Huricane Juan
Toronto Star
  • Iceland elects new president, and gets a Canadian first lady

    In the middle of the not-very-dark Iceland night, members of Gudni Johannesson’s campaign team walked along his quiet seaside street and left notes for the neighbours.

    The gist of them was this — the country’s media, and a portion of its citizenry, will probably be showing up to meet Iceland’s newest president-elect and his Canadian-born first lady. Sorry for any inconvenience.

    “Outside of my backyard, they have set up a media marquee,” said Eliza Reid, 40, on Sunday as she stared out the window, where the rain looked like it was stopping. She explained the Icelandic tradition of people coming by to say congratulations after an election, and she laughed a little, because this was all so new. “So people are just going to come to our house.”

    Their house, in the township adjacent to Reykjavik, is large and clad with beige aluminum siding — a fixer-upper they moved into last year. They had planned to renovate, but then the Panama Papers leaks upset the course of Icelandic politics and Reid’s husband, a history professor with no history in political office, ran for president on a campaign of unity and a fresh start.

    On Saturday night, he was elected head of state of this Nordic country with 39.1 per cent of the vote.

    The next day, Icelanders clad in sensible outerwear filed into their backyard, standing near the shrubs with children on their shoulders, gathering on the street behind the backyard, awaiting their new president-elect — the first in 20 years — and his wife, Eliza Reid, who grew up on a hobby farm near Ottawa. The crowd waved flags, including one Canadian flag. Media stood on a neighbour’s roof.

    Speaking in Icelandic, Reid introduced her husband, and his speech ended with cheers and a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” broadcast live on Icelandic television. He celebrated his 38th birthday on Sunday.

    Until recently, Gudni — first names are used more than surnames in Iceland — taught history at the University of Iceland. His knowledge of the country's institutions proved invaluable amid the turmoil of the Panama Papers leak, and he made several television appearances.

    In the leaked Panama documents, Icelanders — who endured a financial crisis with the collapse of several of the country’s commercial banks in 2008 — learned that their prime minister was linked to offshore accounts. The well-heeled wife of the president was also named in the leaks. (Both the prime minister and president have said they had done nothing illegal, and the president denied knowing about his wife’s business affairs, which her lawyers noted were conducted legally.)

    The prime minister resigned in April and the president announced in May that he would not be running for a sixth term.

    People were impressed with Gudni’s presence on television, and encouraged him to run for president.

    Reid believes her husband resonated with voters because he is a likable, approachable non-partisan.

    “He isn’t trying to be something that he’s not, and people can see that,” she said. “Especially after the Panama Papers scandal, it really came to light how important it is to have a good understanding of the constitution and the role of the presidency.”

    Reid and Gudni met at Oxford University in 1998 and married in 2004. They have been living in Iceland since 2003, where Reid, a writer and editor, founded a writer’s retreat. They have four children under the age of 8, and Gudni also has a daughter from a previous marriage.

    Reid and her husband have been talking to their children about the election in abstract terms, but soon, life will be changing.

    The family will move into the presidential residence after Gudni takes office on Aug. 1. The role of president is mostly ceremonial — he will be Iceland’s head of state, promoting Icelandic culture and heritage at home and abroad, with more of a day-to-day influence than a Canadian Governor General.

    As Forsetafru, the Icelandic word for “Mrs. President,” Reid will also have a semi-official role.

    “(I’m) hoping that my background and personality and skills can bring something to the role of first lady that will also help to enhance the institution of the presidency,” she said.

    She wants to make sure the children settle into their new schools and have a constant presence in the exciting months ahead. But first, a bit of fun: Early Monday, Reid, her husband and their eldest son were waking up in the middle of the night to travel to France to watch Iceland face England at the European Championship.

    Iceland, the smallest country in the tournament, had improbably advanced to the next round because of a last-second goal. One journalist likened that moment to “Paul Henderson’s goal in 1972,” Reid noted.

    The entire country was giddy at being propelled into the tournament in such a dramatic and unexpected fashion, and on Sunday, Reid felt a similar happiness. Before her backyard filled with well-wishers, she looked forward to the new tradition. “It’s kind of fun,” she said, then corrected herself.

