A somewhat exciting recap of the least exciting debate of the mayoral campaign so far

A somewhat exciting recap of the least exciting debate of the mayoral campaign so far

(Image: Mark Rodas) (Image: Mark Rodas)

Comedian and writer Jeremy Woodcock doesn’t normally cover municipal politics. Even so, we sent him to Thursday night’s “Heritage Matters” debate, which somewhat inconveniently turned out to be the least comedic debate of the mayoral campaign to this point. Jeremy sent us his notes. Here they are:

Here I am at the “Heritage Matters” debate, being put on by Heritage Toronto. Rob Ford pulled out at the last minute to host a $300-a-plate fundraiser; I estimate that will make this debate at least 75 per cent less combative and dramatic. Karen Stintz pulled out when she withdrew from the race the morning of the debate; I estimate that will make this debate much the same as it would have been otherwise. Olivia Chow, David Soknacki, and John Tory remain. And so we begin.

• Our three heroes enter to much applause.

• Chow is on our left, Soknacki in the middle, Tory on the right. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence. I don’t think anybody is having a little left-centre-right joke. If they were, would Ford have had to sit all the way to the far right, against the wall? Possibly somewhere outside the building? In fact, maybe that’s the real reason he’s not present. Maybe he’s just outside.

• The moderator points out that the candidates have seen the questions in advance. As such, I expect little drama.

• The audience is instructed to clap when a stopwatch projected on the wall reaches zero, after each person speaks. There will, by default, be applause at the end of each person’s statement. As such, I expect little negativity. Also, again, little drama.

• Let me be clear here: they use applause, the universal symbol of approval, to show that someone has done wrong by going too long! Very silly!

• Oh boy.

QUESTION #1: “Talk to us about what you think the heritage of the city of Toronto means to the citizens of this city, what it means to you, and especially, what is your assessment of how well the city has done in conserving it.”

• That is not, strictly speaking, a question.

• Olivia Chow goes first. She is essentially reading a speech from her notes. Perhaps this is because she already knew the question and spent a week preparing her answer. In fact, it’s absolutely because of that. This is certainly one way of conducting a debate.

• She says, “we continue to lose so much…to redevelopment” and adds that “heritage is not just about the past.”

• Soknacki says that we have to define heritage as something much more than preserving old buildings in the downtown core. He refers to the Guild Inn in Scarborough, which started out with someone wanting a place to keep old artifacts.

• Tory gives three solid claps after each candidate speaks. 1. 2. 3. Rain or shine.

• Tory thinks heritage doesn’t mean enough to us, and that the job the city has done in preserving heritage is “improving, but not very good” because “we have been unwilling to apply the resources.”

• Tory gives zero claps after he, himself, speaks. The Tory Clap Pattern™ has now been firmly established.

• I think even the typing of that sentence drew people’s attention. Very quiet in here. Very calm. No Ford.

QUESTION #2: “Many of Toronto’s heritage properties and landscapes are unprotected, and it can take years for the city to deal with requests for protection. Meanwhile, heritage resources are threatened and lost. Should you be elected, what would your administration do to make sure heritage sites can be evaluated and protected in a time-sensitive manner?”

• Soknacki is excited by this interesting question.

• Though I know he has not been one, there is still no way you can convince me that he has never been a college professor.

• Tory is makin’ notes while Soknacki speaks. Always makin’ those notes.

• Tory lays out four points that he would like to address in his response: 1) Awareness 2) Transparency 3) Efficiency 4) Resources.

• “Who’s the professor now, Mr. Soknacki?,” one might expect him to say if he were reading my notes, but he does not.

• Tory mentions Don Mills, which he also mentioned earlier. He loves to speak about Don Mills. He wants to see if there’s a heritage aspect to Don Mills. He thinks we underestimate Don Mills. Don Mills Don Mills Don Mills.

• The moderator thinks the timer wasn’t working properly. She congratulates Tory for wrapping up just in time. He doesn’t seem to care much either way: arms folded, immobile, glancing up as she speaks. If you can picture a mayoral candidate in a grey suit doing a Jay-Z shrug without even moving, that’s what John Tory just did. Jay-T.

• Straight outta Don Mills.

