From left to right: George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi, Joe Pantalone, and Rob Ford.
Religion. Politics. Breakfast. Set the scene in a church basement, with coffee, fresh fruit, and halal egg casserole, and watch the the four main mayoral candidates as they tip-toe through the minefield of religion. The Toronto Area Interfaith Council served its annual mayoral candidate’s breakfast yesterday morning at Metropolitan United Church, and it was a predictable haze of holy smoke.
Despite the politely worded questions, the candidates rarely responded to what was asked. Moderator Stephen Scharper (Toronto Star religion and ethics columnist) warned the candidates that religion is “rough waters” that might get “a little scary.” Perhaps out of habit, candidates tried clinging to their political platforms to stay afloat.
Rob Ford stayed off-topic for most of the morning. Instead of faith, he talked football and food banks. Did he mention that he started a football club for troubled youth? And that some of those youth were in jail once? When Ford’s constituents call asking for help, he knows some priests and pastors whose churches can help out. And if these programs need funding, Ford knows Jim Flaherty and could call him up (“Hey Jim!”) to ask for money.
Rocco Rossi began with a Hindu blessing, then listed off a series of religious experiences that make “Eat, Pray, Love” seem like a yoga class. A confirmed Catholic, he attended an evangelical church, studied with both a rabbi and Baha’i elders, made a pilgrimage across Spain, and spent a year in a Zen monastery. He used this platform to preach goodwill, harmony, and rainbows, calling Toronto a “miracle on the lake” where diversity not only has to be noted—”it has to be nurtured.” He invited the Council and others to help inform the discussion at City Hall on an ongoing basis.
His proselytizing ended with his (now famous) statement that “God has never left City Hall—City Hall has left God.” He has since clarified that he meant that City Hall had abandoned religious groups, not religion itself.
Joe Pantalone stuck to his vision of the city as a “living organism,” saying, “you must give it tender, loving care in order for it to continue to flower.” He recognized religion as an important part of civic life, and offered the City’s facilities and funds to support faith-based social work. He mentioned the Peace Garden at Nathan Phillips Square as an example of City Hall’s attempts to recognize religion, saying, “it has become a holy place.”
In his opening answer, George Smitherman boldly asked faith-based groups to unite behind gay and lesbian rights. His one-track message was the need to align Toronto’s socially active groups, including the churches, in order to better meet the goals of “social justice.” He also harped on the City’s “Holiday Tree”—according to Smitherman, we’re mature enough now to call it a “Christmas Tree” and recognize other faiths’ “points of celebration.”
Regardless of religion, this forum tested the candidates’ true political chops. How they reacted to this foreign, complicated topic showed a bit of how they might perform in the rough waters of City Hall.
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.