It’s everything we appreciate and love about Toronto … Ward 1 is multicultural, it’s very green—we have the Humber River—and a very young demographic. It’s really an area that’s trying to figure out its identity, post-industrial economy. It is very far from City Hall—we’re closer to Brampton City Hall than downtown—and there are a lot of people who feel isolated but still proud. Rexdale isn’t just the problems that it faces, but the people who choose to rise up to them and make things better as best as they can.
Ward 1, you can have the advocate you deserve at City Hall, and her name is Idil Burale.
She moved to Toronto from Somalia at age five and grew up in a local community housing complex in the 1990s; her family moved across the street in the 2000s into a house they had purchased. “In that first generation, as any immigrant will attest to, being able to transition from social housing to owning a property was something my mother worked very hard on.”
After university, Burale worked for several members of the Liberal government and then completed a fellowship at MaRS. Her work as a community activist, she says, began in 2012, during the second wave of the so-called summer of the gun. Burale was invited to a meeting of an advocacy group called Positive Change, which is “comprised of a bunch of mothers who were trying to address the root causes of why young boys, particularly young Somali boys, were becoming overrepresented in the onslaught of crime that was happening in that area.” Burale served as a sort of generational translator within the group, helping parents and youth better understand each other’s experiences.
That work led to the creation of a task force around schooling issues—basics like counselling parents on their right to a translator—and work with local police. She describes a fraught relationship between officers and the residents they are sworn to protect: “Clearly something is wrong because you harass us,” Burale says, summarizing what she’s been hearing from the community, “but we don’t feel safer as a result. We’re over-policed, but at the same time you’re never there when things go down.”
If all this makes Burale sound adversarial, she isn’t. When it came to those policing concerns, for instance, she was part of a group that worked with TPS to develop a pilot project called the Somali Liason Unit: six officers (none of whom are themselves Somali—there are only two Somali officers on the force that Burale is aware of, and both are assigned to Scarborough) doing the ground-level community work necessary to rebuild trust. They began with some cultural sensitivity training—details that seem small, but can be essential in helping reframe tense relationships.
One example: many Somalis will hesitate if asked their date of birth; others will give the same answer, January 1. To an officer, this can immediately raise a red flag, seem like an attempt to hide your identity. But Burale says that officers “don’t know that, for most Somalis, especially older people, they don’t celebrate birthdays—it’s not something that was memorized until we got here.” All those January 1 birthdays? They were assigned at the border, because something was required to complete the immigration documents. “The cops didn’t understand that people weren’t trying to lie to them or be suspicious; birthdays just weren’t a big deal for them.”
This knowledge may be specific to the Somali community but the insights it yields are not. Ward 1 has the highest concentration of newcomers in the city, and it deserves a representative who understands the issues these new Torontonians face. The 28-year-old Burale has a grasp of those matters that almost nobody on our current council does. Ward 1 includes major South Asian, Guyanese, and Pakistani communities, along with an Italian boomer community that has lived in North Etobicoke for decades. They all inhabit the same part of the city, but that doesn’t mean that they are interacting as much as Burale would like. “It’s like cafeteria multiculturalism: if you walk into the room it’s diverse [as a whole], but people are segregated table-by-table.”
Just as important as her nuanced grasp of her ward’s complicated ethnic make-up, Burale’s broader priorities reflect the policies Toronto needs to pursue to repair many of the inequities we’re currently struggling with. Her single biggest goal for the ward is building the Finch LRT; she’s also advocating for increased TCHC funding, further subsidizing for child care, and investment in local infrastructure. If we don’t do these things now, she says, we’ll wind up paying more trying to make up for the damage in 20 years.
This isn’t always an easy sell: “People have become so alienated by government,” she says, that they have lost all faith that City Hall can or will help them. She describes a strange phenomenon: the more versed in municipal issues she became, the less voters were listening to her at the door. People will listen when you talk about the LRT, she says, if you tell them it will also help bring businesses to the ward and get the potholes on Finch filled. Try making the pitch based on traffic or TTC ridership stats, and nobody cares. “I had to really learn a different language of how to speak to my neighbours,” she says—how to engage them in conversation, how to explain issues by way of personal experiences rather than abstract statistics, and how, most of all, to listen.
In contrast, the incumbent, Vincent Crisanti, is in many ways barely a councillor. He was elected in Ward 1 on his third try at that seat in 2010 and since then has been a non-entity. The only noteworthy aspect of his tenure has been the fact that he has voted almost in lockstep with the Ford brothers for the entirety of his term. (Understandable, considering it was the Fords’ support that finally got him elected.) He has never demonstrated any particular mind for policy—of any kind—and his spoken contributions at City Hall meetings are range from the nonexistent to the asinine. Ward 1 can do better, and this year it has a choice that is not just barely better, but substantially so.
Burale worked for one minister and one backbencher, not multiple ministers, as this post originally wrote.