Dec. 5, 2017
By Arianne Robinson
City Councillor Michael Thompson has been an elected Toronto politician for almost 15 years, chair of the Economic Development Committee for seven years, and is currently the only black member of Toronto’s 45-member city council.
In this week’s Q & A, the 58-year-old politician talks about his ward in Scarborough, his childhood in Jamaica, his future in politics, how the economic development file has changed, and whether he thinks the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism, which seeks almost a million dollars in funding for new city staff and and program grants, will work.
This interview was conducted in person, and has been transcribed and condensed.
You were elected to Toronto City Council in 2003. When was your beginning in politics?
I delivered my first piece of literature in my political career at 13 years old.
What was that and who was the audience?
It was in Scarborough, delivering for the local politicians, and I think the Scarborough mayor when I was a bit older. I was a soldier. People gave me stuff. Nobody knew me. I was interested, actually. At a very young age I was thrown into it.
How did you get into it? Did you have people in politics in your family or around you?
There’s people in the old country as I’ll call it, Jamaica, who are involved in administration. The guy in the area that would issue documents or maybe sign things. My grandfather was a very wealthy businessman in Montego Bay.
There are so many things at [the November] executive this week, but I want to ask you about the Toronto Action Plan for Anti-Black Racism. Are you happy with the direction of it?
Um, ya. I guess. Ya.
“Ya, I guess” sounds pretty lukewarm.
I mean, look, no. To be fair, there’s great expectation, right? I use the term “I guess” not to suggest that I’m dissatisfied or unhappy; I think a lot of good work has actually gone in it. It’s well intended, and it’s from the community up so it’s a really good thing. It’s a really big document that I’ve been reading for a while. The question is, how do you address issues that date back a very long period of time? Not so much about racism – I actually don’t think you eliminate racism. I think racism is alive and well and will always be. People are much smarter about it and with it, and their sensitivity level – it’s either awoken, or in many instances, people are in tune or much more aware both in terms of the give and receiving elements of it. Even the tacit aspect of racism, because racism isn’t all about talking. Sometimes it’s just nondescript and it’s just something that’s done. You don’t actually see it and people don’t say it to you, but is there. I think a lot of good work has gone into the report. I think we have to work hard to help its realization. The key thing is, we have to focus on the things that we can actually address short term, and medium and long term. What are those things and how do we collectively agree on those?
You said at committee that if you’re somewhere in public not wearing a suit or in sweats – [you have been treated in a discriminatory way.]
Has that happened recently, say in the last five years – or even two years?
In the last year. It’s not so much my neighbourhood where people know me, really, it’s elsewhere in the city. I’ve gone into stores and had people who I think are store monitors or security folks follow me. You know, it is what it is. And in Toronto in 2017.
Do you ever feel like mentioning to them you’re a city councillor?
No. I just continue doing my business, thinking, if they’re wasting time with me, obviously they’re not really guarding the facility. People have [experiences and reasons] to respond to certain things, so I have to understand that as well. But at the same time – and we’re just talking generally – I don’t think about racism in terms of black and white. I think that within all context of people within groups and subgroups, they might not like a person because their hair is different or they walk different or look different. But when it’s about obstructing you from getting ahead or having opportunities, I definitely draw the line. Back to the report, what are we trying to achieve? We are trying to create opportunity where people can fulfil their goals or objectives or can contribute to make their society better. That was part of my comments last night. We want to have all the institutions in our society – where those institutions are working well, people respect those institutions and expect those institutions will actually respect them and be there for them in a wholesome, beneficial way, so we can actually work collectively for the betterment of our society.
To ground it to here, this big institution of the City of Toronto. We’ve talked about you being targeted in a store, but it’s also relevant right here. So if racism is everywhere – it’s in the City of Toronto the corporation. Is something like this action plan going to help change that? You’re someone who has been here for so long and has probably felt it in so many ways at so many levels. Does this action plan move that?
That’s a good question, actually. I’m hopeful that it will. I think I’m guardedly optimistic. I am, in my dreams, of a view that it does that. The reality of the situation is that, left with no choice, we actually have to do something. This is a question of whether we just leave it as it is, or do something. And this is that something to try and address it. There are a lot of people who have come into this office who work with this organization who look like me, who come to me for help, who come to me to say, here are the things that I’m experiencing in the corporation: frustration, anger, and disenchantment.
What types of things are people experiencing here? What are you hearing recently?
The disenchantment that people are feeling that it appears there are barriers to their opportunity in terms of ascending in this organization. They feel there are areas in which, they say, they feel that they are being discriminated against. Now, you’ll have to talk to some of those people. I’m not going to give you their names, but you’ll have to talk to them. Over the years, a number of people have come into this office to talk to me about the challenges they face. You heard the mayor say yesterday he’s spoke to a number of senior people.
To bring it back to city hall, you’re the only black councillor.
I’m here talking with you –
About being black.
And I’m here talking with you about this action plan and on one hand I’m critical of the fact that I’m asking you to talk about this – and on the other hand it’s important, you have lived experience that others don’t have.
And did you notice that most of the questions last night [talking about the anti-black racism action plan at the mayor’s Executive Committee] were from me? Other people are like, what do I ask this group about being black? I think that really speaks to the need for more people who are part of the challenges to be part of the solution, collaborating and working with everyone else.
