John Nunziata’s calling beckons him again, this time to serve as mayor of Canada’s largest city – and fifth largest in North America – if elected on November 10, 2003. Nunziata, who is back from a two-year hiatus in politics, launched his mayoralty campaign January 29 at his high school alma mater, the west-end Toronto Runnymede Collegiate.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters on the same grounds that saw him capture his first election – that of student council president some 30 years ago – he renewed his vows with political life, this time pledging to curtail high property taxes, crack down on crime, fight poverty, and clean up scandal-plagued City Hall.
The motley crew of candidates jockeying to replace the ever-bungling yet endearing Mel Lastman also includes former GTA Mayor Barbara Hall, City Councillor David Miller, Rogers Cable CEO John Tory and Toronto’s former budget chief Tom Jakobek. Early polls and unofficial bets have positioned Nunziata second in running to city hall, meaning that it might come down to a match between the white-haired lady and the avid marathon runner himself.
Renowned for his intransigence, pugnacity and integrity, John Nunziata is a compelling candidate for this fall’s mayoral election. Married with three children, Nunziata is no stranger to municipal politics; he first entered the political arena at age 23 as alderman for the city of York in Toronto, while still in law school. In 1984, he was elected as a Liberal member of Parliament and re-elected three times for a total of 16 years in federal politics. In 1997 he was elected as an independent to the House of Commons, an event that made him stand out even more from the crowd.
“Maverick,” “Rat Packer,” “renegade” and “lone ranger” are some of the appellations bequeathed by the media to describe Nunziata over the course of his notable political career. In the 1980s he was a fiery member of the opposition to Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives, best known as a “Rat Packer” along with Sheila Copps, Brian Tobin and Don Boudria. In 1996 he was booted out of the Liberal caucus for voting against his party to protest the failure to scrap the GST. A dissenter intent on seeing his election promises realized, he was seen as a party-pooper in the eyes of the Liberal Party, but a man of conscience in the eyes of the electorate. However, he now points out that he has evolved from that period when his aggressive style and vigour made him a force to be reckoned with in Parliament.
Meeting him at Mandrake, a Toronto management consulting firm where he serves as Vice-President, Nunziata exudes an honest charisma and intelligence, while speaking in an unfeigned, assured, and cordial manner.
He talks about a “fair deal for Toronto” with such plans as mobilizing City Hall to revamp the city’s economy and social infrastructure; and as a non-partisan mayor, strengthening relations with senior levels of government to ensure bigger cash flow from Ottawa and Queen’s Park. Other ambitious aspirations include transforming the eastern waterfront into a recreational and sports oasis, supporting the Toronto Island Airport expansion, and “thinking big” with regard to arts and culture. His campaign strategy includes embarking on a “listening tour of Toronto,” to better gauge the concerns and ideas of the city’s various communities.
ACCENTI: How did your decision to run for mayor of the city of Toronto come about?
John Nunziata: My parents tell me that when I was eight or nine years old I said to them that I wanted to be a politician and a lawyer. And I was always encouraged by my parents, certainly my dad. The day I was born he became a foreman on the railway in Revelstoke, BC, so I was the lucky baby… I always enjoyed being part of the public process, making a difference. That’s why I’m running for mayor; firstly because it is the most important level of government today in that it impacts more directly on the quality of life in the city on me, my family and my children. When you think of all the things that impact on how you enjoy your life, how you lead your life in the city, those decisions are taken at City Hall – whether it is recreation, public transit, the prevention of crime, garbage collection, snow removal, services, the environment. And so I’m absolutely honoured that I’m in a position to make a difference, to be a candidate, a serious candidate for mayor. I feel very positive about the endeavour I’m involved in now, and if everything goes right, I’ll be mayor on November 10.
ACCENTI: You have been quoted as saying that you want the public to see you as a supporter of “ordinary people, working people.” What do you mean by that?
