“I burst into tears when John Tory called me to say he was stepping down”: A Q&A with Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie

“I burst into tears when John Tory called me to say he was stepping down”: A Q&A with Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie

The city’s new leader weighs in on the mayor’s bombshell resignation, passing a controversial budget and why she won’t run in the upcoming election

When mayor John Tory contacted Jennifer McKelvie to tell her about his imminent resignation, she was shocked. She cried a little, and then she got down to business. The sophomore councillor from Scarborough–Rouge Park had never imagined the reality of the past few weeks when she signed on to be the deputy mayor just three months ago. But, with support from her family, encouragement from former Toronto mayor Barbara Hall and the odd pump-up session with Miley Cyrus, she’s ready to lead the city—and keep the 2023 mayoral candidates honest while she’s at it.

You’ve been on the job for a little over a week now. Rose? Thorn?
Walking into the mayor’s office on my first official day, I had that sinking feeling that maybe nobody would show up. So my rose would be that everyone was there, rolling up their sleeves and ready to get to work. I’ve spent the past three years chairing the city’s infrastructure and environment committee. I’ve spent the past week familiarizing myself with all of the other files across the city. But I’m at a loss for a thorn. I’m an optimistic person. I’m sure there will be rough times in the coming months, but so far, they have not materialized.

The way you came into office was a bit thorny, no?
It was a huge surprise and definitely not easy. I burst into tears when the mayor first called me to tell me what was happening. It was about half an hour before he announced his resignation on television, and I was in Ottawa. He didn’t share the details—just that there would be a story, that it was true and that he was going to resign. I asked if he wanted to consider a leave of absence instead, but he was firm in his decision. When I agreed to be deputy mayor, I knew that filling the vacancy of the office was a possibility. It wasn’t one I had imagined becoming a reality, but I’m someone with a strong sense of duty. I knew immediately that I had a responsibility to step up for Toronto, and that’s what I did.

Related: John Tory: The early years of a born politician 

How immediately? Did you get a chance to consult your family?
My family was amazing. They stayed up to greet me when I got home late that evening. The next day, Saturday, I met with the mayor and we talked about the transition and the importance of getting the budget passed, which we did the following week.

Favourite Mayor Tory memory?
I think many of us will remember the mayor out in his Raptors jacket during the playoffs. If there was a community event, he was there. I have so much respect for the way he championed the city. I know we haven’t seen the last of John Tory, and he is certainly missed at city hall.

You and Tory are politically aligned, with nearly identical voting records. Is there an issue where you had different views? 
Mayor Tory and I had good dialogue about issues before they came to council. He was always willing to hear my thoughts, and often, when there were amendments to an item, that was based on our conversations. A good example would be our initial climate declaration, which was brought forward by the mayor. I asked for amendments including a carbon budget, which will be completed in April 2023 and will provide a detailed inventory of greenhouse gas emissions across the city. It will also identify the projects we need to move forward on to be net-zero by 2040, and it will calculate the costs of those projects. Climate action is extremely important to me. My background is as an environmental geoscientist, and a big part of why I made the move into municipal politics was the ability to drive action on those files. Over the past four and a half years, that’s been my main area of focus. Of course, that focus is broadening now.

What’s your relationship like with the premier? Have you ever socialized?
We’ve been in the same place and we’ve shaken hands before, but we haven’t had an in-depth conversation. I look forward to making that important connection between our two governments. 

Do you worry that there’s a bit of a boys’ club vibe to building those relationships behind the scenes?
That’s not something I’ve seen at city hall. I actually happened to cross paths with Barbara Hall over the weekend at an event in Scarborough. It was really touching to get words of encouragement from her. She said that it was a big office, with big shoes to fill, and that I needed to do it my way.

Do you share Doug Ford’s opinion that a left-wing mayor would be “a disaster” for the city?
I have every faith in the citizens of Toronto to elect the right person for the job, and I look forward to working with whomever that may be starting June 26. 

Where would you place yourself on the political spectrum? 
I consider myself a centrist. I’ve had the pleasure of working with colleagues on the right and on the left. 

Okay, but if you had to say you leaned a little bit to the right or a little bit to the left, which would it be?
I grew up in a home where we didn’t have a lot of money, and fiscal responsibility was an important value. But I also grew up with parents who were involved in their unions. My mother was a nurse, and my father was president of his union, so workers’ rights are also important to me. 