    “I mean, kind of fun? It’s really fun.”

    With files from Paul Hunter

  • Muslim and LGBTQ communities stand together against hatred and prejudice after Orlando shooting

    Muslims and LGBTQ people both know how it feels to be treated badly or even hated sometimes because of who they are.

    Mostly, these groups have suffered separately. But the tragedy in Orlando brought some members of both communities together on Friday night to end the daily Ramadan fast together in an expression of solidarity.

    More than 150 people gathered at The 519 community centre, on Church St. in the gay village, to break bread and denounce Islamophobia and homophobia in the wake of the June 12 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub. Outside, candles burned in a shrine for the 49 victims of the massacre, the worst mass shooting in modern American history.

    Guests sat at long fold-out tables to share iftar, the evening meal marking the end of daylight fasting. They passed around plates of spicy samosas, strawberries and dates before a larger dinner of naan, biryani and other South Asian dishes.

    “It symbolizes togetherness,” Anela Jadunandan, an activist who wore a rainbow-patterned headscarf, said of the meal. “I think this tragedy that happened in Orlando was a watershed moment. A lot of people who have been hesitant to embrace each other have realized we’re all part of the human race.”

    Muslim and LGBTQ organizers issued dual statements at the event, signed by community leaders and prominent organizations on each side, denouncing hatred and bigotry. Mayor John Tory and provincial Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray, who is gay, were there to show support.

    “As a community we stand firmly against all forms of oppression including homophobia and transphobia,” said Jeewan Chanicka, a public school principal, and Shaila Carter, CEO of the Muslim Women’s Collective, reading from a Muslim statement endorsed by Islamic scholars and Muslim writers, businesspeople and imams, including Yusuf Badat of the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, one of the Canada’s oldest Muslim organizations.

    It warned that Islamophobia is on the rise after the Orlando shooting because of the gunman’s identity: U.S. citizen Omar Mateen was the son of Afghan immigrants and an observant Muslim who reportedly pledged his support for Daesh before carrying out the massacre.

    Mateen’s identity is “sadly being used to make assumptions about all Muslims,” says the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, intersex and queer) statement. “Some are using this attack on LGBTIQ people to justify their racism and Islamophobia.” We strongly believe that homophobia cannot be fought with Islamophobia, racism or any other form of xenophobic action.”

    In recent days, a few alleged hate crimes against Muslims have made headlines, including an incident in which a woman wearing a Canada T-shirt spat on and punched a hijab-wearing mother shopping with her 4-month-old son in a London, Ont., supermarket.

    The idea for the event grew from a string of Facebook messages between Muslim and LGBTQ people, said Douglas Kerr, a community organizer and consultant to the non-profit sector. The 519 has long welcomed the queer Muslim community and has held iftars before, but Friday’s dinner was a first, according to Kerr.

    “This is a little different in the sense that non-queer identified Muslims have reached out to the queer community,” he said. “It’s wonderful that they reached out to us. It’s really heartwarming.”

    The LGBTIQ solidarity statement was signed by dozens of people and organizations including the Glad Day Bookshop, Canada’s first gay and lesbian bookstore, downtown city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and MPP Cheri DiNovo.

    After both statements were read aloud, Muslims and LGBTQ people went to the front of the hall, took off their shoes and shared the floor for the Maghrib, the fourth of five daily prayers for Muslims. For Thompson Yen, a 24-year-old architectural designer, it was the first time participating in a Muslim rite.

    “It was really touching,” he said later. “It’s important to understand that all these identities intersect and we aren’t separate.”

  • Mayor John Tory?s transit priorities face financial, political challenge: analysis

    John Tory has staked his mayoralty on a promise to usher in a new era of transit planning for Toronto. It’s a promise that will be put to a serious test in coming weeks.

    Since his election in 2014, Tory has relentlessly criticized his predecessors for bungling the transit file and insisted that under his watch the city won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. No more transit lines based on drawings “on the back of a piece of paper,” no more approving projects without a plan to pay for them, he has said.

