KEESMAAT TAKES HER SHOT

THE PA­PERS SAY SHE DOESN’T STAND A CHANCE, BUT TORONTO’S MAY­ORAL CON­TEST COULD DO WITH AN UN­EX­PECTED SUR­PRISE RIGHT ABOUT NOW

NOW Magazine - - COVER STORY - en­zom@nowtoronto.com | @en­zodi­mat­teo By ENZO DiMATTEO

Jen­nifer Keesmaat jumps right in. “This is not cool.” She’s re­count­ing the mo­ment she “hit the thresh­old” and de­cided to get into the mayor’s race. It was after Doug Ford an­nounced his plan to cut coun­cil in half and John Tory’s “tepid” re­sponse was to call for a ref­er­en­dum in­stead.

“It be­came abun­dantly clear to me that Doug Ford was go­ing to con­tinue to in­ter­fere with the city of Toronto,” says Keesmaat. “And that you can’t re­ally fight con­ser­va­tive cuts with a con­ser­va­tive mayor who was the leader of the con­ser­va­tive party for five years.”

And so be­gins my 30-minute sit-down with Keesmaat.

Val­ues. Pas­sion. Tenac­ity. Those are the words used to de­scribe her on her cam­paign lit­er­a­ture. Trou­ble­maker. Fighter. Straight shooter are oth­ers. They all fit.

Less clear is if run­ning for mayor was the plan all along, or if this is a dry run for some­thing else. It bears re­peat­ing. I mean, it’s not ev­ery­one who can de­cide to go at the drop of a hat and raise the seven fig­ures nec­es­sary to make it hap­pen. Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers have spec­u­lated that, win or lose, the po­lit­i­cal fu­ture looks bright for Keesmaat. The On­tario Lib­eral Party, for ex­am­ple, hap­pens to be look­ing for a new leader.

“For many months peo­ple had been ap­proach­ing me,” Keesmaat in­sists. “For me it was some­thing that built and built and built.” Un­til, boom.

The tra­jec­tory has been a steep one for Keesmaat. Be­fore she took the job of the city’s chief plan­ner in 2012 (she was asked three times to ap­ply be­fore fi­nally agree­ing), she was prin­ci­pal of her own in­ter­na­tional de­sign firm. But plan­ning wasn’t al­ways in the cards ei­ther. Born and raised in Hamil­ton, she ma­jored in phi­los­o­phy and English at Western be­fore earn­ing her mas­ter’s in en­vi­ron­men­tal stud­ies, plan­ning and pol­i­tics at York. It was Jane Ja­cobs’s The Death And Life Of Great Amer­i­can Cities that in­spired her con­ver­sion.

Keesmaat doesn’t want to bore me with the de­tails be­fore she tells me the story of Bud Os­bourne, the home­less man she met while work­ing in the non-profit sec­tor in Van­cou­ver. Wood­ward’s, the fa­mous depart­ment store in the city’s Down­town East­side, had gone out of business, and plans to put a condo in its place were met with wide­spread re­sis­tance from res­i­dents con­cerned the pro­posal would drive poor peo­ple out of the neigh­bour­hood. Keesmaat helped or­ga­nize a speak­ers’ se­ries around the is­sue. The city even­tu­ally de­cided to buy the prop­erty from the prov­ince and build af­ford­able hous­ing in the form of sin­gle and fam­ily units, along with mar­ket-value units.

It’s a model Keesmaat would like to see re­peated in Toronto, where the lux­ury condo boom is eat­ing up what af­ford­able pock­ets we have left and push­ing those who can’t af­ford sky­rock­et­ing rents to sub­urbs that are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly de­fined by race and erod­ing so­cial-eco­nomic sta­tus.

Keesmaat says the city could be lever­ag­ing land it owns to build af­ford­able units at 80 per cent of mar­ket value. Her plan also in­cludes a rent-to-own pro­gram. She says the lat­ter idea is res­onat­ing for peo­ple in the burbs who are ei­ther rent­ing or have chil­dren who they know are go­ing to strug­gle to achieve hous­ing in an in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive city.

