Photo by Yader Guzman

In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, Kiri Vadivelu lost his job. The 36-year-old had been working as a security guard at Securitas Canada, responsible for bringing in the majority of the family’s income. Suddenly he was left trying to make a $2,000 CERB payment stretch to cover expenses and rent in the Scarborough apartment he shared with his wife.

“We understand that you have bills to pay and families to feed; however our circumstances are unbearable and beyond our control at the moment,” Vadivelu wrote in a letter to his superintendent asking about the possibility of a repayment plan in April 2020. Instead, Vadivelu’s pleas were met with an eviction notice. For more than a year, Vadivelu went back and forth with the building management company, as his arrears ballooned to nearly $14,000. By then, his wife was pregnant, and the threat of being homeless with a newborn weighed heavily on him. He reached out to the Landlord and Tenant Board for assistance. Then he called his councillor—Michael Thompson.

Kiri Vadivelu, one of five challengers to Michael Thompson for the Scarborough Centre city council seat, outside his home. Photo by Christopher Katsarov Luna.

Vadivelu says he got no response from Thompson’s office. But when he saw the councillor at a March 2021 community deputation organized by the advocacy organization ACORN, which Vidavelu is a part of, he decided to address him. “I said, ‘I live in your ward, and this is what’s happening to me,’’ he says. He was being threatened with eviction, despite the moratorium in place. According to Vadivelu, Thompson told him to call his office and they would see what they could to help him. He left that interaction feeling good. But when he called, he says Thompson’s staff told him that since his dispute was being handled by the Landlord and Tenant Board, there was nothing they could do to help him.

“What really frustrated me was, I knew I [couldn’t] trust them. I knew they weren’t going to help me. But I still trusted the politician.”

Vadivelu won his case against his landlord, and the threat of eviction ended. But the situation is what propelled him to run for city councillor in Ward 21 — Scarborough Centre.

For Vadivelu, who came to Canada at 16 years old as a refugee following civil unrest in Sri Lanka, housing is one of the first things on his agenda. He says the city’s current approach to the housing crisis has been reactive. He believes in a city like Toronto, public transit should be free, and is advocating for defunding the police and reinvesting in city programs and resources. All of his proposals, he notes, are for changes he knows will make a difference in his community. “I’m a citizen,” says Vadivelu. “I’m not a career politician. I’m not looking for a career, I’m looking for change in my community.”

Two weeks ago, Vadivelu’s campaign wasn’t on anybody’s political radar. He was an unknown candidate running against one of the longest serving councillors in the city. Michael Thompson has served the ward since 2003, and won the most recent election in 2018 with close to 70 percent of the vote. In a city where incumbents win 9 out of ten times, Thompson was a lock.

But less than a month till election day, news broke that Thompson had been charged with two counts of sexual assault following an incident that took place in the Muskoka area in July. Thompson has denied the allegations and his lawyers have said that Thompson will plead not guilty. The Councillor also did not respond to The Local’s request for comment, and has remained tight-lipped about the allegations, telling CP24 that his legal team advised him not to speak on the matter. What he has said is that he will remain in the race. “I have been the Councillor for Scarborough Centre for 19 years. I’ve worked hard for this community and I will continue to do that,” he told CP24 earlier this month.

Those charges now hang over the race in Ward 21. They’ve brought new attention to Vavidelu and the four other challengers, none of whom have large public profiles, who are wondering if they’ll be able to make a dent in Thompson’s long-standing electoral success. Will voters have the allegations in mind when casting their votes on October 24? Are they willing to back Thompson’s campaign while they wait for the allegations to play out in court? Or are voters even paying enough attention to the race to notice, and will the inertia of incumbency simply roll forward and push Thompson to victory?

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When Muhammad Ayub is out campaigning in Ward 21, he says the allegations against Thompson come up in conversation. And while people don’t have all the information, they do have questions.

Ayub, who works in real estate and has worked on the campaigns of former Conservative MP John Carmichael in East York and Liberal MP Salma Zaid in Scarborough Centre, hopes to replace Thompson as councillor in Ward 21. Ayub is running on a platform of lowering taxes, preventing crime, and creating a business-friendly environment to create more jobs in the ward. He says the incumbent is a known figure in Toronto, and even across the province, so his popularity makes the news hard to ignore. “The news, for sure, has shattered the confidence of the public in the area,” says Ayub.

Muhammad Ayub, city council candidate for Scarborough Centre, believes the recent charges against Michael Thompson will matter to local voters. Photo by Christopher Katsarov Luna.

Despite Thompson’s large margin of victory last election, some voters say they have been ready for a change in leadership for years. Brian Cheung, 44, has lived in the ward for over eight years, and says he didn’t vote for Thompson in the last election. Cheung, who most recently provided administrative support for a wine and spirits importer, says the councillor is often in the news for his role as ambassador for the night economy or larger city events, and not issues that are specific to the ward. “He’s been around for such a long time, and the fact that I can’t really put my finger on stuff that he has done, it kind of made me feel, ‘Let’s give somebody else a shot.’”

