“It’s like speed dating, but scarier,” said city council candidate Simon Wookey on Thursday evening at Fly nightclub. Wookey, who is one of twelve candidates seeking to replace Kyle Rae as the councillor of Ward 27, Toronto Centre–Rosedale, was commenting on his participation in the evening’s event: Toronto’s first ever city councillor game show, “So You Think You Can Council?”
Organized by municipal politics enthusiasts #voteTO, “So You Think You Can Council?” revitalized the often mundane practice of political debate with an entirely new format. Assembled onstage, the twelve candidates participated in a series of trivia rounds testing them on their knowledge of both the ward and city policy through questions that mimicked the game shows The Price is Right, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and Family Feud. The questions forced the candidates to prove whether they were informed about everything from the city’s police budget ($956 million) to the location of Ward 27’s infamous “Vaseline Towers” (a.k.a. the Village Green).
If the format was unusual, it was nothing compared to the venue. Frequently used during the filming of Queer as Folk, Fly was a decidedly different arena for a debate. The darkness and open dance floors remained, as did Lady Gaga on the soundsystem, but around the room were suits where there would normally be shirtless men. #voteTO co-organizer Jen Hassum revealed that in addition to the interesting juxtaposition of space and dialogue, the benefit of hosting the event at Fly was that the group, which survives entirely on donations, was given the space for free. By drawing a crowd of over three hundred people into the club, which is normally closed on weekdays, #voteTO proved that they could host an event on virtually no budget.
At top: candidates reveal their guesses to one question in “Where In the Ward is Carmen Sandiego.” Bottom: David Miller makes an appearance, to much applause.
Once they walked onto Fly’s stage, the candidates were treated like rock stars, met with cheers and whoops from the audience. (It was hard to remember that this was actually an all-candidates debate with all the bottles of Bud reflected in the twirling discoball.) The excitement in the room made sense given the audience, which was largely candidates’ campaign teams and supporters. Huge posters were suspended from balconies, t-shirts with campaign slogans were donned, and it was hard to find a person in the audience not sporting a button endorsing one candidate or another. Undecided voters who would be casting ballots within Ward 27 weren’t particularly visible; it’s likely that the people drawn to the event would have been participating in campaign rallies and watching debates regardless.
At the core of #voteTO, however, lies a faith in the audience beyond the audience. “There’s the event, and then there’s post-event,” co-organizer Justin Stayshyn told us. “Our goal doesn’t just occur tonight. We have a real-life event, which will hopefully take on a virtual existence as well. Hopefully we’re doing something that will make people in this city realize that you don’t have to do things the conventional way.” Tweets tagged #voteTO or #voteTOin27 were projected onto a smaller screen throughout, allowing anyone to chime in on the action, and Mayor David Miller even made a cameo in a filmed segment on transit.
The lack of convention made for a good amount of humour, but because of the number of candidates, the associated time restrictions for each, and the game show format, it was difficult to get a sense of each individual platform. The twelve appeared fairly united on broad issues (libraries are underfunded, TTC fares are too high, bike lanes are great!), but it was hard to tell where and how they differed. The candidates only expressed sharp divisions during the discussion of Pride’s exclusion of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid and City Council’s handling of it. All were otherwise in sync when it came to politicians’ spending of tax dollars, and plenty of shots were taken at Kyle Rae’s recent spending; candidate Chris Tindal was greeted with cheers when he announced that “this venue cost a lot less than twelve thousand dollars, and it’s more fun!”
With the trivia questions covering a range of different areas, no individual candidate demonstrated knowledge that clearly surpassed the others, either. It was hard to tell which candidate would be best to represent the ward based on the format, but maybe by looking for someone to come out on top we were missing the point of the night. As host and funny lady Maggie Cassella put it, “In the end there are no winners or losers, only voters.”
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist. Additional reporting by David Topping.