The Anti-Ford: Kristyn Wong-Tam believes Toronto is in better shape than you’re being told | Toronto Life

The Anti-Ford: Kristyn Wong-Tam believes Toronto is in better shape than you’re being told

The Anti-Ford: Kristyn Wong-Tam believes Toronto is in better shape than you’re being told

In her first year on city council, Kristyn Wong-Tam hogged the spotlight with proposals to ban shark fin soup, save bike lanes and found a municipal bank. She’s a charismatic lesbian immigrant art lover who once lived on the street—the exact opposite of our mayor in every way

Kristyn Wong-Tam | The Anti-Ford
(Image: Naomi Harris)

The first time Kristyn Wong-Tam clashed with Rob Ford, she lay down on the carpet outside his office in protest. It was March 2008, and Ford was a councillor from Etobicoke, an outspoken character on the fringes of city politics with a talent for alienating his colleagues. Earlier that month, Ford had famously delivered a rambling speech in support of the economic advantages of holiday shopping hours that could have been cribbed from a 19th-century pamphlet about the Yellow Peril. “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines,” Ford said on the floor of council, punching the air with his fist for emphasis. “I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.”

That last phrase rankled Wong-Tam. At the time, the 36-year-old Chinese-Canadian was a successful realtor with no ambitions to become a city councillor, a job she saw as demanding far too much time for too little compensation. She did, however, have a long history of rabble-rousing—for gay rights, for women’s equality, for immigrants’ rights—and she believed that Ford’s comment was a xenophobic stereotype that needed to be corrected. She decided to ask for an apology.

After her emails and phone calls went unanswered, Wong-Tam brought a group of around 20 Asian protesters down to city hall. Showing a talent for media-friendly political theatre, they walked down to the press gallery wearing white dress shirts and ties, what Wong-Tam called the “Asian office uniform,” and announced they were looking for Councillor Ford. “Essentially, we’re a group of people who are working very hard,” Wong-Tam quipped, walking to Ford’s office as members of the press trailed behind her. When they found that Ford wasn’t in the building, the group brought out various contraptions—blenders, sewing machines, toasters—and lay down to sleep beside them. Cameras flashed. The video ran on loop on CP24 all afternoon.

In council two weeks later, after Wong-Tam delivered a petition with 260 signatures, Ford finally stood up and gave what is surely one of the least apologetic apologies recorded. “Working like a dog,” he insisted, was a compliment. And if “Oriental” was such an offensive word, why was it used by so many mainstream institutions? “One of my Asian constituents brought this to my attention over the weekend,” he said, brandishing a junk mail flyer like the key piece of exonerating evidence in a murder trial. “At No Frills they’re advertising ‘Oriental Flavour, 100 per cent pure corn starch.’ ” The Speaker told Ford his comments didn’t constitute an apology. Ford insisted they did. She again asked him to apologize. He said he had already retracted his statement and challenged the chair, who was backed by council. “Sorry,” Ford finally said, quietly. “All right,” said the Speaker, sounding like a tired parent too worn out to keep fighting. “I will accept that as the apology.”

Up in the gallery, Kristyn Wong-Tam watched the whole affair unfold with more incredulity than anger. The protest had been her first time challenging a Toronto councillor’s actions, and it was surreal. “I started to wonder: how does someone like Rob Ford get elected?” says Wong-Tam. “He just seemed like an anomaly. The other councillors I had met—right wing, left wing, centrist—they were thoughtful, you could talk to them. And then there was Rob Ford.” Wong-Tam had received her belated apology, but she left council shaking her head. “It’s quite astounding,” she said to the Toronto Star. “I realize we’re not going to get a reasonable response, because we’re not dealing with a reasonable person.”

As strange and infuriating as it was, Wong-Tam’s experience helped create the faintest shadow of an idea that, over the next few years, slowly took on substance. When she told friends she was toying with the idea of running for council in 2010, they threw her a surprise party with a “KWT for 2010” banner. It was the nudge she needed. Wong-Tam put her real estate career on hold, knocked on the door of every house and condominium she could find in Ward 27 Toronto Centre–Rosedale and won a hard-fought race against 14 other candidates.

