Ali Momen is known for his work in the Mirvish production of Come From Away, an on-stage musical that tells the real-life story of the 7,000 airplane passengers from all over the world who were grounded in Gander, Newfoundland in September of 2001.
The hit production that has been packing theatres for several years now was, like most theatres and concert venues, halted due to the COVID19 pandemic that is still keeping the performing arts industry in limbo.
During this lockdown, Ali Momen saw his chance to fulfil a dream of getting into politics and representing the people of Ontario. With a strong background within the Toronto-St Pauls riding, he took it upon himself to try for the Liberal candidacy of that community.
We got a chance to chat with Ali about his decision to run, why Toronto-St Pauls, and why he is the best man for the job.
What made you want to enter politics?
It was something that was sitting in me for a very long time, even before the pandemic. I really had this kind of a need and a desire to really give to the community. I remember, before the pandemic hit and doing Come From Away, I had a conversation with the resident director, and this was at the time when we were figuring out what we were going to do for next year. I told her personally that there is something spinning inside me, this real desire to commit to the community and to take all the blessings that I’ve had in my life and the life that I’ve lived and the skills that I have amassed, and to actually put it towards something bigger and greater than myself. Once the pandemic hit, obviously, that’s when that need and drive and desire became very urgent for me, and it became just intense.
More importantly, the large question you ask yourself always is why me? Why not somebody else? Because I think everybody, lots of people, have ideas of what they want to do, whether it’s affordable and available childcare, whether it’s ending the pink tax, which is something we’re thinking about, or whether it’s transportation and all these ideas, but you ask yourself like, “Why me?” I think that what I can specifically bring, and the big thesis and idea that I have, is what happens if politics intersects with creativity, humanity, empathy, joy? It’s about also the process in which we engage, which is something that I feel that I could bring to the table.
How has this year, COVID, affected you and your peers in the performing arts industry?
Oh, it has been what many consider a near extinction and a near catastrophic event. Culture, just in our country, accounts for 650,000 jobs. It’s 3% of our entire GDP, which is more than forestry. Nothing against forestry, but it’s more than forestry. The most incredible thing … and this really pertains to Toronto-St. Paul’s … is that each job in culture begets 3.8 other jobs.
The perfect way to think about that is what happens when you engage with it. You don’t merely just go to the show or go to the concert hall or go to the gallery. You take an Uber or a taxi to get there, or you take public transit. You meet before to get a drink, and then you maybe get a dinner after. The economic activity that surrounds culture is really huge.
The thing for me when you ask that question, I don’t just think about what it’s done to artists, for instance. I think beyond that, and I go, “What has it done to our local communities and our local economies?” We were doing Come From Away, and just the theatres, the businesses around those theatres, they have suffered immensely. It’s not just the theatres, it’s all the economic activity that culture can bring. Yeah, so it’s been a big deal.
Why Toronto-St. Paul’s?
Yeah, so Toronto-St. Paul’s, I grew up near it. I grew up near Forest Hill. It was the first place I had a beer at the Rose and Crown. My first date was at the Il Fornello. I couldn’t afford it then. The first place I learned to speak Shakespeare professionally was at the Tarragon Theatre, so I worked there a lot. I spent a lot of time there, growing up around a very large Jewish community. Most of my childhood friends are Jewish. I’ve been to Holy Blossom for bar mitzvahs and but mitzvahs, and trying to dance salsa on the West End.
The other thing about Toronto-St. Paul’s, really, is as much as I just really love that community and I love the people there and I’ve spent my time there, and I feel that as a riding, it’s not just the riding I want to represent, but it’s also the riding that very much represents me, the totality of all my experiences. Including, as I mentioned, the places that I’ve worked and the places that I’ve been, but also the immigrant communities in Toronto-St. Paul’s that very much remind me of my childhood growing up.
Coming from Iran, at the age of three with my family, no money, figuring out how to make it in a whole new world, a whole new language and all that stuff. These are people that I get, all of them. It’s such an interesting riding.
The other thing I’ll say about that riding, did you know that the number one, the most concentrated demographic in Toronto-St. Paul, is single folk, people that live alone? That is actually something that we are really looking at, in respect to our policy creation and stuff like that.
What do you think can be done to go back, to get the riding back on track, back voting Liberal, and making sure that the Liberal Party secures that riding?
Sure. I think there are two things. Number one, obviously you want to bring back the Red. You want to bring back the Liberals who may have voted, for whatever reason, for the NDP, perhaps to kind of taper down Doug Ford. That is possible. The other thing is we need to be proposing future and forward solutions, which is what the Ontario Liberal Party is up to right now. They’re doing this thing called Take The Mic, in which Ontarians all across the province can contribute to the platform that they want to have. That’s very important.
