All eyes on Toronto Centre: High profile candidates vie for NDP nomination

This Sunday all eyes will be on the NDP nomination meeting for the riding of Toronto Centre, featuring a showdown between high profile candidates.

For 20 years, Toronto Centre has belonged to veteran Liberal powerbrokers. Ex-interim party leader Bob Rae held the seat from 2008 until his resignation earlier this year. Rae replaced Bill Graham, a cabinet minister under Paul Martin, and one-time interim leader himself.

But, with a by-election on the horizon, the Official Opposition NDP, who have never held a seat in Toronto Centre, are hoping to seize the riding out of Liberal hands, as they did so many others in 2011.

Vince Cifani, president of the NDP Toronto Centre Riding Association, believes the New Democrats can capitalize on voters' disenchantment with Liberal party. "People in Toronto Centre care about affordable housing, good paying jobs, and the environment," he said. "They're tired of politicians like [former Liberal, now Independent Senator] Mac Harb cheating Canadians out of hundreds of thousands of dollars."

High profile journalists turned politicians: 'We want to take action on issues we cover'

Ask prospective NDP candidates, however, and it's clear they've got the ruling Conservatives in their sights.

Jennifer Hollett's decision to run for office stemmed from her disillusionment with Stephen Harper's party. "It was … my frustration covering stories that highlighted the failures of the Conservative government that has inspired me to move from asking questions to finding answers," said the journalist and broadcaster. Hollett has covered politics and social issues for CBC and CTV, as well as having been a VJ on MuchMusic.

Coming from a media background, Hollett is not surprised that so many of her colleagues are looking to get into politics. "As journalists, we tend to cover a story or issue and move on," she said. "It's only natural that journalists will eventually want to take action on the stories and issues we cover."

Hollett's opponent for the NDP nomination is Linda McQuaig, a long-time journalist and author whose career has included time at The Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, and MacLean's magazine. In a column for published earlier this month at, McQuaig wrote, "I want to join a team actively fighting to build a Canada that is equal, inclusive and responsible -- a Canada that is seriously under threat by Stephen Harper's Conservative government."

If nominated to run in Toronto Centre, McQuaig said in an interview, she will champion the same progressive ideals she has been advocating through her writing: "Opposing rising income inequality, the austerity agenda and environmental degradation, as well as reviving the notion of the public good and the importance of an equal and inclusive society."

The third NDP candidate in the race is Susan Gapka, a transgender activist who has extensive experience advocating on LGBT, housing and post-secondary eduction issues. Gapka is also a two-time candidate for municipal council in Toronto's Ward 27.  

Toronto Centre: Diverse communities, high levels of inequality 

The expansive Toronto Centre riding includes both the highly affluent, anachronistically homogenous Rosedale neighbourhood and the ethnically diverse, poverty-laden quarters of St James Town and Regent Park. Facing a constituency of staggering wealth inequality, both McQuaig and Hollett are ready to connect the riding's various factions.

McQuaig believes Toronto Centre residents will be united in the pursuit of common goals. "While extreme inequality hits lower income people harder, its negative impacts on social harmony and democracy hurt all," she said. "I am committed to reversing the right-wing economic policies that have led to increased inequality. I truly believe many affluent Canadians share this goal, and that therefore there is plenty of common ground."

For her part, Hollett is looking to open up communication in Toronto Centre: "To meet the needs of such a diverse and dense riding it's important to me to be active and accessible in all neighbourhoods, bridging gaps and creating a larger dialogue about the pressing issues."

The NDP candidate will face off against one of three Liberals hopefuls. The Grits' options for the Toronto Centre nomination represent a stark change from the white, male, veteran politicians who have held the party's seat in the riding since 1993. Jamaican-born Diana Burke is a former Chief Information Security Officer at Royal Bank Financial Group; Todd Ross is a gay, Métis, ex-Naval combat information operator and current community organizer; and the favourite for the nomination, Chrystia Freeland, is a former Rhodes Scholar, ex-deputy editor of The Globe and Mail, and author of two non-fiction books.

Toronto Centre riding to be split in two 

There is a lot at stake in this by-election. With the Liberals still rebuilding after the Dion-Ignatieff-Rae wilderness years, the NDP are well-positioned to snatch Toronto Centre, particularly with a high-profile media personality as a candidate. Perhaps more important, establishing a foothold in Toronto Centre could lead to second seat down the road.

In advance of the next general election, Ontario will given 15 new ridings, in an attempt to better represent voters in Canada's most populated province. As part of this redivision, Toronto Centre will be sliced in two. Thus, a win in this by-election is a chance to influence two districts in 2015. And, as The Globe and Mail's John Ibbitson pointed out, the incumbent in Toronto Centre will get to choose which of the two redrawn ridings they run in, which might explain the presence of so many high-profile candidates.

Another former journalist, John Deverell from the Toronto Star, will be the Green candidate in the by-election. The Toronto Centre NDPs will select their candidate for the by-election at a nomination meeting on Sunday, Sept. 15 at the YMCA on Grosvenor. The meeting gets underway at 2p.m. 


Peter Goffin is a writer and recent political science graduate living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, OpenFile, and This magazine.

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