Kristyn Wong-Tam | The Anti-Ford
Wong-Tam shares her condo with a menagerie of pets, including a turtle named after Margaret Atwood. (Image: Naomi Harris)

During her first months at city hall, Wong-Tam transformed herself from a trouble-making outsider into a charismatic, intelligent and determinedly conciliatory voice on council. As an openly gay, arts-loving immigrant woman with a genuine up-by-her-boot-straps backstory, she’s the antithesis of Ford. She’s also a media darling who is being touted as a future mayoral candidate. She’s a crusader, yes, but an exceedingly polite one. When she talks about the mayor today, she is circumspect. “I actually like the mayor very much,” she says. “I think he’s doing everything he believes is right for the city.” She pauses a moment. “But I don’t have the same vision as him.”

“Everyone thinks Calgary is going to eat our lunch,” Wong-Tam says, “and meanwhile all I want to do is eat New York’s lunch”

After a year under Ford, a year in which the question of how to reason with an unreasonable man has grown ever more urgent, the emergence of Kristyn Wong-Tam has been a revelation. While Rob Ford perfectly encapsulates one vision of Toronto—a small government with correspondingly small ambitions—Wong-Tam has quickly come to embody another.

Kristyn Wong-Tam wakes up early. Like many high-functioning people, she needs little sleep—just four to six hours a night—and the pre-dawn hour when the rest of the city is in bed and the world is quiet has always been her favourite time of day. It’s also the one time she can be completely alone.

Wong-Tam is a youthful 40, with nickel-sized hoop earrings she’s worn for decades and dark chin-length hair. She favours slacks, always, with tweed jackets and open-collared shirts or else vests or sweater vests. She lives in a roomy but not particularly ostentatious condominium in a downtown mid-rise, just a five-minute walk from city hall. Since 2004, Wong-Tam has owned a small downtown gallery named KWT Contemporary, and she also fills her condo with art. There’s a collection of ink drawings by the Cuban artist Omar Rodriguez Santos, a minimalist field of red by the Argentine-American painter Sebastian Spreng, a resin sculpture above the bathtub. She keeps the rest of her collection in five storage lockers. “I’m a collector, what can I say? It’s kind of a problem,” she admits.

For an art lover, Wong-Tam keeps her office at city hall surprisingly sparse. In December, a full year into the job, the wall hangings were still propped on the floor, sitting next to thick grey binders filled with past city budgets. The only thing on the wall was an enormous map of Ward 27. It’s the largest of the downtown wards by population and one of the most diverse in the city, stretching from the working-class neighbourhood of Moss Park up past Yonge and Dundas, through the gay village, all the way to Rosedale. It’s also the busiest ward for new development, and Wong-Tam spends far more time than most councillors meeting with developers and city planners. Her evenings are filled with multiple community events. “She’s one of the hardest-working councillors at city hall,” says Mike Layton, a fellow freshman who sits next to her in the council chamber.

Wong-Tam likes to say her ward is the “beating heart of the city.” It has certainly been a hotbed of multiple clashes pitting the suburban mayor against downtown councillors. “Right now city hall is completely out of touch with the urbanism and energy that I feel in our neighbourhoods,” Wong-Tam says. “We’re in a period of cultural renaissance and transformation. And to have city hall talk about everything being broken?” She lets the question hang in the air. “Calgary is going to eat our lunch. Vancouver is going to eat our lunch. And meanwhile all I want to do is eat New York’s lunch.”

Most people’s first glimpse of the rookie councillor came during the fight over the Jarvis Street bike lanes last summer. In a public works and infrastructure committee meeting, John Parker, a Ford ally, quietly moved to kill the lanes without talking to Wong-Tam or anyone in her ward. For Wong-Tam, who is devotedly policy-minded, the decision was shocking—a sneak attack designed to score political points rather than a considered approach to city planning. “I couldn’t imagine going into another councillor’s ward and making a decision like that without consulting them,” she says.

