September 26, 2014

Lessons from Canvassing in York West

Toronto’s municipal election is 30 days from today (October 27). There are the well-publicized mayoral races, but we also need to pay attention to the races for council and school trustee, given the mayor only has one vote in council. This is the first municipal election I have been involved with and it has been an eye opener in various ways. The mayoral race has been volatile with Olivia Chow losing her front runner status during the summer months and on the rebound again, John Tory being increasingly grilled over his SmartTrack transit plan, and Rob Ford withdrawing due to a cancer diagnosis while his brother Doug took his place. On a personal level, I have been asked to take on roles not encountered during previous political campaigns.


So far, my political volunteering was focused on door to door canvassing, phone banks, scrutineering during Election Day, and public events. Through a friend with the local riding association, I was asked to help manage data obtained from canvassing and contribute to strategy for Keegan Henry-Mathieu, councillor candidate for Ward 7 (York West). I was intrigued to take on this new challenge for three reasons.

1. I live in a ward whose councillor is well-respected and considered to be safe.
2. The incumbent Keegan is challenging, Giorgio Mammoliti, is under police investigation for receiving $80,000 from a fundraiser which violated Council’s code of conduct[1] and has been known for committing other unethical acts.
3. I was curious to learn more about other parts of Toronto and the differences in how residents react to political issues.

When I arrived at York West to start canvassing this past weekend, I was reminded of how different it was from downtown. While downtown residents were able to get around by foot, bicycle, and transit; driving is the reality in inner suburbs such as York West. While there are some apartment towers, the bulk of the area consists of single family homes and commercial activity is restricted to malls and smaller strip malls. Contrast this with downtown where commercial spaces are often mixed with residential and nearby public spaces.

While canvassing, I agreed to a different approach. Instead of splitting up, I took notes and listened to how my canvassing partner interacted with residents, given I was not familiar with the area. Turns out I have some work to do in order to become a more effective canvasser. Usually, I seek to remain brief in order to cover as many households as possible, but my canvassing partner demonstrated how you need to own the message by citing your personal connection to the candidate and take the time to learn voters’ concerns. In the part of York West we were canvassing, the lack of noise walls by Highway 400 was a significant issue, as well as difficulties accessing services offered by community centres.

There will also be times when residents insist they speak directly to the candidate, which was the case with one resident. Keegan did come to that resident’s home (who turned out to be a former canvasser) and the conversation I witnessed was a reminder of what is needed for civic engagement. Civic engagement is a two-way street in which elected representatives and candidates need to reach out to their constituents and learn how they can help with their concerns. When constituents feel this connection, they are often happy to talk about such concerns and become empowered to learn more about how they can improve their communities, which in turn creates a virtuous circle of increased engagement. Working together is also required among elected officials of differing political views; something Keegan experienced with while he was with the Toronto Youth Cabinet.

Based on these findings, I can recommend three actions when canvassing.

1. If you live in an electoral district where your preferred candidate is considered to be safe, you should consider canvassing in another district in order to better understand how political issues affect different areas.
2. If you are new to canvassing or are unfamiliar with the area, you should ask to be paired with a more experienced canvasser and learn from his/her techniques.
3. If you have the opportunity to do so, you should witness a conversation between your candidate and a constituent.

Happy canvassing!
Rob Z (e-mail)

[1] David Hains. The Globe and Mail. “Mammoliti faces police investigation over fundraiser.” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/mammoliti-faces-police-investigation-over-fund-raiser/article20610516/

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