In early February, like mayor Tory, you voted against a recommendation from the Board of Health to open warming centres 24/7. Can you explain the decision? 
I will be listening to the recommendations of the city’s shelter support and housing administration, who are currently working on a report about the feasibility of 24/7 warming centres that will be delivered in April. In the meantime, we were actually able to add funds in the recent budget to keep one of the warming centres open 24/7, and we have three other warming centres that open at 7 p.m. Of course, this is a very important issue, but we need to know how to resource it and how to find the finances needed. 

I think that, for a lot of Torontonians and some of your fellow councillors, it’s hard to understand how we can find a $48.3-million increase for the police budget but struggle to fund a few warm rooms.
We all care about our most vulnerable residents. We have expanded our shelter system at a pace faster than anything we have done before, and we also have an ambitious housing action plan that is focused on more permanent solutions.

Related: Five departing councillors on what it’s really like inside city hall

There has been a lot of debate around the increase to the police budget. Experts say that violent crime is reduced by funding social programs that address root causes. What evidence leads you to believe that funding law enforcement is the answer?
The new officers hired will have multiple roles. Some will work in priority response because of the complaints we have received about response times following emergencies. Some will be neighbourhood officers. And some will be dedicated to case management in order to fulfill the recommendations of the Epstein Report, which identified systemic discrimination in Toronto Police Service missing person investigations. It’s not an either/or approach. The budget also has a 22 per cent increase in funding for the Toronto Community Crisis Service, which oversees the city’s crisis response pilot, sending out mental health professionals to help people in emergencies. That is a program we are so incredibly proud of in my community of Scarborough–Rouge Park. When the pilot is complete, we’ll look at the data, learn the lessons and, through next year’s budget, hopefully make the program permanent.

Safety on the TTC is another big concern, with violence up 60 per cent since 2019. What do you say to your constituents who don’t feel safe on the subway? 
Toronto police and the TTC have taken immediate action to keep transit safe for passengers and workers. Some of my first meetings as interim mayor were about this issue. We’ve hired 10 additional workers to help vulnerable people on the TTC. We’ve also added 50 more special constables and funding for mental health responses. 

That’s a lot of new stuff given the cuts.
We are operating more transit service than we have riders—ridership is low right now, so there have been some cuts to service, but the new budget actually increases the city’s operating subsidy to the TTC by $53 million. I know they are looking at making sure service is provided on the busiest routes at the busiest times and looking at transit in our priority neighbourhoods, so that we are serving the residents who need it the most.

Are you a regular rider? 

I’m more of a GO train rider just because of where I live. I love to take the GO train into the city, and I grew up riding the TTC regularly. My favourite memories are riding the Victoria Park bus to go visit my grandparents. My kids use the TTC regularly to get to school or the mall.

When you’re on the train every morning, are you catching up on work? Listening to podcasts? 
If it’s really early, I’m sleeping, but I’m often listening to music. I have two playlists: one for rest and relaxation and one for pump-up songs. 

Well, now I have to ask you what your pump-up song is.
These days it’s Miley Cyrus’s “Flowers.”

Tell me something I can’t learn about you online.
I have a great sense of adventure, and I like to make up games. In the winter, we play Snowminton, where we set up the badminton net and hit the birdie in the snow. 

Do you have a favourite Toronto sports team?
I think TFC games are the most fun. The crowd gets so into it.

Can you tell me more about your family?
They’re the absolute most important thing to me. My husband works in banking. My son and my daughter are both teenagers, but they are kind and polite and well-behaved. I don’t know if I deserve them. 

I understand you had to cancel a trip when you got the new gig. 
I did. My daughter and I had planned a trip to North Carolina to visit my aunt and to go shrimping in the Atlantic Ocean. We are definitely going to reschedule.

July 2023, maybe?
That’s the plan. I’m hoping the ocean will still be cool enough for shrimp. 

I know you have said that you are absolutely not running for mayor, but we’ve all seen Lord of the Rings—power can be intoxicating. 
I am committed to being in charge of the transition, which is a big job and not one where you can step away and run for office. That was the commitment I made when I agreed to be deputy mayor.

Do you plan to endorse a candidate at some point? 
No—it’s important that the mayor’s office be impartial. But I will be correcting any misinformation that arises. I want to make sure that voters are being presented with the facts. 

Sounds like you are putting the candidates on notice. 
I’ll be watching. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.