John Nunziata: I am the son of immigrants. My dad came to Canada in 1950 alone. He came to a country that he didn’t know much about, but it was an opportunity. It was for a job the railroad, the CPR, had advertised in Napoli. He had three kids at the time, and so the plan was to come and scout it out – the new land of opportunity – and then, if things were okay, for my mom and my two sisters and brother to come over. He came by boat to Halifax and then took the train straight across the country to a small town in the mountains called Revelstoke. Life was pretty harsh. My mom came over about a year later and that’s where I was born. We never considered ourselves poor, but when I look back now on how we were able to survive with seven children, just my dad working outside the house, it’s quite astonishing. We didn’t have a whole lot; all of us had to contribute. From the moment we were able to work, we paid room and board which is kind of a strange concept today. I don’t think children today pay room and board, but that was the way it was. We all worked! That was one thing our parents instilled in all of us, the importance of hard work. My background is such that I relate to ordinary people. So that’s who I want to represent, just average people in the city. I don’t want to be perceived as being the candidate of big business or the candidate of Bay Street, although I have a lot of supporters on Bay Street and in big business. I just want to be considered someone who wants to represent the people that I can associate with and relate to – the immigrant community in this city, which is the face of the city today… I want to represent their hopes and aspirations, what they want for themselves and for their children, and I think I can make a difference.
ACCENTI: What qualities do you have as a mayoral candidate that the other candidates do not?
John Nunziata: I’m not one to make promises I can’t keep; I tell people the way it is. I’ll state my position. And while people might disagree with me, at least they will know where I’m coming from and what my views are. I’ll be very frank. I think my voice would be a strong voice for the city of Toronto; locally, provincially, nationally, internationally.
ACCENTI: What are the three most important areas of your platform that you want the public to know about?
John Nunziata: One of the keys is getting a new deal, a fair deal, for Toronto. We simply cannot rely on homeowners and businesses to continue to finance the things that we have to do in the city. We have some serious problems; Toronto is a magnificent city but it’s not living up to its potential. We’re at a crossroads now, and what we need is the provincial and federal government to recognize that we do need financial help. One of my major objectives is to negotiate a new deal, a fair deal, with the provincial and federal governments. What I hope to do is to bring all these individuals together and ultimately to negotiate a deal with the federal and provincial governments that would see us get, for example, a share of the gasoline tax and a share of the income tax, so that as we grow, as our economy grows. I’m confident that that will happen. The second major issue is community safety – crime in our community. People live in fear in this city, especially women. We’ve had some high profile crimes, we’ve had gang murders, we have a proliferation of guns on the streets. The third one – that’s to deal with the social problems, the homelessness in Toronto. I refuse to accept the status quo, and I will be a tireless critic and strong voice against social injustice. I see homelessness as an example of social injustice in this city in that we’ve come to accept as part of day-to-day life people living in subzero weather on the streets of Toronto. That tells me that our social welfare system doesn’t work. And it’s not the role of these agencies to protect the less fortunate in our society. It’s the state’s responsibility. So my objective would be to close food banks. I think that’s the mark of a humane society and there are ways of dealing with the homeless in this city .
ACCENTI: What has Mel Lastman failed to achieve during his tenure as mayor of Toronto?
John Nunziata: Mel Lastman will be remembered for his enormous contribution to North York and the city. He had some personal problems, but he was mayor at a very difficult period, through the amalgamation, the growing pains of bringing six municipalities together. But I think most people in this city now want to look forward to the future and embrace the future as opposed to dwelling on the negatives of the past or some of the difficulties we’ve had in the past, and that’s what I intend to do.
ACCENTI: Your website, www.johnnunziata.ca, states that your goal “is to involve the individual member of Toronto’s communities in the processes of decision making which affect all our lives.” How do you propose to do that?
John Nunziata: I’m going to have an open door policy at City Hall. I think it’s important. As part of this campaign, for example, I’m now involved in a listening tour. I’m going to talk to the people of Toronto in bars and caf豠and libraries and church halls and union halls and on the phone, and on the internet – to listen to what people have to say. I have a very busy schedule already, but I invite groups and organizations to invite me to their events. I think the process of governing and leading is a two-way street.
ACCENTI: If you are elected mayor of Toronto, how would you see the role of Toronto’s Italian Canadian community in terms of its contribution to the city?
John Nunziata: Obviously as a Canadian of Italian origin, I’m extremely proud of my roots. But there are many other immigrant communities in this city, people from other parts of the world who have come and contributed significantly to the building of this city. As far as the Italian Canadian community is concerned, it’s my culture, it’s the culture I grew up with, and I hope to bring to the life of this city some of that Italian “joie de vivre.” Italians are obviously highly respected, not only in this city, but across Canada, and they have a lot to contribute. I have some ideas on how to recognize the diversity that we have in this city and that not only includes Italians, but Greeks and Portuguese and Chinese and people right across the spectrum.
