Meet 3 newly elected Ontario officials 25 and under who are looking to make a difference

Left to right: Michael Ford, Kelsey Santarossa and Cam Galindo. Global News

As Ontario‘s municipal politicians begin a four-year term on Saturday, councils and school boards across the province will see a slew of new representatives.

Voters went to the polls on Oct. 22 to cast ballots, filling 2,658 positions in more than 400 provincial municipalities.

According to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, 6,645 candidates in total ran for office, and joining the ranks of experienced politicians are several new legislators with a more youthful perspective. This comes amid a continued effort across the country to get people in their teens and 20s to be more engaged in civic affairs, especially at the municipal level.

Global News spoke with two new councillors and a public school board trustee who, after very different journeys, found electoral success — and they’re all 25 or under. They shared their perspectives on their paths to elected office, campaigning and their priorities for the term.

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First election campaign leads to victory

Kelsey Santarossa is preparing to be formally sworn in on Monday as a councillor for the town of Lakeshore, Ont., a community of about 37,000 people located just east of Windsor on the shore of Lake St. Clair, and it’s a day that has been in the making for almost half of her life.

Santarossa first got involved with her municipality at the age of 14 as a youth councillor, working with other young people for eight years on projects such as the rollout of a no smoking bylaw, the creation of a summer movie series in the park for youth and families and the organization of teen dances.

Santarossa said the youth council and her experience in the election have shown her that her generation wants to make a difference.

“Even just going door-to-door throughout the campaign, I met a lot of people who are young and engaged … We have youth that want to get involved, but it’s something that we need to create the platform for them to do so,” Santarossa told Global News in an interview.

Kelsey Santarossa, recently elected councillor of Lakeshore, Ont. Kelsey Santarossa

It was part of that desire that led to Santarossa being approached to run for office in 2014. She was 20 at the time, and Santarossa said she wanted to get more real-world experience. The young politician eventually graduated from the University of Windsor with a major in modern languages (Santarossa is fluent in French and Spanish and is able to read Italian) and went on to be a language assessor working with prospective students for her local public school board. She also co-owned an ice cream store on the beach with her sister. Santarossa currently works as a community engagement co-ordinator with her local workforce planning board.

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Despite the passage of time, Santarossa’s desire to serve politically remained.

“It may lend itself to the assumption that I’m a career politician by 25, but I don’t like to look at it that way at all,” Santarossa said.

In 2018, she was approached to run for office, and the young councillor decided to run in Ward 3, an open race and a densely populated area in the town.

“My campaign was simple in that it required a lot of time, but it was all about knocking on doors,” she said.

“I was going every night after the day job, all day on weekends, recruiting family members and friends to come out with me, put T-shirts on and just make sure our feet were really on the ground.”

Santarossa said she ran against three others with varying degrees of past political involvement. She said the second-place finisher in her ward was also a newcomer to the campaign, suggesting there was an appetite for change locally.

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“Because we’ve had similar representation and even similar candidates, regardless of whether or not they’ve been elected, we see those same faces,” she said.

“It’s great to see their dedication to the community — I will never, ever speak poorly of that — but there is that sense our municipality is changing.”

Santarossa said that her age did catch some people off guard, but ultimately, she credited her work and volunteer experience, along with a strong canvassing strategy, as factors in her success.

“At 25, being a young woman, going door to door and introducing myself, sometimes those eyes would get really big and go: ‘What do you mean you’re the candidate? You’re not canvassing on behalf of somebody else, you’re it?'” she said.

“You have to explain to everybody, ‘Yes, I may be young. Yes, I may be a woman. And I am also qualified, ready, motivated, enthusiastic, so let’s take it on.’

“Logistically, I would say to anybody considering it, focus your time on getting out to knock on doors and introduce yourself to people. Second, focus on the things you can control; that was the hardest lesson I had to learn throughout the campaign.”

After taking office, Santarossa said she wants to reactivate the youth council in Lakeshore and establish a network with similar groups across the province and around the country to encourage youth participation in government.

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She also highlighted growing infrastructure issues in the area, noting many from the Greater Toronto Area are starting to flock to the waterfront community.

“If I have residents that are happy with the amount of traffic going down their streets, and we have enough traffic control measures and we don’t have any flooding when we get major storms and we increase a little bit of the commercial development in the municipality, I’ll be very satisfied,” Santarossa said.

The young leader also said she wants to see more attention given to the area’s francophone community, calling the recent provincial announcement to cut a proposed French-language university and French service “unfortunate” and “a real shame.”