“We’ve seen this be­come one of the most ex­pen­sive cities to live in. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve got lux­ury hous­ing. We’ve got so­cial hous­ing. What we’re miss­ing is the mid­dle.”

Keesmaat puts af­ford­abil­ity right up there with tran­sit, an is­sue she says she be­came per­son­ally ac­quainted with when she first moved here and had to spend an hour each way on the TTC to make it from her base­ment apart­ment in Eto­bi­coke to her classes at York.

“I was young and didn’t have kids. But imag­ine a mother spend­ing three hours on the bus. That’s a deal-breaker [in terms of] whether you can get to your job or not. Tran­sit has been so politi­cized that we have re­ally sig­nif­i­cant gaps in our net­work.”

Keesmaat has pro­posed clos­ing some of those gaps by fast-track­ing the Finch LRT (whose fu­ture is now un­cer­tain un­der Ford) to con­nect the Jane and Finch, Rex­dale and north Eto­bi­coke neigh­bour­hoods to the over­all tran­sit sys­tem. For Keesmaat it all re­lates back to so­cial jus­tice.

“This city has al­ways been about new­com­ers, about op­por­tu­nity and about young peo­ple be­ing able to stay and see their dreams come true. And that has been con­tin­u­ally erod­ing. As the city has got­ten wealth­ier, it’s also got­ten more and more di­vided. How we change that is a choice, and that’s the lead­er­ship piece. We need a leader who’s not afraid to do bold things to get things done.”

It’s here that Keesmaat draws a line con­nect­ing the sum­mer’s up­swing in gun vi­o­lence to the ero­sion of op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple in pri­or­ity neigh­bour­hoods.

“There is no rea­son that youth end up in crime other than that they re­ally don’t feel they have other op­tions. Peo­ple are feel­ing shut out and like they don’t have ac­cess to the greater pros­per­ity we see.” She takes her the­ory a step fur­ther to say that the “in­cred­i­ble vi­o­lence” we’re see­ing is not cycli­cal, but a di­rect con­se­quence of can­celling after-school pro­grams.

“We need to take a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ap­proach to polic­ing based on pre­ven­tion,” she says. “It’s not rocket science. There are in­ter­na­tional best prac­tices to show the ap­proach works. There just needs to be ac­count­abil­ity.” And Keesmaat in­cludes a yearly re­view of the chief in that.

“Polic­ing isn’t an end in and of it­self,” she says. “It’s one tool. We also have lo­cal school boards. We have lo­cal health net­works. We have grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tions. We need pro­grams work­ing with at-risk youth to get them off the street.”

Mem­bers of mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties who don’t see Keesmaat as all that dif­fer­ent from Tory on polic­ing is­sues will be happy to hear that. Ac­count­abil­ity is also an is­sue that comes up in re­la­tion to Tory, who has been duck­ing de­bates, in­clud­ing a num­ber of one-on-ones with Keesmaat, as polls show him well ahead with a week to go.

He’s coast­ing, which is a word that could also be used to de­scribe his first term in of­fice. Tory has turned out to be more small-fry than city­builder (see SmartTrack). A lit­tle like Olivia Chow, who ran against him in 2014, said he would be: good on the small stuff, not so good on the vi­sion thing.

Tory shows up to Pride. And talks a good game when it comes to the im­por­tance of di­ver­sity. He seems nice enough. But hav­ing a nice guy for mayor hasn’t made the lives of Toron­to­ni­ans any bet­ter over the last four years.

“I want to have a con­ver­sa­tion about the fu­ture of the city,” Keesmaat says, be­fore ad­ding that Tory “may be a bit more wor­ried than you think.” She leans back and smiles. It’s the trou­ble­maker in her com­ing out. The pa­pers say she doesn’t stand a chance. But Toronto could do with an un­ex­pected sur­prise right about now.

“WE’VE SEEN THIS BE­COME ONE OF THE MOST EX­PEN­SIVE CITIES TO LIVE IN. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.”

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