    After a speech Wednesday to the Toronto Region Board of Trade on his transit vision, he derided politicians who came before him as “champion hand-wringers, champion ideologues, champion polarizers” who talked a lot about building new transit but never got any of it done.

    Later the same day he promised to match his own ambitious transit plans with funding to build them. “To try to fool people into thinking there’s going to be free transit ... would be something that I won’t do,” he said at an announcement of new GO stations being labelled as part of his SmartTrack line.

    “It’s not honest.”

    Yet at a meeting of his executive committee on June 28, Tory will ask councillors to do precisely what he has criticized previous city leaders for doing — move ahead with billions of dollars’ worth of transit lines, with no clear plan to fund them.

    When senior staff prepared a brief public accounting earlier this week on a network of proposed subways, light rail lines and new stations to be built over 15 years, they needed only to copy-paste: “Unfunded. Unfunded. Unfunded. Unfunded.” The shortfall currently totals at least $11 billion.

    While Tory insists he won’t accept any excuses for failing to make progress, the mayor, in lock-step with the city’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, has pitched the latest network expansion plan at a time when Toronto’s finances have hit a wall.

    Earlier this month, city manager Peter Wallace warned that across-the-board service cuts may be needed to bridge the gap between city revenues and expenses.

    “Altogether this is much more money than the city has or will have,” said Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) following the release of the updated transit report.

    “We’ve just been told we don’t have enough operating money to even run the TTC that we’ve got now.”

    And while Tory slams the “ideologues” who he says have let their own aspirations get in the way of delivering the better service residents desperately need, his colleagues have questioned whether his own transit priorities are politically compromised.

    The mayor will be challenged to justify those priorities at a council meeting next month that could see an attempted revolt over the $3.2-billion, one-stop subway extension to Scarborough that a growing number of councillors have started to doubt.

    Tory has always backed a subway for Scarborough — regardless of whether it was three stops or one and regardless of how much information was available. Fighting Rob and Doug Ford in the 2014 campaign, he promised a three-stop subway to residents as he fought for votes in the suburbs where “Ford Nation” was at its strongest.

    Within months of being elected, Tory frequently batted away questions about a lack of data to support building a high-capacity subway to the low-density suburb. When Councillor Josh Matlow, who has vocally opposed the subway, asked city staff to provide council with more information about ridership and costs, Tory was among those council members who voted to shelve his request.

    “I’m committed to the present plan for Scarborough subway,” Tory said in February 2015. “I believe it is the right thing to do.”

    But at a news conference Wednesday, Tory stepped up a recent change in his messaging, knocking the earlier lack of justification for a subway he had defended for months.

    “The only reason we’re talking about an increased cost for the Scarborough subway is because the original number was basically drawn out of a hat — a little better than that, but not much,” he told reporters.

    Tory said the subway became a “political football” years ago when the previous council backed it without any prior planning.

    Some say that hasn’t changed.

    “Definitely it’s a political football,” said fiscally conservative Councillor John Campbell (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre), one of several new councillors this term whose undecided vote could become critical. “Politically, I think he wants to get it through to trumpet the success in Scarborough.”

    And when Tory has been questioned on his continued defence of a subway, he has pointed to politics, telling Toronto Life in February he was being “realistic” because “Scarborough MPP Brad Duguid, minister of economic development, said that if anyone tries to cancel the subway, they’ll do it over his dead body.”

    Some argue there is a better way to serve Scarborough residents — a previously approved, seven-stop light rail line that would have connected the Scarborough Town Centre and served twice as many people. Fully funded by the province at $1.48 billion, the LRT would also free up the money needed to fully fund a second LRT line with as many as 17 stops along Eglinton Ave. East to the University of Toronto Scarborough campus.

    There are also questions about Tory’s signature SmartTrack plan, which he pitched during the election as a 22-stop “surface subway” that would have 15 new stops. Recent announcements revealed that the most Tory will get is a 15-stop service with up to six new stations, as part of Metrolinx’s already planned regional express rail (RER).

    The mayor argues that because one section of his original SmartTrack vision has since been deemed unfeasible and replaced with a westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT that could have up to 15 stops, he’s actually building more transit than he promised while contesting the mayoralty.