In council a few weeks later, while cycling advocates wearing bike helmets crowded the chambers, Wong-Tam defended the lanes. Instead of playing to the crowd and grandstanding about cycling infrastructure, Wong-Tam gave a passionate defence of her bigger plan to revitalize Jarvis Street. In her opinion, the fight wasn’t about bikes versus cars or suburbs versus city. It was about careful urban planning versus a knee-jerk political agenda. “I’m trying to bring prosperity to the downtown east side so that it can connect back to the prosperous downtown,” said Wong-Tam. “It would be shameful for us to disregard community voices.” In the end, Wong-Tam lost the vote, but her intelligent articulation of an ambitious urban vision got people’s attention.

Kristyn Wong-Tam | The Anti-Ford
Left: Wong-Tam with her younger sister Dianne and parents, Tak Kwan and Mee Ling, in Hong Kong; right: in a 1993 NFB documentary about gay and lesbian youth.

In city council and committee meetings, Wong-Tam speaks coolly and with the marked precision of someone who has learned English as second language. Unlike some politicians, who seem to physically expand in the company of their adoring public, Wong-Tam is a quieter presence. She describes herself as an introvert. (Her friend the novelist Farzana Doctor dismisses the claim with a laugh. “Kristyn an introvert? If she were an introvert she wouldn’t like spending so much time with people.”) Like most successful realtors, Wong-Tam has the gift of convincing complete strangers that she’s someone they can and should trust. When she works a room, she does so not by filling the space with her own presence but by flattering you with her genuine attention. She is a listener. You leave a conversation with the feeling that your ideas and concerns have been carefully attended to. Councillor Adam Vaughan has known Wong-Tam for years and endorsed her in the election. “She’s completely likeable from the minute you meet her. She is as loyal and as principled as anyone I’ve ever met, but she’s also more fun and more mischievous,” he says, citing her “Oriental” protest as evidence.

Wong-Tam, unlike many public figures, readily discusses her personal life. When I asked if entering politics had changed her life, she told me how her two-and-a-half-year relationship with an acupuncturist named Renee Pilgrim ended last September—“It can be difficult to date a politician, especially someone who spends as much time with their job as I do,” Wong-Tam offers as a partial explanation for the split. She lives alone now, with a cat named Artemis, two turtles—a bruiser named Otis Red Ear and a smaller, feisty creature renamed Ghenghis Atwood following the dust-up between Margaret Atwood and Doug Ford—and a blond poodle–cocker spaniel mix named Frances. She credits Frances with saving her life. In 2000, after a major breakup and the deaths of her grandmother and her black lab, Wong-Tam says she became depressed. “The loss of these epic loves happened in such a short period of time that I didn’t know who I was crying for from one hour to the next. It felt like I wept for everyone,” she told me via email. She didn’t emerge from her room for three days. When she finally did, she drove up the highway blindly with no destination in mind until she saw a sign that said “Puppies for sale.” She entered the farmhouse and saw Frances, the runt of the litter, in a cardboard box. “From that date forward, my depression lifted. Both Frances and I started to get stronger.”

The story is characteristic of Wong-Tam, who is unabashedly emotional and empathetic. To describe her as a bleeding-heart liberal feels not like an insult, but fairly accurate. She is the kind of person who says of troubled teenagers, “If I could extend my arms around the world and cluster these kids together I’d give them a big hug.” It’s such an oddity in a politician that your first response is a twinge of embarrassment and the thought that someone so sincere and unguarded has no place in politics, where tough decisions need to be made. Your second thought, moments later, is that maybe sincerity and a deeply felt commitment to the underdog are precisely what you’d want from someone charged with making those tough decisions.

