Change comes from within

Af­ter cap­tur­ing the city’s imag­i­na­tion with an ex­cit­ing ef­fort in the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion, hu­man rights lawyer Saron Ge­bre­sel­lassi is look­ing to tackle child wel­fare, gun vi­o­lence and pos­si­bly fed­eral pol­i­tics

North York Post - - News - by Ron John­son

What is your idea of per­fect hap­pi­ness? Where one is com­pletely con­tent in the mo­ment. What is your great­est fear? My motto has al­ways been fear­less­ness. But snakes. I’m ac­tu­ally re­ally ter­ri­fied of snakes. What skill would you most like to have? I wish I could play the vi­o­lin. What per­son liv­ing or dead do you most ad­mire? Nel­son Man­dela. He sym­bol­izes tri­umph over ad­ver­sity. What made you de­cide to run for the New Demo­cratic Party in the next fed­eral elec­tion? I think the Con­ser­va­tives are load­ing up the am­mu­ni­tion for a fed­eral sweep, a hos­tile takeover of the coun­try. So now, more than ever, more peo­ple need to run. Af­ter the [Toronto may­oral] cam­paign, our team, we didn’t want to stop. So we are go­ing to throw our hat in the ring for the fed­eral elec­tion and win a fed­eral seat. Are you a fan of Jag­meet Singh? I am. I used to see him in Bramp­ton court a few years ago. He made his­tory in our coun­try, and I think all Cana­di­ans should be re­ally proud that for the first time in the coun­try’s his­tory we have an op­por­tu­nity to vote for the first vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity prime min­is­ter. I think that will in­spire a lot of Cana­di­ans. What prompted your new law­suit against the Chil­dren’s Aid So­ci­ety? The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment an­nounced that we will be los­ing the child ad­vo­cate’s of­fice, which acts as a watch­dog over Chil­dren’s Aid So­ci­eties in our prov­ince to mon­i­tor their ac­tiv­i­ties and what goes on in those agen­cies in light of the fact that there is a dis­pro­por­tion­ately high num­ber of ap­pre­hen­sions [chil­dren taken from their homes]. We took that op­por­tu­nity to launch the law­suit to bring light to the is­sue around sys­temic racism at the agency. African-Cana­dian chil­dren, First Na­tions chil­dren are over­rep­re­sented in child ap­pre­hen­sions. We have had a num­ber of for­mer child wards, kids that have been ap­pre­hended by the agency who are now adults, come for­ward and ex­plain what hap­pened to them. What are you hop­ing will hap­pen as a re­sult? The agency has such a long his­tory in our prov­ince and across the coun­try and a pretty trou­bling legacy. The pur­pose of the law­suit is to bring that to light. We are call­ing for a com­plete over­haul of the agency and a mora­to­rium on child ap­pre­hen­sions un­til it is au­dited by an ex­ter­nal au­di­tor. You’ve been work­ing on the is­sue of gun vi­o­lence in Toronto since you were 15. Why did you first get in­volved? We had the sum­mer of the gun in 2005 that rav­aged the city. Grow­ing up in TCHC [Toronto Com­mu­nity Hous­ing Cor­po­ra­tion hous­ing], grow­ing up with gun vi­o­lence was noth­ing new. It was just part of life, and early on I just wanted to be a part of the so­lu­tion, and that’s how I ended up meet­ing with [for­mer prime min­is­ter] Paul Martin at the time, call­ing for the same so­lu­tion I’m call­ing for right now. Why can’t our politi­cians get this right? I think hon­estly our politi­cians are so dis­con­nected from re­al­ity they just can’t re­late to these com­mu­ni­ties. You’ll never see John Tory or other city coun­cil­lors in Toronto com­mu­nity hous­ing. They’ve never lived there, and they’re not fa­mil­iar with gang cul­ture. What do you think your may­oral cam­paign ac­com­plished? It did send a sig­nal. Peo­ple around the world saw some­thing very pow­er­ful hap­pen­ing in Toronto even though Toronto main­stream me­dia didn’t pick up on how sym­bol­i­cally pow­er­ful this was. Peo­ple saw this as a David vs. Go­liath kind of bat­tle hap­pen­ing where we were ac­tu­ally suc­ceed­ing, kind of win­ning the pop­u­lar vote in some ways. That was re­ally sur­pris­ing, and it was re­ally grat­i­fy­ing to have won some of those de­bates de­spite all of the bar­ri­ers. It was a bat­tle with Toronto’s deep es­tab­lish­ment. What did you bring to the ta­ble? A num­ber of things that had never hap­pened be­fore. There was never a Toronto politi­cian, in our city’s 184-year his­tory, de­liv­er­ing a speech in six lan­guages. That’s just not hap­pened be­fore. I think the cam­paign brought so much rich­ness to Toronto — cham­pi­oning the arts, speak­ing out for youth and work­ing with in­mates. So, all in all, re­ally suc­cess­ful. Yet, at the end of the day, we are left with ba­si­cally the same city coun­cil makeup, just fewer of them. When will change come? My vi­sion of the fu­ture of our city is that we have rep­re­sen­ta­tion not just eth­ni­cally, but real, nor­mal work­ing-class peo­ple — sin­gle par­ents, young peo­ple. It is just so un­healthy to have a city hall that is so in­su­lar. We are miss­ing out on so much tal­ent. We need or­di­nary peo­ple to tram­ple over the gate­keep­ers and storm through the doors.

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