Toronto election: Rob Ford's legacy sparks tense exchange at Scarborough debate

Toronto’s three leading mayoral candidates met Tuesday evening in the final debate of the election campaign focused on issues facing Scarborough.

'Did it hurt the city? The numbers show no, not at all,' says Doug Ford

Tuesday night's debate was the last of the election race to focus on voter issues in Scarborough. (Canadian Press/CBC)

Toronto’s three leading mayoral candidates met Tuesday evening in the final debate of the election campaign focused on issues facing Scarborough.

John Tory, Doug Ford and Olivia Chow faced questions on a wide range of topics, particularly Scarborough’s isolation from sufficient public transit, a sewage treatment plant that has caused a stink among many residents and bringing business opportunities back to the area.

Perhaps the night’s most tense moment came about an hour into the 90-minute engagement when the following audience-submitted question was posed to the contenders: “How will the different candidates work to restore Toronto’s tainted leadership image experienced recently around the world?”

While the question did not directly reference Mayor Rob Ford, it ostensibly alluded to his admission of crack cocaine and alcohol abuse, and a number of alleged incidents that the mayor physically assaulted some of his close confidants and used a variety of racial slurs.

Tory answered first.

“I think it starts from two pretty fundamental foundations that people understand from their homes and their places work and from around the family dining table: show respect and follow the rules,” he said.

“I think over time if we have a leader that is a competent, sensible leader … it won’t take long. But there is no question our city has experienced a damage to its reputation over the last two years and I think it’s going to start at the top, and it starts with respect and following the rules.”

The answer garnered applause but also jeers from the Scarborough audience, where the Fords have experienced strong support in the past for their perceived pro-suburb positions, such as building new subway lines.

'I'm going to answer this head-on'

Ford, who is currently running second to Tory according to the most recent polling data, didn’t hesitate to address the question.

“I’m going to answer this head-on because I know what they’re talking about — they’re talking about Rob’s addiction. I’m proud of Rob for going to get help and curbing his addiction,” Ford said.

The mayor spent more than two months in a rehabilitation program in May and June.

“So to answer your question: was it embarrassing for Rob Ford? Yes. But did it hurt the city? The numbers show no, not at all. We’re on the map.”

As Chow began to give her answer, a heckler in the audience began yelling so loudly that the debate had to be halted and the audience member removed. It was unclear what the man was screaming about, but it seemed to be directed at Tory and Chow.

Similar to the other debates held thus far in the campaign, Scarborough’s lack of public transit services repeatedly came to the front.

Ford touts suburb-centric record

Ford sold himself, and his brother, as champions of Scarborough’s interests at city hall.

“I don’t think there are two people in the world that have said ‘Scarborough’ more than Rob Ford and Doug Ford,” Ford said, adding that Scarborough residents have “been totally ignored until we stepped up to the plate.”

But Tory was quick to point out that under the tenure of Rob Ford’s mayoral administration, 50 bus routes across the city have been cut — 30 of which were servicing neighbourhoods in Scarborough.

Chow said that her top transit priority as mayor would be increasing bus services throughout the city in her first weeks in office.

“Buses are what are needed for services to be restored right now. People cannot wait another four years,” Chow said.

Sewage plant contentious issue

The candidates also faced a question about the Highland Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, a highly divisive issue in Scarborough. Recently the city began transporting biosolids from the plant using trucks that run through residential neighbourhoods, which resident complain smell strongly of human waste and pose a safety threat on the roads.

Tory said he was “very uncomfortable with the notion of trucking” the plant’s byproducts and that “with technology today there’s no reason we can’t do something better.”

Ford largely agreed, saying that he voted against the trucking proposal and that he believes the trucks are dangerous to the community.

“Not to mention the smell, the odour,” he said.

Chow admitted she wasn’t as familiar with the issue as her competitors, but said she is open to exploring any alternatives that may be available for transporting the sludge from the facility.

The debate, sponsored by Global News and held at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, was Tuesday’s second. In the morning, the three leading candidates sparred over real estate issues, such as the land transfer tax and the city’s relationship with developers.

The election will be held on Oct. 27.