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Meanwhile, Santarossa said she hopes her campaign serves as an inspiration for those thinking about running.

“I saw this funny thing on the internet the other day: ‘More millennials are expected to take part in politics,'” she recalled.

“Well, based on my understanding of time, that’s inevitable. But I think the sooner that happens, the better.”

‘It’s important to learn how to lose before you can win’

Cam Galindo is preparing for a swearing-in ceremony at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s headquarters on Monday, but the seat he now holds was not the one the 24-year-old originally sought when he began campaigning.

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Galindo, initially wanted to take a second run at being councillor for the city’s upper Stoney Creek ward. In 2014, as a 19-year-old McMaster University student and a volunteer with numerous community organizations, Galindo kicked off his first bid to be councillor.

“This happened at around the time when I started realizing that a job in politics is something I should more seriously consider because you really have a broad impact on the community,” he said.

“It’s a lot easier to advocate for issues and make those political issues during election season if you’re the candidate … on the other hand, it was also to build a foundation for this year.”

He came third out of a field of nine, just shy of 460 votes behind the first-place finisher in the open council race.

Galindo described the campaign as a growing snowball, saying it took him aback. However, the aspiring councillor said he took lessons away after the loss.

“For someone who didn’t organize a campaign, didn’t have a website and, suddenly, to have a full-blown campaign with volunteers and donations coming in and doing a bunch of outreach, it was a huge experience for me,” he said.

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On May 1, the first day of nominations, Galindo filed his paperwork to run again in the same ward — vying to take on Doug Conley, the councillor who beat him in 2014. However, Brad Clark, the former representative who vacated the seat in 2014 to run for mayor, sought to make a comeback. Clark eventually went on to win the race.

Going into the 2018 campaign, Galindo said he felt he had a good advantage. But with Clark’s late entry into the race, he said the dynamic changed.

“I had four years to prepare. That was a big difference … I had to build a campaign team, strategy and approach,” he said.

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“I realized that running for trustee was a position I was better suited on, based on my experience in the community. If I like it, then we’ll look at other options down the road. I think I’m right where I need to be right now.”

Galindo added: “There was definitely the political pressure I was feeling, essentially having two incumbents in the race.”

The aspiring politician filed his papers to run as a school board trustee before nominations closed. He ended up beating a former school board trustee and MP by almost 400 votes. In the end, he said he doesn’t view his new job as a consolation prize.

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“Being a trustee is a huge honour because, in my opinion, it’s one of the last real public service jobs in the community,” he said.

“The influence that you have in shaping all the policy here locally is big. At the end of the day, we’ll be ones on the front line advocating for changes to the province, to the curriculum, to standing up with teachers.”

Cam Galindo is seen inside the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board’s headquarters. Nick Westoll / Global News

The role of school board trustee at the HWDSB is technically a part-time job, and elected officials are only paid a $5,900 honorarium. Galindo said he will be doing other part-time contract work while also trying to get his master’s degree.

The young trustee said he is looking forward to delving into the research and policy parts of the job, given his degree in political science and his personal background.

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“I’m bringing a lot of perspectives and voices that are traditionally not present at the table, especially when it comes to discussions on education here in Hamilton,” Galindo said.

“It’s important to me to be clear about who I am and the communities that I am rooted in … [My experiences] inform who I am. I’m not defined by the fact that I’m a refugee, I’m not defined by the fact that I’m gay or the fact that I lived in poverty.”

He added: “I want to continue to break down those barriers and try to normalize the system so people feel comfortable with who they are … My way of giving back is getting politically engaged.”

Galindo, who is one of two visible minorities on the board, also talked about his journey to Canada and how it shaped him. He and his family immigrated to the United States from Colombia in 2001 amid serious personal safety concerns. However, after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Galindo said his family was forced to relocate again.

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“We were hoping to start a new life. We were essentially illegal aliens, and at the time, as illegal aliens, going to university was like impossible. Finding reliable employment is very hard still, and the constant fear of being discovered and deported was something that my parents had to deal with as a reality,” he said.

“After 9/11, when everything got that much more difficult, they made the decision again to leave everything behind and this time we headed north … we claimed refugee status at the border. It took a few days, but I remember the day that I finally came into Canada, I felt I was at home.”

When it comes to the important issues facing the board, Galindo said there will likely be a discussion on the Ontario government’s decisions to revert to the 1998 sexual and health education curriculum and to launch provincial consultations. These were issues that frequently came up during Galindo’s campaign.

“It’s challenging because curriculum is strictly provincial-based. It’s all politics at the end of the day,” he said.