When Wong-Tam tells you her life story, it’s through the lens of public policy. Her experiences have shaped her politics, and her politics, in turn, have influenced the way she makes sense of her past. When she explains why her family left Hong Kong when she was four years old, she says it was because of a lack of affordable housing. “My mom and dad plus two children and in-laws were crammed into a 400-square-foot apartment,” she says. “I always want to make sure that people have access to housing.”
Wong-Tam’s father, Tak Kwan, found work as a chef at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Montreal, but because he wanted his kids to grow up speaking English, the rest of the family settled in Toronto, near Regent Park. Wong-Tam’s mother, Mee Ling, worked in a garment factory on Carlaw Avenue while her father took the train home to Toronto every weekend. The Wongs were close-knit and self-reliant in the way particular to immigrants who have left their entire social networks. The family was Buddhist but also open to other religions and eager enough to join the local community that they sent Kristyn to Sunday school at the First Baptist Church until she was a teenager. Wong-Tam was a voracious reader and a bright student, the kind of kid who seems quiet until she delivers a speech on Florence Nightingale in front of the school. She looked after her younger sisters, Dianne and Cyndi, while her parents worked late. Dianne, who’s two years younger, remembers Wong-Tam helping them with their homework, spending hours at the library, taking them to swim at the local community centre. “When I talk about the importance of saving city services, it’s from personal experience,” says Kristyn.

When she was 16, Wong-Tam spotted a tiny ad for a support group called Lesbian and Gay Youth of Toronto in the back pages of Now. She was tomboyish and had always known she was different, but “gay” was a word she’d never been able to use to describe herself. She cut out the ad, folded it into the tiniest square imaginable and shoved it deep into her wallet, terrified that someone would find it.

A few weeks later, while walking to the library, a friend of her sister’s began a meandering confession. “I know this guy who has this disease,” he began, according to Wong-Tam. “He has AIDS?” Wong-Tam asked immediately. “No, he doesn’t have AIDS. He’s got a different kind of disease,” the friend said.

“And I said, ‘He’s gay.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, he’s gay.’ And I said, ‘He’s you!’ And he said, ‘I’m gay.’ And I remember saying, ‘Me too.’ It was the first time the words came out. We started hugging each other and wondering, ‘What do we do now?’ ”

Kristyn Wong-Tam | The Anti-Ford
Wong-Tam at Toronto’s pride festival with her friend Farzana Doctor

After that, her coming out happened quickly. Wong-Tam went to a support group meeting, and then she told her sister Dianne, who was blessedly casual about the whole thing, and her baby sister Cyndi, who cried and said, “I don’t want anyone to hurt Kristyn.” Then, with typical forthrightness, she decided to tell her parents. “I just didn’t want to keep anything from them,” she says. The night Wong-Tam came out to them, two days before Christmas Eve, she made sure to pack a duffle bag first. “Plan A was my parents would say, ‘Great, that’s fantastic, we love you, Kristyn,’ and then we would all live happily ever after,” says Wong-Tam. The duffle bag was Plan B.

Her parents exploded. To working-class immigrants who didn’t know of a single queer Chinese person, their 16-year-old daughter’s announcement felt like a cruel choice designed to humiliate the family. Her mother screamed at her and demanded she change her mind. Her father became quietly enraged, saying that he’d always known there was something wrong with her, while her younger sisters leaned over the railing at the top of the stairs, crying and screaming at their parents to stop. Wong-Tam grabbed the duffle bag, slipped her bare feet into a pair of sneakers, ran out into the snow, and never lived in her parents’ home again.

For the next few years, she slept in rooming houses and cheap apartments. She couch-surfed at friends’ places and spent rough nights in shelters. She was part of what she now knows as the “under-housed”—the class of people who live precariously, carrying their possessions from place to place, never knowing when they’ll next need to rely on the city’s safety net.

“I was terrified,” she says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me or where I was going to get money from.” Wong-Tam worked at Foot Locker, lived off instant noodles and tried to finish high school. Eventually her teachers noticed she was often late for class and helped her get on student assistance. She graduated from Riverdale Collegiate with top grades. Her defiant yearbook quote was a paraphrase of the Canadian feminist Nellie McClung: “Never retract, never explain, never apologize. Get the thing done and let them howl.”

