Tight race for council seat as Willowdale suburb grapples with urban issues


The race for a city council seat in North Toronto could be one of the most competitive in municipal elections this fall.

And two candidates, who at one point both had the incumbent’s endorsement, are competing in a bid to represent Ward 18, Willowdale.

Markus O’Brien Fehr said he could smell it as he walked down one of the tree-lined suburban streets south of Finch Avenue, west of Yonge Street.

“I think we’re gaining momentum, certainly at this point,” the chief of staff told retired Coun. John Filion.

“And we feel very confident. But it’s statistically, by some of the metrics that have come out, an incredibly close race. So we’re not taking anything for granted.”

It’s… an incredibly close race. So we don’t take anything for granted.– Council candidate Markus O’Brien Fehr

Even a solicitation in the rain isn’t out of the question on this day, as O’Brien Fehr and a pair of campaign volunteers, armed with flyers and clipboards, move from door to door.

He estimates they’ve covered 50,000 doors in the community, but still have work to do to survey all 170 high-rise buildings. He bought a new pair of Brooks running shoes and he’s putting them to the test.

“I was having trouble with my joints and everything,” he said as he hurried down a sidewalk. “So I went to the Running Room and said, ‘I’m introducing myself, but not the kind you’re used to. What political candidates do you have? “”

A growing community

The service has struggled with its own aches and pains in recent years; development challenges, rising levels of homelessness and the rising cost of living.

“Willowdale isn’t really a suburban community anymore. We’re becoming a dense urban core,” O’Brien Fehr said. “And I think some of the issues that might be more historically tied to downtown Toronto are starting to be seen here more frequently.”

One of the most polarizing issues in the local campaign is a city-approved project at 175 Cummer Street that would house 59 seniors who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness.

The project, which adjoins a residence for the elderly, has angered some residents who oppose the project to establish it in their neighborhood.

Council candidate Lily Cheng says she hears from Willowdale residents that homelessness, affordability and cost of living are top concerns in the neighborhood. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Candidate Lily Cheng said she understands some residents’ concerns about the modular housing project. She wants more communication from the city about it and, more generally, homeless shelters in the neighborhood.

She would also like Toronto to provide different services for homeless people, including ensuring housing is available in smaller settings with a maximum of 10 people, as opposed to larger settings.

“I think we have to fight for solutions that work,” she said. “They’ll be expensive, they’ll be on a smaller scale. And I really think the neighborhood has to be part of the solution.”

O’Brien Fehr said he supported the modular housing proposal on Cummer Avenue and said there was a need to help older people in the neighborhood.

“I think when the city does any type of housing project, trying to house people permanently, it has to come with a very strong communications plan,” he said.

“That wasn’t always the case. … And I think that allowed the fear and the anxiety to grow and thrive, when they probably should have been dealt with much earlier.”

Municipal race seeds planted in 2018

Cheng and O’Brien Fehr first signed up to run for council in different wards in 2018, when it was set to expand to 47 wards. At the time, both had Filion’s approval.

But when Premier Doug Ford reduced the number of seats to 25, Filion was back in the running. O’Brien Fehr elected not to race against him, while Cheng continued and finished second in the race.

Cheng, who is the executive director of the NeighborLink North York food bank, said she felt like the underdog in the race. She pointed to some high-profile mentions that have been attributed to O’Brien Fehr, including that of Filion. But she said she was not discouraged.

“One thing I want to change in Willowdale is to build a connected and engaged community,” she said. “So my proposition is that democracy only works when we all participate, and we’ve lost those threads.”

Com. John Filion is retiring after 40 years in public service. (Radio-Canada News)

Filion said whoever wins the service, they will face a number of issues and will have to get to work.

“The big issues are really housing and affordability,” he said.

“Not just for young people who can’t afford rent and certainly can’t dream of buying a house anymore, but even their parents now who may be living comfortably in a nice house in Willowdale thinking, ‘Gee, where are my kids going Direct?'”

Filion said part of addressing homelessness in the neighborhood is acknowledging the reality that Willowdale has changed, as well as Toronto itself.

“Some people are a little too entrenched in their own older version of Willowdale, still suburban [and] very far from the city center,” he says.

“I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in recent years that some people are just very stuck in their own self-interest and selfishness.”

Former federal conservative candidates Daniel Lee and Elham Shahban are also running in the neighborhood.

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