With a little more than a week to go until election day, public opinion polls continue to show Olivia Chow in third place in the Toronto mayor’s race behind John Tory and Doug Ford. But as she tells Humber Et Cetera, she is going to stick with a positive, progressive message.
Chow sat down for an interview last Wednesday after a debate at George Brown College and interviews with two other media organizations. She was also scheduled to attend another debate in the evening. Based on the daily itineraries that her campaign issues, this was one of her lighter days by comparison. She jokes that it takes her up to two hours to finish a tea (South African rooibos being her favourite).
Chow launched her campaign on March 12 in the neighbourhood where she grew up, St. James Town.
When she was 13, Chow immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong. Her family was not affluent. She recalled how she had to cut up a pair of jeans to make them into bell-bottoms.
Chow went on to study philosophy at the University of Toronto. However, she had a passion for the arts, so she attended the Ontario College of Art and Design and the University of Guelph, where she graduated with an Honours BA in Fine Arts.
Her first exposure to politics was around 1980 when she attended an Operation Lifeline rally in Grange Park, where activists called on the federal government to allow refugees into Canada that were being forced out of Vietnam. Ultimately their campaign was successful.
“I said, ‘Aha, this is what happens when you get together and you have the collective power to make change,’” Chow recollected.
Chow was elected for the first time as a school board trustee in 1985. Upon reflection, she said that she is proud of her work on curriculum reforms, anti-racism education and allowing children to learn in different languages.
In 1991, Chow cast her eyes on City Hall and was subsequently elected as a city councillor where she championed creating high school and post-secondary passes. She also worked on making the 911-dispatch system accessible in 140 languages.
After being reelected four times as councillor, Chow decided to seek federal office. In 2006, she was elected as the Member of Parliament for Trinity-Spadina in central Toronto. On Parliament Hill, she joined her husband Jack
Layton who was the Leader of the New Democratic Party. Layton and Chow had also served on Toronto City Council together.
During the debate she attended earlier in the day, post-secondary students raised concerns about finding jobs after graduation.
Chow proposes companies that win major contracts should be required to adopt Community Benefits Agreements. As a part of these agreements, companies would have to hire and train youths. She also proposes reducing small business taxes and removing red tape measures such as posting all city application forms online
Transit is a central issue int his mayoral campaign and the candidates have been debating between light-rail transit (LRT) and subways, with Chow firmly behind the former in most situations including servicing Humber North campus.
“We need a Finch [Avenue West] LRT … from Keele [Street] all the way to Humber College,” Chow said.
She said the new line would save 30 minutes round-trip.
“All the environmental studies are done. All the engineering studies are done. Construction is ready. Don’t stop it!”
Also central to Chow’s transit platform is a pledge to increase bus service by 10 per cent immediately. She said this could be done quickly during off-peak period times as there are fewer buses on the road, therefore buses would be available to use.
However, she admitted it will take time to enhance service during rush hours as more buses and garages are needed.
She also committed to supporting the construction of a downtown subway relief line.
Her plans have had a somewhat tepid reception from some experts. Former chief city planner for Toronto Paul Bedford told CBC’s Metro Morning, “I would have to say that they’re good ideas. I think they’re important, they’re useful to do, but I don’t think they’re ambitious enough.” When asked by host Matt Galloway to give her plan a grade, he assigned her “between a B or a B-minus.”
That lack of ambition is something others have also noticed in Chow’s campaign in general. NOW magazine editor, publisher, co-founder and co-owner Michael Hollett wrote in an open letter to Chow, “I barely recognize the woman who has been running your safe, oh-so-friendly and bland campaign. Time to let the real Olivia out of the box. You and your team broke a fundamental elector- al rule, spending the summer running like a front-runner crippled by fear of losing the lead.”
One issue where it could be said she has shown some drive in this election is governance and the behaviour of the mayor, Rob Ford.
“Change the mayor. Change the policies. Change the direction so that we can have real progress now,” Chow said.