While majoring in East Asian studies at York University, Wong-Tam worked at two different shelters, often taking the 4-to-midnight shift at Rendu House on Church and then cycling east to work at the women’s shelter Nellie’s until 8 a.m. As an intake worker, she would see women getting dropped off in the middle of the night in the same state she had been in when she’d left home—shocked and tearful, carrying whatever they could grab. When she wasn’t working or studying, she was spending all of her spare time volunteering at outreach programs for other queer youth and protesting for half a dozen causes. After a few years of falling asleep in class, first at York and then at U of T, she realized that university wasn’t for her. “The learning I wanted was going to take place in the community, organizing demonstrations, not in a classroom learning about 16th-century China,” she says.

Entering a world of older and more politically sophisticated people was exhilarating. The kid who had always taken out the maximum number of books from the library began devouring political literature as fast as she could. “When I became politically awake I couldn’t stop learning,” she says. “There was nothing I didn’t want to read, I was just ferocious.” She read the Toronto journalist Michele Landsberg’s Women and Children First and discovered feminism. She hyphenated her name, adding “Tam” in tribute to her mother. She became involved in the Chinese Canadian National Council, eventually becoming president of the Toronto chapter. People who knew her from activist circles at the time remember her as the youngest person in the room, often the only girl, and usually the only person of colour, feverishly taking in everything that was said.

Wong-Tam had to convince her parents that municipal politics, contrary to all available evidence, is an honourable profession

Ralph Hamelmann, an instructor at George Brown today, was the coordinator of Lesbian and Gay Youth of Toronto in 1988 and remembers Wong-Tam as a shy but confident woman with a strong social conscience. “People that young who are just coming into their own politically can be a little obnoxious, but Kristyn wasn’t like that at all,” says Hamelmann. “She was passionate about social justice and knew how to get the job done, but she wasn’t overtly aggressive.” Within the year, he made her co-coordinator of the group. A year later, she had splintered off, forming her own support group for young lesbians.

A 1993 NFB documentary about queer youth called Out captures Wong-Tam as a skinny 22-year-old with a mushroom haircut participating in rallies for International Women’s Day and marching down Church Street on Halloween night while angry young men make dark faces at the camera, yelling “We hate queers” and “I’m gonna knock each and every one of them out.” During a high school outreach program, one girl says she just doesn’t understand the appeal of lesbianism. “How can you feel satisfied without a man?” she asks, incredulous. Wong-Tam says, “See, they all think you need a penis to be sexually stimulated,” and goes on to describe female sexual anatomy in frank detail while the teenage boys listen in horror. “There’s this myth that unless you have a penis in the scene you’re not getting everything. You’re only getting a snack, not a full meal,” she says to roars of shocked laughter and applause from some of the girls in the audience.

Throughout this period, Wong-Tam was doing the slow and patient work of reconnecting with her parents, especially her father. When she first left the house, if she called home and her father picked up, she would ask to speak to her sisters or mother and he would pass them the phone. Once, inevitably, no one else was home and the two of them began talking. “He said, ‘Did you eat?’ For us that’s a sign of care. When someone says that, they’re extending themselves to you. They’re asking ‘How are you?’ ” The next time they spoke a little bit more, about food and other innocuous topics. Eventually the entire family began meeting up, often at dim sum restaurants where everyone would be reluctant to fly off the handle.

“Kristyn never wrote my parents off,” says her sister Dianne. “She kept them involved, even though they didn’t want to be involved.” Wong-Tam sent them educational material in Chinese about being LGBT. Eventually they came around. Within a few years, Wong-Tam was working with her father, running a French restaurant called Soho Bistro on Queen Street West. Today her mother marches in Pride and her father has volunteered with her at queer events. They’ve met all her girlfriends. She calls her dad for political advice. “They needed to go through their own coming out, but now I have an incredibly close relationship with them,” says Wong-Tam.

