The youth-agency director is looking to unseat incumbent councillor Frank Di Giorgio in Ward 12.
Lekan Olawoye’s Toronto story began as many do—in another country. Olawoye’s Nigerian parents moved to Toronto in the ’70s and started a family while his father studied architecture. The family then moved back to Nigeria, where Olawoye was born. When Olawoye was only a year old, his father passed away, leaving behind his wife and three young children. His mother worked for seven years to save up enough money to return to Toronto.
“My mother taught me that if you work hard, and you pray hard, you can achieve anything. But I feel like this Toronto the Great, the Toronto that my father believed in and my mother worked so hard to get us back into, we’re losing. And we need to gain it back.” When we met Olawoye last week in Ward 12, York-South Weston, the executive director of the community organization For Youth Initiative said he’s running because he expects better than what he’s seen from longtime incumbent councillor Frank Di Giorgio.
Olawoye said the number of low-income and underserved people in Ward 12 has risen to unacceptable levels in recent years. “We have 10 per cent of the city’s new Neighbourhood Improvement Areas [for low-income and marginalized areas] in this ward,” Olawoye said. “We had zero, and now we have three, in a matter of 10 years. Something has to change.” Olawoye said local residents face poor access to City services, long commutes to work, and roads that resemble “a Third World country.” He holds that Di Giorgio has failed the community. “Ward 12 works damn hard … we need our city councillor to match our grind, to work just as hard.”
Since he registered in January, Olawoye has received the endorsement of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, the city’s most prominent left-wing political organizing group. He told Torontoist he is neither endorsing a mayoral candidate nor seeking any endorsement. “I’m prepared to work with whoever wins,” Olawoye said.
Olawoye said the ongoing debate about replacing the Scarborough Rapid Transit line is not top of mind in his area, but needs to be dealt with soon. “What’s been incredibly frustrating is, our city has been having debate on ‘your will or my will’ and not about what the experts are saying.” According to Olawoye, expert advice is clear: an LRT is the best option, particularly because it is fully funded by the provincial government. “We need to take politics out of it and look at the best interest of the people of Scarborough.”
Youth unemployment is a major challenge in Ward 12, said Olawoye. “In Ward 12, two summers in a row now, my organization has put out summer jobs, 150 positions for youth. Every year we’ve filled it, but 800 youth apply. And that’s just the people who heard about it. We serve 1,000 youth a year in this community, and there’s still a wait list.” He said the construction of a community centre in the Black Creek area is encouraging, and that he would work to ensure that the site is accessible to all residents.
Olawoye noted that crime has been a concern for some area residents, particularly seniors. “In the north part of the ward, there’s issues with our seniors getting mugged, or kids being mugged on their way to school, or [break-and-enters] happening.” He described the police response to a recent string of robberies: “They sent out a one-pager to the local community—it scared the crap out of people. The councillor should have called a meeting so people could actually understand what’s going on. That’s leadership, that’s what’s been missing here.”
Olawoye also spoke out about the problem of police carding—the controversial practice of stopping residents and documenting their personal information—which has been taking place at relatively high rates in the ward. “I come from Rexdale. I was stopped often as a young man. In this community, I work with young people who are stopped often, too. But as I’ve said earlier, when police don’t have an in into the community, they just stop everybody. It’s not that it’s okay—it’s not. But we need to make sure that they’re engaged locally and are better able to do their jobs.”
Residents are frustrated by program cuts, particularly ones related to public transit, said Olawoye. “These buses come bunched together, or are late, all the time. People are late for work, for school, for appointments,” he said. He again blamed Di Giorgio for failing to be a better community advocate. “Something special happens when a city councillor makes noise. We just need to make sure our councillor makes a bit more noise. The demographics in this community are young families and seniors. Those are the two most vulnerable populations in the city,” Olawoye noted.
Olawoye also said that seniors in the area often complain that local bus shelters lack a place to sit down. “Seniors that can hardly walk will come and stand. Community engagement 101 is, ‘Understand what your constituents need.'” He believes that a focus on basic service has been missing for years in the area. “Notice I’m not talking to you about big-picture things. We can talk big-picture, but right now this community wants service. Their feeling is, ‘I pay for it, I want access to it,’ period.”
To restore the trust he says has been lost, Olawoye has created a service pledge as a central component of his campaign. “I’m going to go to people’s doors—me and my staff are going to go to people’s doors every week,” said Olawoye. “I’m going to communicate through a newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, a website. You’ll always know where I’m going to be. If you call, within 48 hours my office will get back to you. And I will fight for your needs, ’cause I will know your needs, ’cause I will be at your door.”
He added that a focus on basic service will allow residents to concentrate on larger challenges. “The next four years for me is going to be about catching up—making sure that all our roads are repaired, making sure all the sewer systems are upgraded, making sure I communicate with people. We are literally 30 years behind, and we need to catch up.”