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John Tory (left) and Jennifer Keesmaat (right) (Composite Photo Credit: Canadian Press/Chris Young, Fernando Morales)On Oct. 22, Torontonians will head to the polls to vote for their next mayor. After four years of Mayor John Tory, a former Rogers CEO and lackey of Toronto’s elite, none of Toronto’s most pressing problems, including subpar transit, skyrocketing rent, or the rise in precarious work have been addressed. Given this, some have taken to supporting newcomer Jennifer Keesmaat as a “progressive” or even “left-wing” alternative to Mr. Tory. This includes certain left-wing trade union officials, the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, NDP activists, and even former mayoral candidate Olivia Chow. However, most people in Toronto are not fully acquainted with Ms. Keesmaat, let alone what she stands for. This begs the question: who exactly is Jennifer Keesmaat? And what, if anything, makes her a viable alternative for working people?

Who is Jennifer Keesmaat?

Keesmaat rose to notoriety in July after issuing a tweet in which she suggested that Toronto should secede from Ontario. This was done in response to Ford’s decision to cut Toronto City Council in half, a move to which she replied with just the one word “secession.” For those that doubted her convictions, she made clear what she meant the following morning:

“Now I have had a chance to sleep on it. Secession. Why should a city of 2.8 million not have self-governance?”

Instantly, by capitalizing on the anti-Ford mood in Toronto and posing as the city’s saviour, Keesmaat made herself a serious contender for mayor. Surprisingly, one poll revealed that 36 per cent of people in Toronto agreed that the city should secede from Ontario. Despite later retracting her tweets, Keesmaat and her team of spin doctors had already manufactured an image of the candidate: bold, different, and willing to stand up to Ford.

This image, however, is a far cry from the real Keesmaat.

From 2012 to 2017, Keesmaat was Toronto's chief city planner under both John Tory and Rob Ford. Before that, she was the CEO of a private development firm, a job for which she was “well compensated” according to her former boss.

Despite promises that she understands ordinary people, Keesmaat’s experience is as a career bureaucrat and businesswoman. She is also close to the big-business Liberal Party, having spoken at their events in the past (for $295 a ticket), and even being approached to run for the federal Liberals.

Keesmaat’s platform

Keesmaat’s mayoral platform, however, is perhaps even more deceiving than her carefully constructed image. Her central pledge to create 100,000 affordable housing unit appears at first to be a welcome solution to Toronto’s housing crisis. That is, of course, until you delve into the details.

How does Keesmaat propose to build 100,000 units? Her solution is to offer “incentives” to private developers by taking an “appropriately broad view” to city land and “unlocking it.” How can we interpret this monstrous string of jargon? Fortunately, Keesmaat spokesperson Chris Ball has the translation for us: “There are sites like this that we could leverage for affordable housing...rather than simply using the land to generate dividends.”

More specifically, the land would be transferred “at low cost or no cost” to private developers, according to Ball.

Ball’s explanation makes it perfectly clear how Keesmaat intends to build 100,000 units: through massive corporate giveaways by which, she hopes, developers will be enticed to build affordable housing. In handing off city land for free, all Keesmaat can offer tenants in return is a promise. Sadly, a large-scale investment in publicly-owned community housing is omitted from Keesmaat’s program

Keesmaat has also unveiled a “rent-to-own” program for low-income Torontonians. This program would give tenants the option to purchase their living space over time at a fixed rate of 80 per cent of average rent. However, yet again, this program will be funded by enormous handouts to private developers, with the city effectively taking out a second mortgage on the home. This was the same approach taken by Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her crusade to privatize social housing in the UK during the 1980s. And even at 80 per cent of average rent, this would still make rent unaffordable for a large number of people in Toronto.

Even Keesmaat’s proposal to convert three city-owned golf courses into “public spaces” is fraught with exceptions. When asked by reporters, she did not rule out that some of that land may be sold off to private developers.

On transit, Keesmaat has arguably spent more time denouncing Tory’s “SmartTrack” plan than putting forward her own. Her proposals include building light rail transit on Jane Street, extending the Scarborough subway, and completing the downtown relief line three years before Tory. If Keesmaat ever rode public transit from Scarborough or York into the downtown core, she would know that this is not nearly enough to address Toronto’s transit woes. Her plan for the relief line, perhaps the most urgent requirement for Toronto’s transit system, would still only be completed by 2028—that is, in almost 10 years. Toronto’s subway system has only 75 stations. Boston, by comparison, with a population almost 2 million less than Toronto has 145 stations.

But even Keesmaat’s modest plans for public transit may prove to be wishful thinking. After all, her plan is mostly contingent on the $14 billion committed by the province—a province now run by a certain Doug Ford. This funding may have been guaranteed in the past. No longer. Ford is already gearing up for funding cuts in order to plug the recently announced $15 billion deficit. Toronto should least of all expect clemency, if that was not already made clear by Ford’s attacks on Toronto City Council.

Other mayoral candidates, such as Saron Gebresellassi, have advocated for free public transit. Keesmaat rejected this policy as a “ridiculous idea that would ruin our transit system.” Gebresellassi in turn denounced Keesmaat as a “status quo politician” out of touch with ordinary working class people. We have to agree with Ms. Gebresellassi.

Keesmaat may at first glance appear to be a left-wing alternative to John Tory. However, scratch the surface, and what you find are the same old establishment politics repackaged in a happy-go-lucky wrapping paper. Her platform is in some respects marginally better than Tory’s, and in some respects far worse. In no sense is it a radical departure from the pro-business mantra that has rampaged Toronto and which has left the city in its current state. In this election, Torontonians will be looking for a candidate that will represent working people, and that provides a solution to the pressing issues of housing, transit, and precarious work. Keesmaat, however, is not that candidate.

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