Joe Friesen (The Globe and Mail):
Two months before Toronto Mayor John Tory personally donated money to sponsor a refugee family through a group called Lifeline Syria, his staff warned that the mayor could not lend the group the support of his office.
Mr. Tory said Friday he has joined a group of five citizens who pledged $27,000 through Lifeline Syria to privately sponsor and resettle a Syrian family. But e-mails between the mayor’s chief of staff, Chris Eby, and the organizers of Lifeline Syria show a tense back and forth about whether the mayor would attend the group’s launch in June. On the eve of the event, Lifeline organizers were told Mr. Tory’s name should be removed from publicity materials and that, although he would sit in the audience, he would not speak publicly or to the press, according to documents obtained under a freedom of information request.
Mr. Eby told Lifeline organizer Ratna Omidvar just hours before the launch he would pull the mayor’s support if his conditions were not met. “Our position is firm – the Mayor will attend but he will not speak from the podium nor will he be mentioned/quoted in any media or public facing materials,” Mr. Eby wrote. “Please confirm that this is how we’ll proceed. If not, we will have to reconsider the Mayor’s attendance.” Draft news releases and speakers lists that featured Mr. Tory had to be scrapped.
The mayor apparently disregarded the advice and ignored the discord behind the scenes. He arrived late to the event in June and took organizers by surprise when he walked to the podium and spoke out strongly in favour of the group’s plan to resettle 1,000 Syrian refugees in Toronto. Mr. Tory described the initiative as “what we’re about” as Canadians, and recalled his travels across Canada during the resettlement of tens of thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia in 1979. In recent days, other mayors, including Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi and Winnipeg’s Brian Bowman, have praised Mr. Tory for his leadership on the refugee file and his willingness to take a stand for refugee resettlement.
“The email exchange reflect[s] staff exercising appropriate caution about an organization that – at the time – it knew little about. We have subsequently learned a great deal more and the Mayor’s support for the organization and its efforts is self-evident,” the mayor’s communications director, Amanda Galbraith, said in a statement.
The June e-mails said that although the mayor’s office was happy to lend moral support, conflict-of-interest rules restricted what he could do or say. “The Mayor cannot use his position or the weight of his office to further a private fundraising effort, no matter how noble or worthy the cause,” Mr. Eby said. It’s not clear what, if anything, changed between then and now, or whether the reference to conflict-of-interest rules was merely an attempt by the mayor’s staff to wrest back control over the arrangements.
Ms. Omidvar, chair of Lifeline Syria and executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University, has known Mr. Tory for years, as she pointed out in the correspondence. She replied by saying Lifeline Syria is not a fundraising effort but a citizen mobilization effort to raise funds to sponsor refugees. She also asked whether she would be allowed to acknowledge Mr. Tory from the podium.
“It will be strange if I don’t. People know his face,” Ms. Omidvar wrote. “Can I say that his presence is a signal of his interest and support?”
Mr. Eby said it would be fine to acknowledge the mayor. If the press asked him a question he would express his support for the organization and its goals, he said.
Mr. Tory had been encouraging of the initiative as early as February, the documents say, when organizers began meeting once every two weeks to co-ordinate their efforts.