Q&A: Saron Gebresellassi, the lawyer who wants to beat Tory and Keesmaat to the mayoralty

Q&A: Saron Gebresellassi, the lawyer who wants to beat Tory and Keesmaat to the mayoralty

It’s election day, and Saron Gebresellassi, a human rights lawyer who’s running for mayor, says she can get the votes to beat presumed front-runners John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat. Although most would consider Gebresellassi a long-shot candidate, she has made a name for herself by participating in mayoral debates, where she has taken Tory and Keesmaat to task on issues like the lack of affordable housing in the city. We spoke with her about her possible path to victory, her Drake-inspired campaign slogan and why the TTC should be free.

Most observers see the upcoming mayoral election as a two-way race. And to that you say?
I say there are two different realities: what people see reported by the media and what is really going on in the streets. You won’t hear that if you turn on the TV, but you will hear it amongst cab drivers, amongst people who live in certain neighbourhoods. I’m appealing very heavily to the people Tory and Keesmaat have ignored: working class people in the city of Toronto. We want to mobilize those communities, get them excited, get them out to the polls.

So you see a path to victory?
Yes. It’s about converting non-voters to voters. Toronto has some of the worst voter participation and registration rates in Canada. Our path to victory isn’t to convert a Tory voter. We’re trying to convert the non-voter into a voter. If we can do that, we are capable of getting more votes than John Tory or Jennifer Keesmaat.

The former was the leader of a major political party, the latter was a top city bureaucrat. What makes you qualified to hold the city’s highest office? Did you consider a run for council?
I know that a lot of people don’t know my name, but I’ve been in politics for 15 years now. In 2005, I met with Prime Minister Paul Martin. I was calling for a community-based strategy to eradicate gun violence. I’ve worked with all levels of government. If voters look at my credentials, they’ll see a lot of accolades, including an honourable mention before the UN General Assembly. I am a lawyer, I have won numerous high-profile cases against the city of Toronto, a big case against Starbucks, the Toronto Police Service and over 60 insurance companies, including some of the giants. In terms of why I’m not running for city councillor, I feel like I am a city councillor without the title. On Weston Road, everyone knows who to go to. Look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old who beat out an incumbent to win a Democratic congressional nomination. She was a first-time candidate, but she had been knocking on doors for five years. I’ve been knocking for 10.

You’ve said that, as mayor, you’d make the TTC free for everyone, despite the fact that rider fares bring in about $1.2 billion per year. Sounds a little pie in the sky, no?
It’s not something we could accomplish overnight, but I have a very clear plan in terms of where we would unlock revenue sources. I am going to the Estonian Embassy to meet with the Estonian minister of transport. They have successfully implemented free transit, so that will be interesting. We’ve talked about getting funding from the federal government, or the provincial government. And there is the possibility of closing corporate tax loopholes, which could be a major source of revenue.

And why would free TTC fare be good for the city?
It could incentivize motorists to take transit, so that could mean a reduction in congestion and gridlock. We would also see a reduction in poverty. A lot of the people who live in the city’s at-risk neighbourhoods—they don’t ever leave. The cost of transit—$7 a day—is really a big part of that.

You recently challenged the mayor and Keesmaat to come up with a real definition of affordable housing. What did you mean?
Jennifer Keesmaat and the city take the position that a home that costs 80 per cent of market rate is “affordable housing.” My position is that that is outlandish and extremely out of touch. I believe affordable housing should be rent geared to income, so that nobody is paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. I believe we are in a state of emergency and the current administration is not treating it like that. John Tory promised to establish a housing committee and then waited until the end of his term to establish it. Once elected, I will declare a state of emergency on housing, which means that the crisis must be resolved before that status can be lifted. I want to sit down and get all of the stakeholders together and say, “nobody is leaving until this is resolved.”

Any thoughts on how you’d go about resolving the issue?
The city owns a lot of land that isn’t utilized. Jennifer Keesmaat suggested repurposing golf lands as public parks. My feeling is that if our top priority is affordable housing, that is what the land should be used for.

You’re Eritrean-Canadian. Does your background make you particularly well suited to addressing issues like policing and income disparity?
Yes, but it’s more than just my ethnic background. It’s how I grew up. I am from one of the most crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Ontario. I am from a working class family: my dad is a taxi driver, my mom worked as a cleaner. I came to Canada as a UN Convention refugee. My family left a war zone. It sounds like a unique story, but this is the story of thousands of people in Toronto. We need to elect politicians who have this kind of lived experience.

Earlier this month, the CBC cancelled a scheduled one-on-one debate between Tory and Keesmaat because the mayor refused to participate unless other candidates were invited. What do you make of that?
The CBC took a really strong position by saying it would rather have no debate than have Saron Gebresellassi debate. That really shocked me. I think it’s a very dangerous position to take—one that probably goes back to the disconnect between what’s happening in the view of the major media and what’s happening on the ground.

Your campaign slogan is “Six for the Six.” Did you clear that with Drake?
Ha! Well we shout out both Drake and The Weeknd in our campaign literature. We hope they’ll get in touch before election day. The Weeknd, Abel Tesfaye, is from the Ethiopian community, from an at-risk neighbourhood in Scarborough. He’s an amazing example of why we have to invest in these disadvantaged communities.