Afro Caribbean members 'very disappointed' that Vito Sgro skipped their debate

It was a room full of black Hamilton voters, and they had numerous questions. Stop the train? How? What are we defining as infrastructure? But the one person they most wanted to ask wasn't there.

Sgro says he thought it was a meet-and-greet and sent regrets a week ago

Fred Eisenberger listens to a question at an event organized by the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association (ACCA) and the African Canadian Action Congress. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It was a room full of black Hamilton voters, and they had numerous questions. Stop the train? How? What are we defining as infrastructure?

But the one person who could answer them — mayoral candidate Vito Sgro — was a no show.

Seven Hamilton mayoral candidates attended an all-candidates event Tuesday, including incumbent Fred Eisenberger. The Afro Canadian Caribbean Association (ACCA) and the African Canadian Action Congress held the event on Barton Street East.

They invited every mayoral candidate except white nationalist Paul Fromm. Of the invitees who didn't attend, Sgro's absence was felt most.

Attendees included, from left, Adeolu and Ronnic Sanyaolu, Ayoola Omojafo, Adaeze Agbaje, Ike Agbassi and Emmanuel Agbaje. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"I was expecting to see Vito here," said Ike Agbassi, president of the Nigerian Canadian Association of Hamilton-Wentworth. The race, he said, "is really down to two."

Adeolu Sanyaolu of Ancaster wanted to ask Sgro about his anti-LRT stance. Sanyaolu sees LRT as similar to the Red Hill Valley Parkway. He was skeptical about the highway at first, he said, but he uses it all the time now.

"There are signs in my neighbourhood — 'stop the train, stop the train,'" Sanyaolu said. "I have questions about that."

Sgro said Wednesday that he thought the event was a meet and greet and "sent regrets a week ago." 

"(I) was only notified the day before that this was a mayoral debate." 

Evelyn Myrie, ACCA president, said Sgro initially confirmed. She said he told her Tuesday morning that he thought the event was a meet and greet, not a debate. He couldn't make the full event, so he cancelled.

From left: Fred Eisenberger, Todd May, Jim Davis. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"I'm very disappointed," she said. "We had a confirmation. That's what I look for with leadership — unless there are circumstances you can't avoid."

Coincidentally, the event came four days after Sgro challenged Eisenberger to one-on-one debate about LRT. Eisenberger, who wants LRT, wouldn't do it. He said there had to be more candidates and issues involved.

Sgro said the challenge still stands. 

"Every debate is an opportunity to challenge Fred on his silly LRT that no one wants," he said.

"Fred's is turning this into the only mayoral election in Hamilton's history where the front-runners do not have a debate. Fred is terrified to debate me on the LRT."

As for Eisenberger, he joked about Sgro's absence Tuesday. "All the important candidates are here," he told the audience, "so it's all good."

LRT was one of many issues Tuesday. Other questions included those about creating affordable housing and making Hamilton's police services board more diverse.

The province appointed Pat Mandy of Mississaugas of the New Credit to the police board in March. Before that, it was an all-white board. City council appoints a citizen member and three council members.

Michael Pattison said he'd strive to have "balance" on the police board. "(We need to) hold politicians to account to make this real." Eisenberger said the city could do more to keep diversity in mind when it appoints members.

Two candidates — George Rusich and Jim Davis — said society needs to stop focusing on race and just have "the human race." 

Hamilton hate crime statistics also show the black community is the most targeted, and someone asked about that.

Ute Schmid-Jones said she would take her cues from the people impacted. "My greatest contribution will be to listen to what is being requested by this community." Rusich said there needs to be more education, and Davis wants to see more festivals and events that bring people together.

From left: Ute Schmid-Jones, Michael Pattison, George Rusich, Nathalie Xian Yi Yan. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Nathalie Xian Yi Yan said discrimination was personal to her. When she sees hate crime stats, "I feel hurt because I can see them as me too."

Todd May said when it comes to hate crimes, each incident is different. "We need to find out what was going on at the time."

Eisenberger mentioned the city's anti-racism resource centre, which fields calls and helps victims of racism. Education is the answer, he said. "We need to keep pushing on that to make sure racism is actually stamped out."

Tuesday was the fourth mayoral all-candidates meeting. The election is Oct. 22.


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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