Jennifer Keesmaat, John Tory square off at Toronto debate on the arts

Jennifer Keesmaat is using a mayoral debate on the arts to launch sharp attacks on John Tory's transit plans and leadership amid a labour lockout.

5 candidates take the stage for Mayoral Arts Debate 2018 at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat used Monday's ArtsVote debate to sharpen her attacks on John Tory. (John Rieti/CBC)

Jennifer Keesmaat used a mayoral debate on the arts to launch sharp attacks on John Tory's transit plans, and his leadership amid a labour lockout.

Candidates Keesmaat, Tory, Sarah Climenhaga, Saron Gebresellassi and Gautam Nath took part in Monday morning's ArtsVote debate at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in the downtown core. The event marks the first mayoral debate of a 2018 municipal election that's been rocked by the province's plan to slash the size of Toronto city council. 

Keesmaat argued supporting the arts requires moving people around, and said Tory's SmartTrack plan is as good as dead with the new Progressive Conservative government at Queen's Park — Premier Doug Ford, she added, will put a flower on its grave.

"You can't fight conservative cuts with a conservative mayor," she told a movie theatre full of debate watchers. 

But Tory defended the plan, which was the signature proposal of his winning 2014 election campaign, and fired back at Keesmaat.

"You supported SmartTrack until you were running for mayor," Tory told the former chief planner, before urging the debate to get back to "regularly-scheduled programming."

Keesmaat also criticized Tory's handling of the ongoing lockout of IATSE Local 58 stagehands, which resulted in fewer people going to the Canadian National Exhibition this summer. Tory responded that he's called on the union and Exhibition Place's board to get back to the bargaining table and said he hopes there's a solution soon for the "valued" workers.

During his remarks, Tory highlighted a number of cultural success stories that had taken place during his first four-year term as mayor, and vowed to work with the arts community to look at increasing the amount of per capita funding the sector receives.

Sarah Climenhaga seconded that, saying her three-point plan for the arts would be: "Investment, investment, investment." 

"It makes good business sense to do it, so we shouldn't be arguing against it at all," she told an applauding crowd.

Mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi called on the city to commit to providing more arts funding for neighbourhood improvement areas across the city. (John Rieti/CBC)

Gebresellassi focused on getting arts investment into Toronto's most marginalized communities, possibly by investing in studio spaces in neighbourhood improvement areas.

She also called for the city to commit to funding Sistema Toronto, which provides free daily programs to 275 students and their families in Parkdale, Jane-Finch and East Scarborough. Late this summer, the provincial government cut $500,000 in funding for the program, saying the money had been authorized by the former Liberal government without proper approval.

Maxine Bailey, TIFF's vice president of advancement, is moderating the debate.

The debate was organized by ArtsVote Toronto, a volunteer coalition of non-partisan artists, culture workers and arts supporters.

John Tory, centre, shakes hands with mayoral candidate Sarah Climenhaga following the debate. (John Rieti/CBC)

The debate was briefly interrupted when mayoral candidate Faith Goldy, who wasn't invited to the debate, walked onto the stage to booing from many in the audience. A Toronto police officer escorted her off stage moments later.

A spokesperson for ArtsVote told CBC News that all mayoral candidates were invited to fill out a survey ahead of the event. Goldy did not, and was not considered to be part of the debate as a result. Goldy was not invited to the debate, the spokesperson added, and had bought her own ticket in order to attend.

There are 35 people running to be Toronto's next mayor. Election day is Oct. 22.

With files from Lauren Pelley, Muriel Draaisma