sidewalks.
Tory said that while homeowners are responsible for keeping sidewalks clear, enforcement is sometimes difficult and messy sidewalks make for treacherous conditions for seniors.
“We have to do better,” he said. “We have to encourage some kind of program that lets kids earn community service hours shovelling snow.”