Then the other thing that’s really important as members of the Liberal Party is to actually go to those individuals who vote for NDP. I have a lot of friends who are NDP, being in the arts, of course. When you actually go and you actually sit, and you actually talk and you communicate with them and you express what the Ontario Liberal Party is about, what we believe and how we want to do it, it’s a big sell, to remind people that governance is both about ideas and both about policy, but it is also about getting it done.
If you go back and you look at the history of this province, there truly has been one party that has been the best at actually getting it done. People want to get results. That’s the thing you’ve got to do.
Why do you think you’re the right person to take on this riding? What will you bring to the table?
Well, there are three big pillars that we are thinking about. The big notion is that I believe that we have to start thinking about the future and setting ourselves up for success. If everyone in Toronto-St. Paul’s can close your eyes and imagine what it would have been like if we had a premier who had forward-looking thinking, who acted instead of reacted, just imagine where we would be.
We found out recently that David Williams only in the summer accepted asymptomatic transmission. That’s unacceptable. Japan was basically running their entire models and their entire public health policy on this fact, in January. It’s about making sure we have a type of thinking that is correct and a type of thinking that is nimble and agile.
In terms of policies, we have three pillars. The first one is live local. It’s not just shop local, it’s live local. When you talk to constituents all across Toronto-St. Paul’s, they’re worried about two things. They’re worried about big-box stores and they’re worried about big tech. What they’re seeing is that their local neighbourhoods and their local communities are being thwarted, and they’re losing to these big tech companies or these big-box store companies.
At the end of the day, if we don’t do what we can do to make sure that our local communities thrive … whether it’s with affordable housing, whether it’s with incentives to help businesses and support to actually be in this type of modern economy, in which it is both digital and it is real life … there are tools that we can give them to do that, so that they don’t have to rely on Uber and DoorDash.
Then also, one of the things that we are proposing because of the world I come from, because of what we spoke to in respect to culture, we are thinking of an idea of an arts and culture tax credit. Right now, if you and I were to give $1,000, let’s say, or $100, to a not-for-profit arts institution, what would happen is that you and I would get a tax receipt. That’s amazing. If you and I were to spend $100 and go see a show or go to a gallery or go to a concert, we don’t get that tax receipt. Now, I understand you go see the show, but is there a way that we can incentivize and encourage people to get out of their homes and to go interact with society, and see what that can do for the local economies? Because that’s a really big thing.
The second thing is we’re thinking about the notion of the digital present. It’s not just the digital future. It is the present. We are here right now. The digital present has just a bunch of important things. First of all, we’re thinking business grants and training to turn brick and mortar stores into a hybrid model, essentially turning all local businesses into flower shops. Flower shops, you can go inside the store and you can pick up some flowers, but flower shops all have a digital aspect to be able to do their business.
How do we turn Shop Local to something that isn’t just about community and altruism, but it is also as convenient or at least close enough and equivalent to something like Amazon? Because if we don’t do this, Amazon will win. I have nothing against Amazon. I was one of the first people to get Amazon Prime. I love technology, it’s amazing, but how can we make sure our local economies are able to also be a part of this?
Then quality broadband as a human right. Right now, we have people all across our riding, particularly individuals. A lot of people don’t know, Toronto-St. Paul’s, the median income is $37,000. A lot of people have this idea that Toronto-St. Paul’s is made up of primarily wealthy people. There are very wealthy people, but that’s not everybody. The median income is 37,000. Those kids who live in those houses, those kids who are living in those apartments, they don’t have access to really great broadband, a lot of them.
I teach at George Brown and I have Zoom classes with students. They all have broadband, but the individuals who don’t have good broadband, they’re very much behind. We need to rethink what we consider to be broadband, not just in terms of access but also in terms of quality.
Then we are thinking about computer programming for kids into our education system, because there are studies showing that kids who learn to code, not only is it better for them in the job market eventually, but it also exercises their reason, it exercises their creativity.
Then, sorry, this is a long, long question, but we have a lot of ideas over here. The other thing is creating a level playing field, and that’s about equity over equality. That is recognizing that equality is everyone being on the starting line the same, but equity is about making sure everyone can reach the finish line. That is a huge, important thing for our society. That is when we start talking about affordable and available childcare.
The reason we say that isn’t just because it’s the right thing to do, that it’s the just thing to do, but that if women contributed as equally as men into our job market, 100 billion extra dollars would be added into our economy. When more people are able to reach the finish line, society thrives. It’s just more talent. It’s just more businesses open. It’s just more ideas expressed. Those are the three big things I’m thinking about Toronto-St. Paul’s.
What about provincially? I guess on a provincial level, what kind of changes would you want to put forward or support if you were part of the team?