    With or without Tory, the province would have gone ahead with some form of the RER plan that will see all-day, two-way service on GO lines within Toronto. But now the city is being asked to pay for the SmartTrack portion of the project, which could run into the billions of dollars.

    Matlow, who agrees with the long-held position of city staff that a subway relief line is Toronto’s most pressing transit priority, believes the current approach is still clouded by campaign rhetoric.

    “I think city hall has been relentlessly trying to put square pegs into round holes in order to support political interests before serving people,” he said.

    “Council needs to get real and face the facts that if it doesn’t begin to prioritize and make evidence-based decisions, and put people before their own interests, they’re going to end up building very little while spending billions of other people’s dollars.”

    While Tory convinced council to institute a “city-building” property tax increase last year to raise millions for transportation and housing — which kicks in next year at 0.5 per cent — and has expressed support for new revenue tools to pay for expanding the network, so far he has not endorsed any specific new sources of revenue.

    At times, Tory sounds remarkably like his predecessor, the late Rob Ford, who insisted that transit lines could be paid for by finding “efficiencies” in city government and enlisting the help of the private sector.

    Unwilling to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation, Tory has pitched private-sector partnerships as a way out of the financial jam.

    On Wednesday, Tory stressed that any search for new revenue sources must be accompanied by “very careful” examination of city spending, and asserted that there are “billions of dollars that we’re presently spending or that are tied up in various things that might be put to good use building transit.”

    After it was revealed that the cost of the Scarborough subway and Eglinton LRT had blown more than $1 billion over budget, Tory said the city would hire a private-sector expert to review the project in an attempt to cut costs — despite the TTC already working with a third party to come up with the most recent cost estimates.

    There are no easy solutions to the city’s transit woes.

    If Tory is daunted by the size of the challenge ahead of him, he doesn’t show it. At the Board of Trade on Wednesday, he dismissed critics who questioned why his administration is pursuing so many transit projects at once.

    “My answer to that is very simple — because we need them,” he said, describing transit building as a “vital social and economic challenge” for a city that has seen rampant development in recent years without a transportation network to match.

    He’s said it’s too early for him to back any new tools as a source of funding for transit. But he promised that in time he would do so.

    “I will tell you right now I am going to show leadership on this,” he vowed. “I’m going to come forward with some suggestions for the city council’s consideration as to how I think we’re going to address this problem.”

    Lines on the map

    Toronto’s need for more transit is great, and so is the bill. The cost of planned rail projects is at least $15 billion, with more than $11 billion of it currently unfunded. Daunting as that number is, the cost could rise further. All of the projects are still in the early stages of design, which means projected costs could be off by as much as 35 per cent.


    Capital cost: Up to $1.1 billion for six new stations on existing GO rail lines. The province is also spending $3.7 billion on upgrades to GO corridors that will support SmartTrack.

    Status: City portion unfunded, but federal government has pledged $2.6 billion.

    Projected completion: Within 10 years

    Scarborough transit network

    Capital cost: Up to $3.2 billion for the one-stop subway and extending the life of, then decommissioning, the Scarborough RT. Additional $1.7 billion for an extension of the 17-stop Eglinton Crosstown LRT to U of T Scarborough.

    Status: $3.56 billion pledged by the federal, provincial and city governments, leaving a shortfall of up to $1.3 billion.

    Projected completion: Late 2025 for the subway, if council approves an alignment next month; 2023 for the LRT

    Relief line

    Capital cost: $6.8 billion for the first eight-stop phase, which would run south from Pape Station to Eastern Ave. and then west to Osgoode Station.

    Status: Unfunded

    Projected completion date: 2031

    Eglinton West LRT

    Capital cost: Up to $2.1 billion for an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT from Mount Dennis to Pearson Airport, with up to 15 stops.

    Status: Unfunded

    Projected completion: 2023

    East Bayfront LRT

    Capital cost: Up to $520 million for a 1.6-km streetcar line in a dedicated right-of-way on Queens Quay, from Bay St. to Parliament St.

    Status: Unfunded

    Projected completion: Unknown

Arts & Letters
Sunday, 12 August 2007