ACCENTI: What is your strategy for attracting the so-called ethnic vote?
John Nunziata: Outreach is important. I’m not starting from ground zero, or from scratch. I’ve been working all my adult life, twenty years in politics, so I’ve developed some very close relationships with a lot of communities, and I think I have a good understanding of some of the issues that are important in most communities in this city being able to connect on a certain level with people so that there’s an understanding when people talk about racial profiling, for example. The Italian community not long ago was profiled because it was an ethnic community, and there was a negative stereotype attached. I remember as a child my dad being profiled. So, it’s a little easier for us to understand what it means to be discriminated against. If you’ve never been discriminated against on a racial basis, it’s kind of hard to understand what it’s like. A lot of people pay lip service to it, but I’ve lived through it, so I think I have a deeper understanding of it.
ACCENTI: During your political career, the media has called you a maverick, lone ranger, Rat Packer, renegade and populist, among others. Do you want voters to be reminded of any of these epithets in this election?
John Nunziata: Sandra, I am who I am, and I’ve obviously evolved as most people do. As you get older your views are modified, your approach is modified. The fact is when I was a young politician, I was pretty aggressive, and I think a group of us, the “Rat Pack,” were pretty effective in what we did – so much so that we caused six or seven ministers to resign. I think we fulfilled an important public service and we were good at what we did. I was recently referred to as a lone ranger. I happen to like the lone ranger, but I guess it’s because of my stand on the GST. I also wasn’t afraid to speak up in favour of my constituents. I wasn’t afraid to disagree and I wasn’t one to tow the party line.
ACCENTI: Questionable practices by government bureaucrats and politicians have dogged the municipal government recently – namely the MFP computer leasing scandal and allegations of bribing practices, unregistered lobbying and conflict of interest issues. What will you do to restore trust in the municipal government and enforce accountability and ethical conduct on the part of public officials?
John Nunziata: You have to lead from the top. There are some concrete measures you can take in order to help achieve certain objectives and to ensure that there is a high standard of probity at city hall. A lobbyist registration system is important; a code of ethics, a code of conduct. Also there has to be strong sanctions against those who breach the standard. Ultimately, the culture has to change at City Hall. Right now we have a culture where it is appropriate for pressure to be brought to bear on the decision-making process. People are influenced. Lobbyists are hired because of their ability to influence councillors and I think it’s just gotten carried away. But if you lead by example at the top and if people want to exert influence, I think it should be done in an open fashion so that everyone knows. If you’re going to go play golf with someone who wants to do business with the city, you can’t very well say no golfing. But certainly you can say during a certain period there are inappropriate communications. What I hope to do is restore integrity so that people will have confidence that there is a level playing field, that there is fair play.
ACCENTI: According to census data, Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in North America. Forty-four percent of the city’s population is foreign-born, ranking it higher in ethnic diversity than cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Sydney. However, immigrants in Toronto face many hurdles: finding work and adequate housing, adapting to an unknown city, overcoming the language barriers among others. If elected, how will you support Toronto’s newly arrived immigrants?
John Nunziata: Immigration is a federal responsibility. Often, when immigrants come to Toronto, there’s a huge call on City Hall to provide services. This is something that is very important to me, because I lived through it as an individual. As a child my parents lived through it, so I know the importance of the support services that you need. I’m a strong supporter of immigrant aid programs, and I would be a strong voice to ensure that the federal government, through the immigration department, lives up to its responsibility – because if Toronto is strong, the country is strong. What makes Toronto strong is the immigrants, and I refer to all of us as immigrants.
ACCENTI: LaSalle Investment Management, a Chicago-based company, has ranked Toronto first in economic strength in North America behind 36 other cities such as Atlanta, Las Vegas and Vancouver. How do you intend to keep Toronto’s economy strong and prosperous and a leader in North America?