Definitely transit investments. Help with affordable housing is something that the province can do. Affordable and available childcare is something that is definitely in the purview of the province. It’s something that we 100% need to accomplish. Then, as I said, the notion of business grants and supports for small businesses, not just to get them through this tremendous thing. I just read that small businesses have $135 billion in debt right now, liabilities through this. It’s really difficult, so we need to support these small businesses, but also how do we make sure that these small businesses, as we move into the digital present, quote-unquote, that they’re able to thrive.
There was an amazing program federally done by the Liberals called the Digital Main Street. What it did is it gave small businesses a grant, and also coupled with webinars and training to turn their existing business into that hybrid model, to create a digital main street. Because it’s very, very, very, very important to do that, because as I said, the solution can’t be DoorDash and Uber. A lot of people don’t understand that DoorDash and Uber, even with 30% that they take from the restaurant, even the $4.99 fee that you and I pay, they’re still not making profit. They’re not making profit. The reason they do that is because their model is very much to just grow, monetize later.
It’s the same thing we know with our Netflix. When Netflix first came out, it was what, $7.99. I’ll never forget. How much is Netflix now, $19. Right now, what you think DoorDash is doing right now, be aware that the plan isn’t to keep it like that forever. The plan is to make it so ubiquitous that you have no choice and you’re going to end up paying more. Not only are our businesses going to suffer, we’re going to suffer because of it. We need to create that circular, local economy, and the province can help.
Also, to the relationship that the province has with the city, that’s something that can be. Toronto is a world-class city and it’s huge. To start, asking questions about if there are certain things, a conversation to start, about whether or not Toronto can have a little more of a say in its own destiny.
Okay. I want to rephrase one of my previous questions a little bit, but in terms of you being the right person to take on this riding, what kind of skills or what kind of experiences do you think make you a better person for this job than your peers?
Yeah, sure. I’ve had many experiences in my life. I grew up an immigrant with no money. I became a Canadian citizen. I’ve run the gamut of probably every single experience that the majority of people in Toronto-St. Paul’s have done. Also, where I come from, I come from a world in which I believe that the best idea needs to win, and it doesn’t always matter where it comes from. I believe that we need to start listening to each other again, and I believe it is important for us to disagree without being disagreeable.
I believe that we can really create something, a campaign that is deeply inclusive, that is open to whomever, and at the same time, really to create a campaign that can and will hopefully energize and electrify and politicize a whole swath of people who do not vote. What was interesting about this entire summer for me was there’s this idea that people, primarily young people, don’t care and that they’re apathetic. If you looked out your window this summer, you saw young people, all walks, all stripes, all colours, caring and marching and going and politicizing.
I say to myself there is beyond just the people, 18,000 or so, who voted Liberal in the 2018 election. There is, in my opinion, a swath of people who are not voting, that if you gave them the right message and if you gave them the right candidate, they would come out in droves. They are the future of this riding and this country and this province.
Why are so many people voting for federal liberals and not voting for provincial liberals?
The easy answer is that, oh, it was a strategic vote, but I don’t want to rest on that. The strategy with us is not to rest on that. The other thing is this riding has huge turnover. Every two years, people are just leaving, so who knows where they’re going? This sense and this idea of what you have in the riding, I think it’s really important for us. Yes, definitely get those Liberals to come back, 100%, because this is a traditional Liberal riding. I think we have to also go beyond that and recognize that there are thousands upon thousands of people who didn’t even vote, because they felt it didn’t matter.
Here we are in this pandemic. As someone who knows personally that when government manages things better, when there’s efficacy in government, it really makes a big difference, so how can we articulate to those people? How can we tell them that you getting out, you voting, you changing the government that we have right now, is incredibly beneficial to you? This summer really inspired a lot of people to act after George Floyd. It was a big deal. How can we remind people? Don’t be apathetic. Get in. Organize, mobilize, politicize, as Killer Mike says. You know what I mean?
How can readers help and how can they get involved, whether it be in your campaign, your riding, or really any riding in Toronto?
I’m going to speak generally about something really fascinating. 18,000 people voted Liberal in the provincial election. At the nomination meeting, only a thousand people showed up. A lot of people don’t know that you have the ability to actually choose who is going to be on the ballot, not just the party. It’s important for people to recognize that, because it gets them more engaged in the process and it starts to hopefully open people up.
Look, if you live in Toronto-St. Paul’s, I want you to go to alimomen.ca and register to nominate for me. However, I also believe that it doesn’t matter what party you’re in. Even if you’re not going to nominate me if you’re a Liberal, get involved. Join a party, and shape the destiny of this province. Because we’ve got to get to a point where we have to start realizing that what you think and what you do are two different things.
I think, especially now with social media, we could quote tweet our way through the day all day. I just did 10 quote tweets today. I felt really good about myself, but you know what is actually going to make you feel really good about yourself? Go and nominate somebody. Get involved in a political party. I suggest the Ontario Liberal Party and I suggest you nominate me, but even if that’s not the case, engage. Get in there. It’s really great.