Close race for council seat as suburban Willowdale grapples with urban problems

The race for a city council seat in north Toronto could be one of the most competitive in this fall’s municipal election. Two candidates who at one time both had endorsements from the retiring incumbent are squaring off against each other in bid to represent Ward 18, Willowdale. 

Candidates face questions about homelessness, affordability from residents

Council candidate Markus O'Brien Fehr canvasses with volunteer Hiva Faghihi in Ward 18, Willowdale. The race between O'Brien Fehr and Lily Cheng, who placed second in the ward in 2018, is believed to be very close. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

The race for a city council seat in north Toronto could be one of the most competitive in this fall's municipal election.

And two candidates, who at one time both had endorsements from the retiring incumbent, are squaring off against each other in a bid to represent Ward 18, Willowdale — Markus O'Brien Fehr and Lily Cheng.

O'Brien Fehr said he can feel it as he canvasses on one of the suburb's tree-lined streets south of Finch Avenue, west of Yonge Street.

"I think we're gaining momentum, certainly at this point," said the chief of staff to retiring Coun. John Filion. 

"And we're feeling very confident. But it is statistically, by some of the measures that have come out, an incredibly close race. So, we're not taking anything for granted."

It is ... an incredibly close race. So, we're not taking anything for granted.- Council candidate Markus O'Brien Fehr

Even a canvass out 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 have covered 50,000 doors in the community but still have work to do canvassing the 170 high-rise buildings. He bought a new pair of Brooks running shoes and he's putting them through their paces.

"I was having trouble with my joints and everything," he said, hustling down a sidewalk. "So, I went to the Running Room and said, 'I'm running, just not the kind that you're used to. What have you got for political candidates?'"

A growing community

The ward has been struggling with its own aches and pains in recent years; the challenges of development, growing levels of homelessness, and the increasing cost of living.

"Willowdale is no longer really a suburban community. We are becoming a dense, urban core," O'Brien Fehr said. "And I think some of the issues that might be more historically linked to downtown Toronto are starting to be seen here more frequently." 

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

The project, which sits adjacent to a seniors' home, has drawn anger from some residents who oppose the plan to locate it in their neighbourhood.

Council candidate Lily Cheng says she's hearing from Willowdale residents that homelessness, affordability and the cost of living are top of mind in the ward. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Candidate Lily Cheng said she understands the concerns some residents have about the modular housing project. Those residents, who live next door to the proposed development, are low income, vulnerable seniors themselves, she said. 

She wants more communication from the city about the project and homeless shelters in the ward. 

She'd also like the City of Toronto to find a better way to provide shelter services to the homeless. That could include ensuring housing is available in smaller settings with a maximum of 10 people, as opposed to larger congregate settings, Cheng said.

"I think we need to fight for solutions that work," she said. "They will be expensive, they will be smaller scale. And I really think the neighbourhood has to be part of the solution."

O'Brien Fehr said he supports the modular housing proposal on Cummer Avenue and said it's needed to help seniors in the ward.

"I think when the city is doing any kind of housing project, trying to get people housed permanently, it needs to come with a really strong communication plan," he said.

"That hasn't always been the case.… And I think it has allowed fear and anxiety to grow and thrive, where it probably should have been dealt with much sooner on."

Seeds of council race planted in 2018

Both Cheng and O'Brien Fehr first registered 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 endorsement.

But when Premier Doug Ford slashed the number of seats to 25, Filion jumped back into the race. O'Brien Fehr opted not to run against him, while Cheng forged on and finished second in the race.

Cheng, who's the executive director of the NeighbourLink North York food bank, said she feels like the underdog in the race. She pointed to some high-profile endorsements that have gone to O'Brien Fehr, including Filion's. But she said she's 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."

Coun. John Filion is retiring after 40 years in public office. (CBC News)

Filion said no matter who wins the ward, they'll face a number of issues and will need to hit the ground running.

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

"Not only for younger people who can't afford rent, and certainly can no longer dream of buying a house, but even their parents now who may be comfortably living in a nice house in Willowdale thinking, 'Gee, where my kids going to live?'"

Filion said part of tackling the homelessness problem in the ward is acknowledging the reality that Willowdale has changed, along with Toronto itself.

"Some people are kind of overly embedded in their own older version of Willowdale still being suburbia [and] very removed from the downtown," he said.

"I've noticed an unfortunate trend in recent years that some people are just very stuck in their own self interest and selfishness."

Also running in the ward are former federal Conservative candidate Daniel Lee and Elham Shahban.

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Shawn Jeffords is CBC Toronto's Municipal Affairs Reporter. He has previously covered Queen's Park for The Canadian Press. You can reach him by emailing