5 of Toronto’s mayoral candidates square off in first major debate

A little over a week ahead of Toronto’s Oct. 24 election, the city’s first major debate kicked-off Thursday afternoon featuring five out of the city’s 31 mayoral candidates.

Invited to the debate were incumbent mayor John Tory and four challengers identified as front-runners by Zoomer, including Gil Penalosa, Chloe Brown, Sarah Climenhaga and Jack Yan.

Hosted by senior’s advocacy group CARP and Zoomer Radio, the debate began with a prerecorded message from Zoomer Media’s CEO, Moses Znaimer, who posited the incumbent mayor was “sleepwalking” to a third term victory and needed a debate in the absence of others.

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Tory opened his comments with his pitch the city needs an experienced hand to navigate Toronto’s post-pandemic recovery, but he found himself in his opponents’ cross-hairs for the majority of the debate.

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Penalosa said he was happy to see a debate underway with Tory’s inclusion, accusing the incumbent of ducking other debate invitations and waiting until after advanced voting began to face opponents.

The CARP debate’s questions were primarily focused on issues relating to older voters, like policies to age in place, accessibility on the TTC, and affordability.

As the debate progressed, many of the candidates focused their attacks at Tory relating to frustrations felt by many residents, including traffic congestion, a lack of delivering services, and the inability to fight back against the provincial government.

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While defending his record, Tory shifted some of the problems that exist on growing pains resulting from the pandemic. “We have to do better on some of the things that have been mentioned,” Tory said, “we can do better and we will do better.” But he said some of the projects cannot be done over night and often require years of construction to improve.

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Penalosa said, if he is elected, he would replace senior bureaucrats at City Hall, who he accused of failing to deliver services residents count on. “When we see the parks, that they don’t even open the water fountains, half of them were not even open in June,” he said, “obviously that person should not be running Parks and Recreation.”

The decision to rebuild the Gardiner Expressway also found its way into the debate, with Penalosa arguing the money the city committed to the project would be better spent on more pressing issues, while Tory defended the move saying it would be more expensive to reverse course on the project.

Tory, who often touts his ability to work with other levels of government as one of his skills, was accused by Brown of taking credit for projects quarterbacked by the federal and provincial governments.

On numerous occasions, Yan pointed to budgetary wastes that need to be addressed, including a closer look at the money the city spends on social assistance programs which he asserted haven’t been able to decrease the number of homeless individuals. Yan repeatedly pointed to issues taking up council’s focus like the decision to rename Dundas Street rather than focusing on pressing needs like repairing potholes and addressing crime and cleanliness on the TTC.

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The issue of pandemic management and vaccine mandates were raised more than once by Climenhaga, who said the city shouldn’t have kept seniors apart from their families while public health restrictions were at their peak. “We shouldn’t tell them what medication they have to take, you should not listen to Sarah Climenhaga for health-care advice, you should listen to your own doctor and your trusted advisors,” she said.

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Climenhaga also said the city also shouldn’t be restricting employment to individuals over their vaccine status, to ensure services aren’t cut.

Before ending the debate, Penalosa and Climenhaga both asked residents to determine whether they’re better off after eight years under Tory’s leadership. It’s a determination voters will ultimately decide when they fill out their ballot.

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The next mayoral debate, hosted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade, will be held on Monday, Oct. 17 at 2 p.m., and will include most of the same participants, with the exception of Jack Yan, who will be subbed out for Stephen Punwasi.

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