QUESTION #3: “How do you value cultural heritage conservation among other competing planning goals? When making decisions about property developments that involve heritage resources, our elected politicians are often forced to consider the conservation of cultural heritage resources alongside other planning goals, like increased density, accessibility, and employment. Where does cultural heritage conservation sit on your list of planning goals?”

• Tory is nodding in response to question number three as it is asked. Tory likes question number three, he wants to have at this question number three.

• Mind you, he’s already known what question number three is for a week.

• Tory mentions that the current mayor speaks about the number of cranes in the city as a good thing in and of itself, but says that we have fallen into the habit of starting such projects without any planning. But he doesn’t want to talk about the mayor, who isn’t here.

• Oh, please do talk about the mayor. Speak of him.

• Chow seems to be speaking far more than the other candidates about the fact that she would do certain things as mayor, and that we should elect her because she’ll implement the things she’s speaking briefly about. It’s a bit student-councilly. Tory is speaking more casually about ideas, thoughts, conversing. Not sure which I prefer. Soknacki is also still here, so far as I can tell.

• Soknacki has now said NIMBYism several times. I think before he did that, he should have asked, “By the way, do you all know what NIMBYism means?” Maybe Tory also should have done that with Don Mills. Maybe someone thinks it’s the name of a person that he’s very excited about, a friend of his.

QUESTION #4: “Many citizens of Toronto who pay attention to the planning process have long been frustrated by the ability of the Ontario Municipal Board’s appointed members to overrule the city of Toronto’s elected representatives on planning matters. The OMB can approve developments that can disregard this city’s cultural heritage, among other matters. If the OMB were to be removed, what alternative would be the best model for appeals to demolition and removal of our cultural heritage resources?”

• The audience wildly applauds this question! Someone shouts “Bravo!” They’re very angry at the OMB! How bizarre, how bizarre.

• That was a joke about the band OMC. Do you remember them?

• The moderator points out that this is exactly the type of question that requires a week to formulate an answer to.

• Perhaps that means it’s exactly the type of question the candidates shouldn’t have a week to formulate an answer to. Know what I mean?

• Chow wonders why we, as a mature city, need an Ontario Municipal Board. “We don’t need it and we’re stuck with it, so let’s think of how we can reform it.”

• “We must explore a better model for planning appeals,” she continues. “We don’t need top-down decisions, we don’t need to be TOLD what should be our planning principles.”

• Soknacki “takes issue” with both the question and Chow’s answer. He speaks at length about this. Minor drama ensues. The most minor of dramas. Soknacki-level drama. CSI, as opposed to The Wire.

• Soknacki’s answer is eventually interrupted by applause. This makes it seem like he had an incredible answer that everyone loved, one that they couldn’t resist applauding before he was done. But no, his time was just up! We were clapping because the timer ran out.

QUESTION #5: “Toronto has an incredibly rich history of diversity. That diversity is a hallmark of our identity. But the contributions of many cultural groups to the city’s heritage are often poorly understood. What would you do to change this?”

• Soknacki is speaking about libraries, community centres, public/private space, etc. I have no idea what he is talking about—he is not addressing the question. I am surprised he read this question a week in advance.

• Oh! It turns out that Soknacki is accidentally answering the next question that is scheduled to be asked. That actually makes it pretty clear he did not listen to the question that was asked. There! There it is! There is the great flaw of giving questions a week in advance! Minor drama again! Criminal Minds!

• After Soknacki wraps up and stares at his notes, confused, Tory politely calls him out, but also echoes some of Soknacki’s ill-timed statements to make his own point. What. A. Pro.

• “Two seconds left,” says Tory at the end of his question, showboating about having finished with time to spare. The woman next to me is very excited by this power move, and lets out a little “yip!” Good for her. Get joy from the little things.

• Olivia Chow points out that as a school trustee she helped make sure that when you call 911 it speaks 140 different languages.

• She also gives a shout-out to the “Toronto in Time” smartphone app. This is the first mention of an app tonight, and several people applaud. John Tory will presumably not mention any apps. I trust Ford would not have, either. Soknacki is a wildcard on the app issue.

