Why this 'gutsy' safe streets advocate and mother of 3 wants to take on Tory for mayor

On May 1, the start of the city's campaign season, 46-year-old activist and full-time mom Sarah Climenhaga vows to toss her hat in the ring to take on Mayor John Tory.

Sarah Climenhaga lauded for being 'breath of fresh air' in municipal politics

Speaking to CBC Toronto in her west-end neighbourhood, Sarah Climenhaga said she's signing up to run for mayor on May 1, after years as a lobbyist, Cycle Toronto outreach worker and safe streets advocate. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Last fall, Sarah Climenhaga heard news every parent fears: her son had been hit by a car.

The west-end mother of three was shocked when her 15-year-old, Jacob, came home from school and nonchalantly shared a story about being side-swiped in the bike lane on Davenport Road near the family's Humewood home.

He showed off his dented pedal — the only damage caused by the driver's careless right-hand turn — and went on with his day, as teenagers do.

But Climenhaga, both a mother and safe streets advocate, was rattled.

"I was so fortunate I didn't walk away from that being the mother of a child who was just a statistic on Toronto's streets," she said.

It was one of many moments that solidified Climenhaga's decision to enter politics for the first time by running for mayor of Toronto in the October municipal election.

On May 1, the start of the official campaign season, the 46-year-old activist and full-time mom has vowed to toss her hat in the ring to take on Mayor John Tory.

That makes her one of the first public challengers for the position Tory has held for the last four years — a role she's aiming for despite her lack of political experience and name recognition (her last name, for those wondering, is pronounced Cly-min-hay-guh).

Climenhaga and her son, Jacob, giving a deputation at a budget committee meeting in January, something she's done at multiple different city committees over the years. (YouTube)

'I want them to be safe on our streets'

Sitting in the living room of her cozy home — she apologizes for a table covered in her children's crayon drawings — Climenhaga said her decision is rooted in more than two decades of advocacy work.

That experience ranges from her stint as a wildlife conservationist after university to her more recent outreach work with Cycle Toronto and transit advocacy with groups like TTC Riders and the St. Clair Right of Way Initiative for Public Transport. 

Safe streets, not surprisingly, is her biggest passion.

"It's so crucial to me because of my children," said Climenhaga, referring to her eldest Jacob, 12-year-old Kyra and eight-year-old Thomas, her kids with husband Paul Meier, a labour lawyer who supports her run for mayor.

"I want them to be safe on our streets," she added. "Whether they're walking or cycling or crossing the road to get to a streetcar."

Avid cyclist Sarah Climenhaga's family of five during a 4000-kilometre bike trip through Europe in the summer of 2015. (Supplied by Sarah Climenhaga)

Climenhaga said her family underpins her vision for the city: a place to live that's equitable, whether residents drive, bike, walk or take transit. A city that's thriving in each of its neighbourhoods. A city that doesn't leave people behind, even as it grows.

At first blush, it's a checklist of what many candidates might rattle off on the campaign trail. So will there be a platform behind her platitudes?

Climenhaga said yes, stressing that she's a non-partisan progressive who plans to visit as many Toronto neighbourhoods as possible to build a platform based on community input in the months to come.

And, as a political rookie, she feels she can rise above the polarization common among councillors, a tone she feels is set by Tory.

"I find a lot of community energy in this city gets stopped at city hall," she added, citing the recent Transform Yonge vote that deferred safety, beautification and bike lane discussions for the stretch in Willowdale to next year.

"The community was supportive of getting a change to Yonge Street to make it more of a community place... then it all gets shut down," she said.​

Climenhaga welcomes cyclists on behalf of Cycle Toronto at the opening ceremony of a new crossing for bikes at Bathurst and Adelaide streets in November 2017. (Supplied by Sarah Climenhaga)

Climenhaga a 'breath of fresh air'

While some might question Climenhaga's lack of clout at city hall, her lived experience makes her a "breath of fresh air" in municipal politics, said Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam. "Why is it that politicians have to take a traditional role to become an elected official?"

Signing the paperwork to run on Tuesday won't mark Climenhaga's first time at 100 Queen Street West, however.

With her youngest son in tow, she spoke in support of accessible sidewalks at a joint meeting of the Licensing and Standards and Public Works and Infrastructure committees last year. During the deputation, the avid cyclist — who doesn't own a family car — said she'd willingly park her bike on the street rather than take up valuable sidewalk space.​

In an earlier deputation to the TTC board, Climenhaga voiced her support for free two-hour transfers in song lyrics she penned herself. 

"Give us two hours of breathing room," she sang in a husky tone, while strumming along on a red ukulele. "Please stop the impending doom."

Gil Penalosa, founder and chair of not-profit organization 8 80 Cities, called her gutsy.

"She doesn't like how things are going, so she wants to run," he said. "I'm amazed that there are many good people who could be running, but they've given up because they think John Tory's going to win."

That's not a sure thing, according to Climenhaga, who originally thought about running to merely raise her voice — but now, on the eve of campaign season, wants to beat Tory and land his job.

"I'm in it for a better city," she said.

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca