Toronto mayoral by-election, Corriere Canadese interviews Mark Saunders: “Safety is my priority”

Today, we are beginning our series on the contending candidates seeking election as Mayor of Toronto. As of Sunday, seventy-three individuals have registered with the Elections Office at City Hall. We will not be able to give all of them the coverage they might like.

Qualified candidates needed to provide at a minimum: 1. Proof of Canadian citizenship 2. Proof of a residence or business in Toronto 3. Endorsement from at least 25 other fellow citizens 4. $200.00.

When the registration process closes on May 12, we will publish a list of those who still allow their name to stand. In the meantime, we propose, but will not be limited to, interviewing interested candidates whom “the polls” suggest may garner at least 4% of the votes. In the last election, only 29% of eligible voters cast a ballot. 

TORONTO – His was a long career in the ranks of the Toronto Police. Thirty-seven years – of which the last five, from 2015 to 2020 – as Chief. Even before leading Toronto Law Enforcement Mark Saunders – born in 1962 in London, England, to Jamaican parents – held the position of Deputy Chief Officer Commanding Specialized Operations, held duties with professional standards, street gang units, Intelligence Division, Drug Squad, Community Safety Command, and Emergency Task Force, and served as homicide squad unit commander. After resigning as Chief last year, he ran for Don Valley West in the Conservative Party’s ranks in the provincial election in which he was defeated by Liberal candidate Stephanie Bowman. And now Saunders, who is a candidate for mayor of Toronto, has indicated that community safety is the focus of his campaign.

In an all-out interview granted to Corriere Canadese, Saunders illustrated the salient points of his ambitious electoral program ranging from financial stability to City Hall, transport safety, crime, traffic, housing emergency, mental health.

The city’s fiscal stability has notoriously not been in good shape over the past couple of years. The city needs help from the county, the federal government. How do you plan to tackle this problem going forward?
“Given that Toronto is the largest city in the country and the fourth largest on the continent and accounts for 20% of GDP, if Toronto is not in good health the rest of Canada is in trouble. Voter apathy stems from government not understanding what the community needs. First of all, we need to be accountable for the money we already have, see if it is being spent correctly and if needs are identified in the city of Toronto and the answer for me is no. First I need to see exactly where the money is being spent, I have no idea where the money has been spent. I can say that in suburban Toronto the feeling of residents is that homeowners are paying their share of taxes but are getting crumbs in return. The most important thing for the government is that the decisions taken represent the whole city and not just a part, not those who raise their voices but all communities. So I will look at the books very clearly. I know that the province also wants to take a look at the books. It is necessary to fully understand how money is used. Furthermore, we are in 2023 and we are still using old and antiquated systems: there is a way to be autonomous, more efficient and improve the quality of life, use digital platforms, give people the opportunity to have the information they need. Basically the responsibility of the city government is to keep the city safe because this brings business and offers opportunities for newcomers, and the arrival of new people is important. We have to create a proper infrastructure, otherwise the economy and business will decline.”

Bill 3 gives the mayor of Toronto new powers. The mayor can implement his own agenda with the approval of only 30% of the councillors. A couple of candidates said they won’t use those powers. Are you going to use those powers?
“I’m not afraid to be a leader, this city is hungry for leadership. I will work with consensus as I always have, but to make the city dynamic and prosperous, decisions have to be made. If I need to use those powers, I will. It’s about building a strong subway system, homes, opportunities and dreams, and I won’t let the government get in the way of that. Many want this, while others do not agree with the decisions that are being made”.

People are afraid to travel on TTC vehicles. What would you do to make the city’s transportation system safer?
“Crime and disorder should never be normalized, the city needs leadership that listens to all voices and prioritizes what matters most, and safety is by far the most important issue. I want the city to be safe, the subway is the lifeblood of our city, Toronto has the most robust public transit system in Canada. We should build stronger and more dynamic metro access, if we don’t we will fail, newcomers rely on the metro, as do businesses. The number of passengers decreased by 30% [in recent years]. My main responsibility is to create a culture of safety at the TTC, the first thing I will do is hand over safety to the Toronto Police who are experienced. I will use “special constables” and add more to get from 75 to 200. I want uniformed agents in the subways, their presence will act as a deterrent. Also video cameras on police uniforms, buttons and emergency call which will notify the TTC if there is a problem, plus lighting at stops to help people feel safer. We need to get people back on public transport, our economy will only benefit from it. Let us not forget, however, that we are dealing with disorder that manifests itself through crime. We are not dealing with criminals, we are dealing with people who need help.”

Many people in the city have difficulty paying the rent, the price of houses is skyrocketing, increasing day by day. What is your plan to fix the problem?
“Due to the housing problems present, in the ranking that takes into consideration the main Canadian cities, Toronto is last. Five years ago they promised to build 19,700 apartments with cheap rents, they only built 8%. Also four years ago, eleven council-owned sites, not used by the city, were identified to build council housing but not a single one was built. The builders, that need approval which takes 3 to 5 years to obtain, are leaving the city to build elsewhere. My pledge is that both the city and the developers are held accountable for this system, approvals should only take a year. We have to build, the newcomers are not in a good situation right now. We need to create proper incentives, ask the federal government to remove the HST tax for large affordable housing projects. We need to make sure the city is attractive to the workforce. If we eliminate the property tax, then people will want to come here. We need the provincial and federal governments to step in.”

You said ‘Crime is out of control’. How do you plan to deal with this growing problem in the city?
“It would take two hours to answer that question… Crime comes in many forms, burglaries, robberies, other petty crimes. Perpetrators of gun violence are street gangs. We have to understand that children don’t grow up thinking they want to be part of an armed gang, there are other issues that lead to this. Long-term solutions are needed, quality of life must be present in the neighbourhoods. There are other things we can do to bring down the crime rate. I have a good understanding of how it’s supposed to work, I have solutions for it. There are no candidates who can understand the security issue like me. Especially when it comes to mental health, it must be remembered that the problem does not end at 5 in the evening and then return at 8 in the morning. We need to do better and I know how to do it”.

In 2019, you did not support the idea of abolishing firearms. Why?
“There are law-abiding citizens who love firearms, we have the strictest rules when it comes to buying handguns and rifles. I worked in the largest homicide squad in the country, I can say the number of times a legal gun was stolen and used in a crime was zero. You can ban guns but today you can 3d print a gun. It’s no longer about a person shooting a person but a teenager shooting a teenager. What motivates teenagers to have guns is to protect themselves. First you need to understand why they have guns, then you need to find the right solutions. The gun ban seems to me more like a political discussion, unfair to the community.”

Traffic in Toronto is chaotic, with roadworks and bicycles. Do you have a plan to fix this situation?
“Yes, I have a plan to deal with traffic problems. I would put a moratorium on cycle lanes, we have built the two largest roads in the country and narrowed them down to one lane. We need to have more common sense, I am not anti cycle lanes, there are places for cycle lanes and these are the back roads. Montreal, for example, has perhaps the largest number of cycle paths in the country, 200 kilometers, but they use secondary roads. The shopkeepers are frustrated because there are no parking spaces and it makes no sense to damage their business”.

How do you plan to improve City Hall’s relations with the two levels of government?
“I am the only candidate who has a direct conversation with both other levels of government, I understand them better and I have a better starting point than the other candidates. Having key relationships is important, I represent the city’s best interest first and foremost, I applied because I want to listen to everyone, speak to communities and make better informed decisions for the city.”

In the pics above, Corriere Canadese’s editorial staff and the publisher Joe Volpe with the candidate Mark Saunders

(in collaboration with Francesco Veronesi and Marzio Pelù)

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