This is the sixth Toronto mayoral byelection race edition of Doorstep Postings, the periodic political commentary column written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.
Toronto mayoral candidate Habiba Desai is living proof that just being around Jewish people is the best way to make a lifelong impression.
“I went to Leaside High School, and I felt a real level of acceptance from the Jewish students there,” she says. “I wore hijab at that point, but the Jews I met at school were very accepting.”
It was later in her educational career when she actually encountered what she would call antisemitism. “I went to the University of Toronto Scarborough campus and participated in a slate that challenged the incumbent student government. The election was taken over by the pro-BDS student union and they were willing to use any kind of antisemitic and anti-Israel narrative in order to win. It was basically warmongering on campus, when the student union is supposed to be apolitical on anything that doesn’t affect student union issues.”
The independent mayoral candidate says she is genuinely trying to save lives: “I believe that everyone has the right to worship their faith as they wish, and if you are going to fight hate crimes, you absolutely must fight antisemitism.”
Desai, who grew up along the Danforth, has vivid memories of former NDP leader Jack Layton encouraging her to become the first female Muslim Speaker of the House. That hasn’t happened yet but she boasts quite a bit of political experience for a 30-year-old.
After her time in student government, she worked on the 2015 campaign in the riding of Etobicoke Centre as part of Tanya De Mello’s campaign. (De Mello is the current VP of equity and inclusion at Toronto Metropolitan University.) Later, she would run federally as an independent in the Danforth riding in 2021 and in Scarborough-Guildwood in the recent municipal election. She’s also been a constituency assistant for two Don Valley West MPs: Rob Oliphant and John Godfrey.
She points to having good relationships with a couple of high-profile Jewish politicians: Julie Dabrusin, the current Liberal MP for Toronto-Danforth, and school trustee Alexandra Lulka, who was once a fellow student ambassador.
Desai believes that the antidote to hate and rising antisemitism is public displays of love, as well as zealous protection of life. It’s all part of the thesis she developed in university as an international development student specializing in economics.
“We need beautiful festivals to show our diversity, and to create oversized symbols of love to counter hate with love, mercy, and self-sacrifice,” she says. “But we also have to do everything possible to protect life, all lives, even to the point of bringing back the death penalty for anyone who kills the innocent or a police officer.
“We are beginning to associate police officers with hate and violence, and the people who are most vulnerable to that violence are at risk because of someone else’s conspiracy theories. We need strict laws to ensure that the vulnerable are protected, be they Jewish people, trans men and women, or women wearing headscarves.”
Desai also favours stronger borders if it means stopping the flow of guns and shootings that are becoming more commonplace in the city. “We have undocumented people in the city, and undocumented guns being brought in. The result is that you cannot even track the people who are causing this violence, and the true scale of the chaos is unimaginable.”
Desai is aware that the mayor of Toronto doesn’t have the ability to bring back capital punishment or mete it out. But she believes that, if elected mayor, she’d be able to advocate for the sort of constitutional change necessary.
“We need new treaties with Indigenous people, new laws, and a new constitution. As politicians, we are supposed to be the ones preventing crimes. because we are all beautiful human beings and everything possible must be done to protect lives.”
This zero tolerance approach to hate also extends to protests such as the recent Al-Quds Day demonstration. Desai calls it “a hate parade disguised as a protest. There’s no benefit to an event like that. It’s horrifying, because before someone goes and kills innocent people, and all protests do is promote some voices and silence others.”
On the subject of antisemitism in schools, Desai says that the city’s board must remain absolutely apolitical. “A student club can have fundraisers for whatever cause they want, and it is impossible to stop young people from believing in conspiracy theories and disinformation, but when the Toronto District School Board buys into those narratives they are using their systemic power to influence vulnerable minds. They must especially be apolitical on any foreign issues.”
Love is the energy that can solve any problem, according to Desai. “We can bring the concept of love to development, creating day labour for projects where anyone who wants to work can come and work for a day. We can do it for the TTC, where people can watch ads on their devices and get credits on their Presto cards, ride for free and reduce isolation.
“Just like an alchemist can turn metal into gold, the energy of love can be used to make anything. We can make a trillion dollars for the city. I see this through my consulting business, where I work as a technical writer and design projects. I’ve seen the success of this program at the World Bank, through a pilot program for climate resilience.”
“I don’t care if they call me crazy,” she concludes. “We need to do something or we will be history.”
Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.