QUESTION #6: “The city of Toronto has wonderful museums operated by the city, ranging in size from Fort York to Gibson House. Among cities that rank on an international scale, however, we are embarrassingly without one museum that tells our entire story. Would the establishment and ongoing support for a city of Toronto museum be a priority for you if you were elected mayor?”

• Tory says that it absolutely would be a priority, and compares this issue to high-speed trains, saying that we have had a ton of talk about the issue, but that we have had a lack of will to act on it. He thinks this will comes from a leader, although he doesn’t wrap up by saying he is that leader. Maybe he considers it self-evident.

• Chow also says that we need a museum, and could start out with a virtual museum if we lack funding.

• Chow has mainly stuck to reading from her prepared notes throughout the debate.

• She wraps up with the exhortation, “Isn’t that exciting? Let’s get to work, we can do it!”

• Soknacki begins his answer with the phrase, “And now for something completely different.” Now we’re getting fun! Now everybody’s being fun! CSI: Miami!

• Don’t show up now, Ford, we’ve got it covered!

• Tory disputes the other candidates’ concerns about cost. “If we can raise $200 million for the TIFF Bell Lightbox,” he says, “we can raise $50 million from the private sector to create a museum to celebrate our great city.”

• Chow responds to this by saying we need to have a “can-do spirit.”

• Well, yes, that too.

QUESTION #7: “With all of the digging currently underway in our booming city, Torontonians have become increasingly aware of the vast archaeological resources that lie just below the soil. As it now stands, there is no public repository for those artifacts. They are held by the individual archaeologists in public trust. Amendments to heritage policies in the official plan call for the creation of a city of Toronto repository to collect and protect these artifacts, and for better use of these remnants of our past for education. What is your response to these new policies?”

• This is a long and specific question.

• Chow says the question reminds her of the Joni Mitchell lyrics, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” She says we must do a better job at preserving these things.

• Soknacki, conversely, says this question reminds him of an April Wine song.

• Just kidding, he didn’t. He didn’t say that.

• He actually seems like a bit more of a Rush guy, anyway. Know what I mean?

• He says we don’t have the money to deal with this too much.

• This may be impolite and hypothetical, but I don’t know how Ford would have handled the bulk of these questions. The conversation probably would have veered places that it hasn’t been able to tonight. It’s been congenial and thoughtful, if not terribly stimulating. It might have been a bit of a madhouse, if Ford was always trying to change the subject. Unless he has strong views on artifacts and museums that he has heretofore kept private from us.

QUESTION #8: “Can you comment on the importance of our city’s natural heritage, and what in particular you might wish to do to protect and enhance it? When we think of heritage in this city we might not always think of natural heritage—the heritage trees and natural ecosystems in our parks, ravines, and rivers? How important is natural heritage on the grand scale of the city of Toronto, and does it have a place in your platform?”

• After making fun of his website URL, Soknacki says that our natural heritage goes back to before human habitation.

• Tory did an instant Big Tory Nod™ to that comment. That’s an educated nod. Tory wants to bite into the issue of pre-human habitation. Battle of the professors.

• Tory speaks about Lake Ontario, the bluffs, etc. He also complains that we have allowed our tree canopy to decline badly.

• Tory just uttered the phrase, “a part of our overall conversion of heritage,” thereby officially coming as close as anyone has come so far to saying the immortal phrase, “a part of our heritage.” And not a moment too soon.

• Chow refers to the Ford family’s printing company, “or whatever company,” dumping its pollution in rivers, and that we should charge them for it. A lot of oohs and aahs.


• TORY: There is a very low level of knowledge/engagement/awareness in the city regarding our heritage.

• Translation: he doesn’t think we’re doing so great at this, and we have to do a lot better.

• SOKNACKI: We need to widen the idea of what heritage is.

• Soknacki makes his closing remarks by referring back to issues that kept coming up throughout the debate. Not speaking from notes! Actually responding to the night’s events! Refreshing. Again, not that it really should be.

• CHOW: Heritage is about planning and designing, not just about letting things happen.

• Chow never looks up from her notes here, and is basically making a speech. This is clearly something that she thought to say before the debate ever started.

• And there it is, your summary of last night’s debate: now a part of our heritage.