Does that mean more black councillors? More black City of Toronto staff?
More black everything. As someone described it to me recently, we had a meeting with one of the buildings in the ward and we’re trying to work with a group there, and they said, look, we experience the problem. We know it more than anyone else. So if you want to change the issue or you want to address it, you can’t have people come in to address it who have no experience with the issue. You need a combination of people to be able address it. When you ask me more black people? Not necessarily. It can’t be token people just being put in just for the sake of being put in. And this is the natural conversation I think that should be had with everybody. Black issues are not simply about black people. Black issues should be about our society and should be about everyone. We should be able to sit down and talk, and sometimes the conversation is a little bit deeper and sometimes you may be upset about certain things, but you don’t need to be disagreeable about it.
Black issues are not simply about black people. Black issues should be about our society and should be about everyone. We should be able to sit down and talk, and sometimes the conversation is a little bit deeper and sometimes you may be upset about certain things, but you don’t need to be disagreeable about it.
You’ve been chair of economic development for seven years. Is the city going in the right direction?
Before I took over, economic development was not really seen with the lens across all the corporation. It was just seen as a small little entity that had not a lot of prominence and not a lot of focus on collaboration between the external business community and internally and looking at a global or international perspective for the city of Toronto. I brought in business people like Larry Tannenbaum, Blake Goldring, Carol Wieling, and a lot of other business leaders. We talked about how we could actually develop a plan for the city’s success. We talked about a prosperity agenda. We talked about developing a competitive plan with our team in economic development. We talked about how we can address issues around entrepreneurship. We talked about how we can address issues about business retention, create more jobs, and create more investment. Then we devised a plan around how we can do that. While we had, over the years, little pieces of things in the city, from my perspective we had never seen it in such a coordinated and organized way.
At one point, you were interested in seeing the city make the observation deck on the 27th floor of one of the towers open to the public.
If you go up there, it has an amazing view of the city. I still think that if that space was elsewhere in the world, you would see it open up where you could spend a night of jazz, you could go up and spend a nice night up there, it could be a really romantic place for couples. People love height. People love the ability to be in a city and be able to have a really expansive view. A buddy just called me up and said he wanted to go for dinner. He said, “Oh, the Harbour Castle has this Toula place on the top floor – I want to go out and take a look at the view.” That sort of thing. I’d like to see city hall a little bit warmer, a bit more receptive, more engaging. We’re doing work now to make that happen – [Nathan Phillips] Square is pretty animated a lot, and people come to see it, but I think it would be really cool to come into city hall on a Monday night, or Friday night or something, and go up to the observation floor and have a meal and maybe have a drink and see a bit of Toronto.
What’s stopping that from happening?
Oh, I think it’s just a matter of resources. I think there’s requirement to do a variety of things up there, and I think also I’ve been told it’s not big enough. It’s a small space.
You have been identified as a right wing, law and order type of councillor. Do you identify with a political party?
Not at the moment. I identify as being very pragmatic. I know people identify me as being right wing, but I don’t think I’m right or left. I’m probably more middle. The law and order piece, I’m not sure what that actually means. Do I want to see citizens safe in our city? Absolutely. Do I want to see interactions between police and our citizens done in a way that benefits all? Absolutely. Do I believe that at times you want to put pressure on the police with respect to budgeting? Absolutely. Do I believe that at times if bad guys are doing bad things, that we want to address them? Absolutely. If that makes me a right winger, I’m a right winger.
Are you going to run for city councillor again?
Um, yes. I wasn’t going to run, I was actually thinking of not running, but there’s a bunch of things that are happening that I think I need to deal with. It’s complicated, and I’ve decided that I’m going to run again.
What’s the one thing you would love to be able to do while being city councillor?
It’s hard to really bring it down to one thing. It’s really to get more people connected within the environment of both government and institutions within our city. More young people, more diverse people. The point that we were talking about in terms of creating more opportunities and getting them all connected collaboratively, working together for the best interests of the city and for themselves.
I love being here. For me, this is easy. Fascinated with the ability to help people. Fascinated with how the city works and how to chart and as part of my little way to help people shape the city. It’s a lot of work.
What haven’t I asked? I didn’t ask you if you’ve ever thought about running for mayor?
Good. Of course, the answer is yes. The truthful answer. And who knows, the future is in front of us, right?
You could run for mayor in 2018?
No I didn’t say that. Ah, nice try. No, I’m not running for mayor in 2018.
Can you see yourself running for mayor in 2022?
Who knows. It’s too early to say. There are many options. The last little while I’ve been asked to run provincially by a number of parties. I was asked to run federally. I can tell you the provincial space is not a space that I have any real aspiration to be in. It’s just not something that I have a fascination with at this time.
Do you love being here?
I can tell you this honestly: I’m absolutely fascinated with being here. I love being here. For me, this is easy. Fascinated with the ability to help people. Fascinated with how the city works and how to chart and as part of my little way to help people shape the city. It’s a lot of work. It is overpowering with work. This is all I do now. This takes up 99 per cent of my time. I live, sleep, breathe this environment.