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Mark Saunders says Toronto is 'A Tale of Two Cities' and he knows them both

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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles on the seven leading contenders in Toronto’s mayoral race, according to polls. Additional profiles will be published in the coming days.

Running for political office was an itch Mark Saunders said he had scratched after he was defeated in last year’s provincial election.

But the former police chief and Conservative candidate’s political ambitions were reignited when John Tory resigned in February.

Now, just over a year after he failed to secure a seat for the PC Party in Don Valley West, Saunders is hoping his bid to become the city’s next mayor has a more successful outcome.

In an interview with CP24.com one month before the June 26 mayoral byelection, Saunders said it was a push from his wife that ultimately led him to enter the race.

“When this opportunity arose, people were calling but I was kind of not paying attention to it,” he said.

“(My wife) would hear me bickering all the time when I would listen to politicians making silly decisions while (I was) working in homicide…She basically went, ‘You know what, you’ve got to do it. The city is not a good way and I’ve heard you year after year and your solutions are sound.’”

Saunders, who is the son of Jamaican immigrants, grew up in Milton with his five siblings before joining the Toronto Police Service in 1982. He served as the city’s first Black chief from 2015 to 2020, when he retired, stepping down eight months before the end of his contract. He is one of more than 100 candidates who will appear on the ballot and recent polls have consistently put him at a distant second to front-runner Olivia Chow.

Saunders, whose platform centres on public safety, says his leadership at the Toronto Police Service makes him uniquely qualified for the mayor’s chair.

“There are neighbourhoods right now that have been ignored and I’ve seen that along the way, where we have the gun violence. The discussions at city hall do not connect in any way shape or form to where those people are living, where mothers are afraid to put their kids out on the playground on a Saturday afternoon,” he said.

“People have said it’s the ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ I know both cities.”

But his opponents argue that his contentious record as Toronto’s police chief makes him a poor choice to fill the vacancy at city hall.

Many Torontonians will remember Saunders as the chief who dismissed concerns of a serial killer operating in Toronto’s Church-Wellesley Village just weeks before Bruce McArthur was arrested.

“My heart goes out to the victims in that particular case. It was a horrible situation,” Saunders said when asked about the investigation.

“When I spoke to that case after reading that report, I realize I spoke to the evidence, protecting that investigation. I should have spent more time listening to the community…For that I apologize.”

Some fear Saunders’ history as an officer could lead to political interference at the Toronto Police Service and many candidates have criticized his relationship with Premier Doug Ford. Ford has publicly voiced support for the former chief, who worked as adviser to the premier on the future of Ontario Place.

“I had a good working relationship with the premier while I was chief of police,” Saunders told CP24.

“I’ve always made my decisions in accordance to what was in the best interest of the City of Toronto in my role and responsibility. This is the same thing.”

Even as he vies to become the most visible public official in Canada’s largest city, Saunders struggles to shake the image of the fiercely private, buttoned-up police chief who quietly underwent daily dialysis treatment for more than a year.

His health issues came to light in 2017 after Saunders confirmed that he would be undergoing surgery to receive a new kidney from his wife.

When asked about the ages of his four children during his interview with CP24, he responded, “I’d like to keep family (out of it).”

He later confirmed that they range in age from 18 to “in their 30s.”

Saunders admitted that while working as the head of the police service, he wasn’t always eager to get in front of the camera for media interviews.

“When you understand the neighbourhoods, especially the neighbourhoods that are in need, when you are there when the cameras are rolling but never there in the other moments, you lose legitimacy, you lose trust and you lose effect,” he said.

“I spent countless times going into the neighbourhoods after or before these instances, learning about what the communities really need and they taught me a lot of things.”

Saunders said he has no reservations when it comes to being Toronto’s top spokesperson.

“This is the fourth largest city on the continent. This is a vibrant city that understands inclusion and is dynamic and we want people to come in. I’ve got no problems with championing that at all,” he said.

“This is a fantastic city. I’ve lived here. I’ve raised my family here. What makes the city great are the people. I want to make sure we have a city government to harmonize with that.”

What is your favourite Toronto bite?

Ackee and saltfish

“It is hard to find ackee and saltfish. My mom used to make the best but I actually found a spot in Sheppard’s Square that makes the best ackee and saltfish.”

Favourite Toronto event or festival?

Jerkfest and the Ukrainian Festival

Is it the Beach or Beaches?

Beaches

What was your first job?

A farm hand

“Hardest job in the world,” Saunders said.

Favourite song?

“The song I’ve been listening to a lot is Aretha Franklin’s ‘Never Going to Break My Faith.’ But I think my most wicked concert was Lenny Kravitz.”  

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