A Toronto city councillor is defending his use of the term “cockroaches” to refer to residents of the Jane and Finch community, even as two top mayoral candidates slam the remark and civil liberties groups warn it has the “hallmarks of hate.”
During an interview with the right-wing outlet Rebel Media, Giorgio Mammoliti fielded a question about how to handle “thugs” living in subsidized housing.
“I see it like spraying down a building full of cockroaches,” said Mammoliti, a long-time councillor in North York. “The cockroaches are just going to scatter. So start evicting them, let them scatter. Because their particular strength is when they’re in a community like Jane and Finch. So my approach is going to be: scatter them. Evict them. Get ‘em out of Jane and Finch completely.”
In an interview with VICE News, Mammoliti doubled down on his comments, saying the upcoming election was about “keeping it real” about what needs to be done in order to get rid of gun violence in Toronto and “gangbangers who seem to love preying on our children and using social housing as their venue to do that.”
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He also said his comments were taken out of context — that he was referring to a small percentage of “bad guys” who have been “harboured” by Toronto Community Housing Corporation and should be evicted immediately. Mammoliti wants to knock down the buildings and convert them into a mixed income development.
“Anybody who has chosen a life of gangbanging and selling drugs to children… I would say to you they’re the ones I’m referring to and if people want to pretend they’re not as bad as I know they are, then so be it, but I believe they’ve got the devil in them and I’ve got no room for them in the Jane and Finch corridor.”
In an email to VICE News, Toronto Mayor John Tory said, “Councillor Mammoliti's remarks are completely unacceptable in any context.”
Mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat called the comments “abhorrent.”
“It is an attempt to dehumanize people and there's no place for that in our city, and no place for it in our politics," said Keesmaat, a former chief planner at the city who was also a target of Mammoliti during the Rebel interview. He compared her to a floor mat and said the only thing she had going for her was that she is a “good looking lady.”
Some critics have gone as far as to say the comment should be considered hate speech, criticizing it for invoking language historically used to justify genocide.
Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, Director of Equality at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, called the comments “reprehensible” but couldn’t offer a firm legal opinion on whether or not they would meet the criminal code definition of hate speech since it has to involve not only something hateful being said, but also the wilful promotion of hatred. She pointed out that while “there’s obviously a racist dog whistle,” it’s debatable whether or not a group has been singled out. Who exactly Mammoliti is referring to is coded, she said.
But she says whether it meets the legal definition isn’t what matters.
“What matters here is that you have a city councilor who is comparing people — and Jane and Finch is known to be a racialized black community for the most part — to vermin. And he is talking about a method of addressing an issue through extermination,” she said. “When he’s talking about spraying for cockroaches, that’s called extermination.”
“If you look at some of the tests that have been made in relation to the [provincial] human rights codes, there you have a number of hallmarks of hate: the comparison to vermin and talk about a violent solution would certainly both qualify as hallmarks of hate,” she continued.
Discrimination under provincial Human Rights Codes usually refers to the context in which the Code applies — for example in relation to employment or public space or apartment rental — then perhaps you might be looking at something that meets the definition for hate speech in the provinces that prohibit hate speech in these areas. But Ontario has no such prohibition.
This comes two months after Toronto Mayor John Tory referred to shooting suspects as “sewer rats,” amidst a spike in gun violence in the city.
The upcoming municipal election in Toronto has been mired in controversy — it’s still unclear how Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s plan to cut down city council from 47 councillors to 25 will unfold, and among those running are candidates like high-profile white supremacist Faith Goldy.
Cover Image: Toronto Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti at Toronto City Hall. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail.)