“The curriculum that came into effect in 2015 was very good. It was very modern. It was based on consultations from thousands of teachers, educators, students, parents; they already did the consultations. Sex ed and talking about gender identity, sexual identity, orientation was [a small part] of the curriculum.”
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Galindo said he would also like improve special education supports, increase political engagement with residents and ensure work continues on physical improvements to schools.

For anyone contemplating a run for office, Galindo encouraged people to register — or help behind the scenes at first.

“Hard work does go a long way if you’re willing to put the effort in, maximize the resources you have — financial- or network-wise, or just having feet on the ground,” Galindo said.

3 elections and 3 wins over 4 years

He might only be 24 years old, but Toronto Coun. Michael Ford is already a campaign veteran.

The young politician most recently found electoral success after defeating Vincent Crisanti, a two-term councillor looking to return to city hall, in the Oct. 22 election. As representatives of two neighbouring wards, the pair found themselves running against each other after their constituencies were merged as a part of the Ontario government’s move to restructure city council and slash the number of wards to 25 from the previous 47.

Making the race more interesting is Crisanti’s relationship with his opponent’s family. Michael is the nephew of Premier Doug Ford, who led the downsizing of council, and his late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford. Crisanti was an ally of Doug and Rob.

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TORONTO ELECTION 2018: Ward 1 Etobicoke North

“We’re getting right down to business trying to help people … We are still family friends,” Michael recently told Global News in an interview as he described the transition with Crisanti and his office.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be about him or I. It was going to be about the community. If the roles were reversed and if the community chose Councillor Crisanti, I would be fully behind him.”

When it comes to running election campaigns, Michael became immersed in the world of public office early in life. His first taste of politics came from watching his grandfather, Doug Ford Sr., who served as an Etobicoke PC MPP. In the years that followed, his uncles eventually sought office — something he said inspired him.

“I saw all the hard work my Uncle Rob did, Doug as the councillor up here, it really ignited a passion in me to get out and serve the people,” Michael said.

READ MORE: Michael Ford rides coattails of uncle Rob and Doug

“Rob took care of every single person who called his office from across the city, and I have taken that approach. Of course, the emphasis being on my community, most definitely, but we will do everything in our power to help everyone across the city.”

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Michael credited that personal touch with residents, something synonymous with the Ford family brand, as a key pillar of his political philosophy.

“The one thing I have done and I will continue to do is continue that one-on-one customer service with myself as their councillor,” he said.

EXTENDED: Coun. Michael Ford reflects on family, political life

Click to play video: 'EXTENDED: Coun. Michael Ford reflects on family, political life'
EXTENDED: Coun. Michael Ford reflects on family, political life

Before becoming a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustee in 2014 at just 20 years old, Michael said he worked as intern for Rob’s press secretary during high school and went on to study at Wilfrid Laurier University and Humber College. Growing up, he was raised by mother, Kathy, and his grandparents after his father was convicted of manslaughter.

Less than two years into Michael’s term as a trustee, Rob died after a public battle with cancer. Michael, then 22, ran in a byelection later in 2016 to succeed his uncle — a contest he won with more than three times the amount of votes taken by the second-place finisher.

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“At that moment, I definitely had a good footing on the priorities of our community, what we need to be working on and where our community is going,” Michael said.

He said he often thinks about his uncle, noting that he frequently drives by the Etobicoke cemetery where Rob is buried.

“As I head up to do my constituency visits, I would give him a little beep along the way,” he said.

When it comes to policies and projects he plans to work on this term, Michael said he wants to focus on the second phase of the Woodbine Casino, the revitalization of Woodbine Mall, investments in the Islington and Rexdale communities and completion of the Finch LRT project — with the goal of extending it to Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Another priority area for Michael is tackling crime-related issues, as Toronto has experienced a record-high homicide rate in 2018.

“It’s sad … It is awful to hear the stories and what is happening and these numbers,” he said.

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Michael called for increased investment in community services, adding he wants to see a “balanced but aggressive approach.”

“It’s not about putting more police, more police, more police. But it’s also about supporting the work that they do, which I don’t think government has,” he said.

Ford lamented the loss of the controversial school resource officer program from Toronto police, saying it “breaks” relationships between youth and police. The TDSB ended the program in 2017 after a report found students felt intimidated or uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, when asked about his advice for those interested in entering public life, Michael has a direct offer to aspiring politicians, whatever their age.

“I would send them a personal invitation to come by my office. Let’s grab a coffee. Let’s chat,” he said.

“I don’t care what your political beliefs are. We’ll sit down and, of course, I encourage everyone to get involved.”

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