John Nunziata: That was a great ranking, obviously. LaSalle Bank is one financial institution. We want to be recognized world-wide as an economic powerhouse and there is a lot we can do in order to ensure that that happens. I want to make sure that Toronto’s economy is one of the strongest, if not the strongest civic economy anywhere in the world. One of the things I intend to do, the moment I’m elected Mayor, is to declare Toronto open for business, and to do a complete program review to get rid of red tape in order to ensure that we help with the entrepreneurial spirit, with job creation, with economic activity, because we all benefit.
ACCENTI: What is your position on the waterfront revitalization?
John Nunziata: Absolutely critical. And I would accelerate the development. Clearly, it needs leadership. Actually, I’m quite intrigued by a proposal that’s been put forward by amateur sports associations in Toronto under the leadership of Denis Mills. They have a proposal to turn the eastern lands, waterfront east of the city centre, into what they call the green city of sport’ – a magnificent waterfront with all kinds of different sports facilities, along with some mixed use housing. What I don’t want is a wall of condominiums; we’ve already messed up the central waterfront, and the eastern docklands should be for people, all people, not just for people who can afford to live down there. We have an opportunity to create a legacy for our children, and the green city of sport’ is a concept that I am enamoured with.
ACCENTI: What are your views on the Toronto Island Airport which has been a controversial project?
John Nunziata: I support it. I think it’s important to support the development of the airport with some limitations; of course. We have the opportunity that a lot of cities don’t have, and that is to have an airport at the city’s edge, and the economic benefits are overwhelming. There will be some people who might not be happy with it, but I think in terms of the overall good public interest, it’s a positive thing.
ACCENTI: Toronto has become a world-class cultural city on a par with New York, London and other great cities. We have many festivals and events relating to film, literature, music, dance and theatre that are renowned around the globe. How will you support this city’s culture and the arts, and how will you ensure that Toronto continues to develop into an artistic and cultural world capital?
John Nunziata: I think the first thing is to recognize how important culture and the arts are to this city, and I recognize the importance. I’m inclined to accept that one of the greatest strengths of our city is our diversity and our culture – our collective culture. As you point out, Sandra, our arts are second to none. But I think what’s lacking is pizzazz, spark, cachet. I think what people have to do is think big, as opposed to think small.
ACCENTI: Many argue that independent artists, filmmakers, writers, painters, playwrights, dancers, as well as small theatre, dance and production companies are the source of this city’s cultural energy. As mayor of Toronto, how will you support this vibrant segment of cultural expression?
John Nunziata: This is a conflict of interest. What I would want to do is sit down and talk to all the people you have just mentioned and see how I could help. That’s part of my campaign, it’s a listening tour and I want to know what some of the solutions are, some of the ways that the city can be helpful, how the mayor can be helpful. Sometimes it’s as easy as lending moral support or the mayor’s office support, or the mayor’s wife. My wife is someone who I think is going to play a pretty significant role in charities and the arts, doing fundraisers, helping bring a touch of class to Toronto. Ultimately, it’s all a question of priorities; but it’s not just the arts versus the homeless. I think you have to have a balanced approach to society building or city building. You don’t just build great cities by building big buildings. It’s the culture, the arts along with the physical infrastructure, along with the transit system, along with the people and how you treat the people. I’m prepared to listen. I don’t have any built-in negative biases.
ACCENTI: Many are predicting that this race will be the closest in years. How do you plan to keep ahead of the other candidates in your pursuit of the mayor’s chair in the city of Toronto?
John Nunziata: I’m a long distance runner and I’ve run marathons. I think a lot of the principles that apply to marathon running also apply to this marathon or this political race. I think it’s important to stay focused and to recognize that it is a long run, and to ensure that the positive energy is maintained, and that there is a certain degree of pacing throughout the campaign, to continue to have momentum and not to be diverted, try to stay on the messages I want to get out, the themes that I want to emphasize in the campaign. I remember Simon Witfield, our Olympic gold medal triathlete, and I remember a phrase that they used to describe him and that phrase was “a flair for the finish.” He loved being in second place throughout the race and he would just turn on the after burners in the final stretch. And that’s how he won the Olympic gold. So that’s my objective. I’m apparently running second now in the polls, which is a good place to be, and I hope to accelerate the campaign to the point where I can just turn on the after burners in the days before the election; and on election day to be the first across the finish line.
Sandra Danilovic is a Toronto freelance writer and filmmaker.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 2.