When Sarah Climenhaga decided to run for mayor, back in October, it wasn’t so much out of an a-ha moment, but rather a natural next step from what she was already doing, which was advocating for safer streets and progressive urban planning. She was canvassing door to door to gauge community interest in the Bloor Street bike lanes, and had been quietly thinking about running.
“I finished my canvas and I felt, ‘You know what, I think I could do this!’” she said, two days after she filed her official bid for mayor. At the time of her canvas, she’d already been aware of the changes that Toronto needed, and she discovered that she really liked talking to people about them. “So that was sort of really solidified it, where I had a taste of what door to door campaigning was and talking to people in that kind of situation. That solidified it for me.”
Climenhaga has lived in Toronto since she was six weeks old, and has been advocating for safer streets and urban transportation since the dawn of the millennium. She was part of the call to bring down the Gardiner Expressway east of the Don River, which came to pass in 2001. She rallied to get the St. Clair Right of Way put in in the mid-aughts. Before that, she worked at non-profits, including the World Wildlife Fund, Smart Commute, and Moving the Economy. And at a recent Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting to discuss a cityscaping that would dramatically change the look and feel of Yonge Street up in North York, she took her advocacy there. Having surveyed people on the streets and read the staff reports, she stated, calmly and respectfully and with informed assurance, what the experts had been saying for years: “Yes, North York should have its own downtown. Yes, North York should have its own Main Street.”
So when people introduce her as a mom of three, making her first steps into politics by trying to sideline John Tory’s reelection plans, they’re not wrong. But it discounts a lot of years of rallying for the issues this St. Clair and Bathurst resident believes could improve people’s lives.
“A traditional path in politics is school trustee, councillor, maybe MPP, then maybe, eventually, mayor,” says Climenhaga, two days after she filed her official bid for mayor. “That’s the path for a career in politics. I’m most interested in the most direct path to change.”
And change is in the air: The Transform Yonge decision was deferred until after the election, the candidates for Ontario provincial election have competing promises on everything from big ticket transit projects to minimum wage to legal cannabis. The OMB is out; the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal is in, shaping the way housing gets built and the scale at which it gets built for decades to come.
She entered the race after getting tired of seeing the issues that matter to her and her community get stopped at council.
“We say a lot of good things at the city. We have a lot of great strategies that have been adopted,” she said. But she had a hard time connecting those priorities and strategies with actual actions. She saw the voting records and was disappointed at all the issues that were being voted down. “When it comes to actually funding these things, we say we don’t have money for them. I believe we do have money for them, it’s all about priorities. Do we want to actually pay for a school nutrition program? Do we want to actually create a vibrant core in North York? If we really want these things, we have to vote for them. We have to fund them. And that’s where it’s breaking down. It’s not in the talk, the talk is all great. It’s all in the action.”
To Climenhaga, enacting true change begins with true vision, prioritizing accordingly, and getting things passed without creating polarizing social dynamics or labels. One key issue close to her heart that this could be applied to is the idea of safe streets.
“Safe streets doesn’t just mean maybe we’ll have a few less fatalities; maybe we’ll stop a few collisions,” she said. “It means, let’s have beautiful vibrant streets that are great places that everybody wants to be in, no matter what mode of transportation you use.”
Pushing vibrant streets, said Climenhaga, shouldn’t involve pitting drivers against cyclists or pedestrians or transit users. “It’s really not about dividing people. I absolutely don’t want to do that. It’s just that I want to be able to choose what mode of transportation to use, and right now, that choice is not available to many people.”
To her, the same divisions should not exist between city-dwellers and suburbanites. She described recently going to a Scarborough community council meeting and watching people try to reduce speeds around school zones. “Even though more of those areas support more cars, and have more car-oriented infrastructure, it’s still important for those people that our children can walk to school safely,” she said. “These issues are city-wide, we have to be able to talk about them as if they’re city-wide and really not pit people against each other.”
So, she said, the first step to actionable change is making these issues more accessible to residents and inviting them into the process in a way that is easier than getting people to City Hall at 9:30 for a deputation––perhaps, even, by bringing government to the affected areas. The second is by forming a vision. And along the way, infusing diversity into the decision-making process, either by changing the voting procedure to a ranked ballot system, or getting residents more engaged.
“It’s both making our government more welcoming to people, and it’s making our voting system actually have a possibility to bring diverse candidates into the city,” she said.
So what’s Sarah Climenhaga’s no-holds-barred, moonshot act? What would she change if there was no council to vote it down, no need to get approval from anybody? Her impulse answer was to make the lakes swimmable to anyone every day. Likely not a popular option in the dead of winter. But her real answer, articulated with such consideration that it may clue into her own true vision for Toronto:
“It would probably be to implement far more housing in this city, but not giant 90-storey towers. You could make our main streets like they are in Europe with seven-floor apartments all along every single main street. It would massively increase the amount of housing we have available, it would be more affordable, it would support the local businesses that line our main street. For me, it would be a real opportunity for Toronto to increase the number of people who can afford to live here and provide housing for all the people who need it in a way that’s not disruptive to our community but in a way enhances it.”
Climenhaga joins seven other candidates, including Mayor John Tory, who have announced their bid for the 2018 Municipal Election in October.