But Cheung knows that because other candidates don’t have the same name recognition as Thompson, defeating him will be an uphill climb. This is the first race for three of the five candidates running against Thomspon. Paul Beatty ran in 2018, and received just seven percent of the vote, and Luigi Lisciandro ran in 2014. With a field of barely recognizable challengers, where does that leave voters looking for something different?

Hansie Daniel, candidate for the Scarborough Centre council seat, on Eglinton Avenue East. Photo by Christopher Katsarov Luna.

If you ask Hansie Daniel what he’s hearing when he knocks on doors, he’ll tell you that Ward 21 residents are tired of the incumbent councillor. Daniel is a management consultant who has lived in the ward for almost 13 years, and is running for Thompson’s seat. “Nobody wants him,” says Daniel. “They’re saying he did nothing for the ward, he’s traveling all over the world, and he’s spending money on something else.” Daniel says residents are also complaining about a lack of development in the area and limited recreational facilities, something he says he’s experienced first hand as an avid cricket player. But if Thompson does win again, Daniel says, it will be because of voter apathy, and not because voters are overwhelmingly excited about another four years of Thompson representing them.

Daniel says you can feel that apathy across the ward. “They say, ‘Why would I bother to go and vote in this election at all? That is the thinking they have.” According to an analysis of the 2018 municipal election by the Association of Municipal Ontario, voter turnout in the 2018 municipal election was 38.3 percent, the lowest it had ever been since 1982. And some predict turnout could be even lower this year.

When asked about his strategy to court voters, Hansie says he’s simply advocating for new blood for Ward 21, even if it isn’t his. “It’s better to give a chance to new people, not necessarily me. But any other new face for this ward. That’s what I say. That is my strategy.”

“I’m not a career politician. I’m not looking for a career, I’m looking for change in my community.”

Rob Davis, a former Toronto city councillor, says the chance of a political novice beating an incumbent like Thompson is very slim. “The advantage of incumbency is so tremendous,” says Davis. “So, it would require significant financial and human resources to unseat a city councillor at the best of times, but to unseat somebody with such a wide margin of victory would almost be impossible.”

Steve Wanless is a union leader and serves on the board of directors of the Wexford Heights Business Improvement Association alongside Thompson. He says the councillor has maintained success during elections by building personal relationships with community members. And during this campaigns, he does the same thing. “I think he’s probably tried to knock on every single door in the Scarborough Centre,” says Wanless about Thompson’s campaign strategy.

Davis, who has known Thompson since he was an assistant to Councillor Lorenzo Berardinetti, says racialized voters who have a longstanding relationship with Thompson are likely to stick with him, especially if they feel like he is being treated unfairly by the media when it comes to coverage of his legal issues. Thompson is currently Toronto’s only Black councillor.

According to the 2016 census, close to 70 percent of the ward population is made up of visible minorities, with South Asian, Filipino, and Black residents rounding out the top three. Scarborough is also home to two post-secondary institutions, the University of Toronto Scarborough, and Centennial College, which are in nearby wards.

Thai Dillon Higashihara, vice president of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus Students’​ Union, says the group doesn’t advocate for particular candidates but simply presents all candidates’ records on the issues to students for them to make an informed decision. While the SCSU has met with other candidates and incumbents in Scarborough, like Jennifer McKelvie, Cynthia Lai, and Gary Crawford, Higashihara says they had yet to meet with anyone from Ward 21.

But if students go by the headlines they’re seeing, there’s a chance that it might reflect negatively on Thompson at the ballot box, says Higashihara. “Students overwhelmingly have faced sexual violence on campus and off campus, and that affects everything.”

But Davis says there are examples of local politicians who have had to battle similar allegations, but still find success. One example is Councillor Gurpreet Singh Dhillon in Brampton who was found to have engaged in “unnecessary, unwelcome, and unwanted sexual touching” of a woman in her hotel room while on an official trip with the Canadian Turkish Business Council in November 2019. While Dhillon was asked to resign from his position as councillor, he has denied the allegations and refused to step down.

There’s still little information about Thompson’s case, which has yet to go to trial. As a result, Davis says, voters will not be quick to vote against him, and instead will rely on their experience with him over the almost 20 years he’s been their councillor. “I think the voters will be judging Michael Thompson in 2026 on these charges, they won’t be judging him now because we don’t know the facts.”

Brian Cheung, the community member who has been unhappy with Thompson’s leadership long before the allegations came to light, isn’t optimistic about change coming to Ward 21 this election. Instead, he’s channelled his efforts into working on the campaigns of two candidates in neighbouring Scarborough wards. “I didn’t see any chance of change here in Scarborough Centre,” says Cheung. “I think he’s gonna win again. I think he might have a few percentage points knocked off, but I still think he’s going to win by a majority.”