When she was 22, Wong-Tam earned her real estate licence and applied for a job at Coldwell Banker’s downtown Terrequity Realty office. After she was hired, an IT guy dug up some footage of Wong-Tam protesting and told the president, Andrew Zsolt, about it. He didn’t mind. “I thought she was a smart lady, very smart, and I knew she’d do well in real estate.” Two years later, Zsolt made Wong-Tam manager, a thankless job that she excelled in. She rearranged the office to make it an attractive place to recruit new talent, began leading sales meetings and helped make the business one of the most successful Toronto residential real estate companies.

The money she was making as a realtor opened up other opportunities. In 2000, Wong-Tam bought a Timothy’s franchise on Church Street and immediately wove it into her other projects, donating coffee to the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation and holding community events in the space. When she decided the neighbourhood needed a BIA, she knocked on doors and convinced other local businesses to give up a percentage of their revenue to pay for street furniture and other community initiatives.

When Wong-Tam decided to run for council, she had to get her parents’ blessing. For working-class immigrants, the notion of running for political office was nearly as scary and foreign as the idea of homosexuality. Wong-Tam conscripted her friends, former school trustee Tam Goossen and labour rights activist Winnie Ng—heavyweights in the Chinese-Canadian community—to come to her family’s Sunday dim sum meal in Chinatown. She needed them to reassure her parents that a career in city politics was, contrary to all available evidence, an honourable one.

Ward 27 was one of the most competitive races in the city, and Wong-Tam got the endorsement of neither George Smitherman nor outgoing Councillor Kyle Rae. Midway through the campaign, it seemed that her past activism might become a liability. Simon Wookey, a rival candidate, accused Wong-Tam of hiding the fact that her candidacy was endorsed by the Toronto Labour Council and CUPE, and brought up the fact that she was the registered owner of the website for the controversial advocacy group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid. (Wong-Tam says that she was known in the queer community as someone you could come to for favours. When a member of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid asked if she could register a domain for them because no one in the group had a credit card, she agreed. She also defends the group’s right to march in the Pride Parade.) Sue-Ann Levy, the right-wing Toronto Sun columnist, wrote a piece ominously entitled “The Other Face of the Ward 27 Frontrunner” that criticized Wong-Tam for peddling “typical socialist pap” and intimated that voters should know they were electing a radical. (Wong-Tam, a practising Buddhist, went to her spiritual advisor for help. She received a cryptic but apparently helpful koan: “Politics is dirty if you think politics is dirty.”) After a gruelling race, Wong-Tam won by fewer than 500 votes.

In council, Wong-Tam has consistently voted with the left-wing block, but fears about electing a political radical have proven unfounded. She has made an effort to co-sponsor motions with councillors from the right because, she says, “I want us to get used to working with one another.” While councillors like Gord Perks and Adam Vaughan skillfully cross-examine city staff to make political points, Wong-Tam generally holds back. “I don’t have the same political flair as some of the councillors who ask questions to create a gotcha moment,” she says. “When I ask questions it’s usually because I want to know the answers.”

Last year, Wong-Tam brought together property owners, local businesses, Ryerson University and the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area to create a blueprint for a revitalized Yonge Street, funding the plan entirely with money donated by local businesses. “It’s a little bit unfair that Wong-Tam has been labelled as a purely left-wing councillor when she’s so sensitive to the business community,” says James Robinson, the executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA.

In October, Wong-Tam teamed up with Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker to push for a ban on the sale, consumption and possession of shark fins. The move enraged Chinese restaurant owners and some members of the Chinese community, who felt they were being unfairly singled out, but Wong-Tam pressed on with the ban anyway, and condemned the controversial shark cull. “During the shark fin debate, she presented an extremely balanced and well-thought-out argument,” says Mike Layton. “I think that’s a big reason it passed.”

She’s unabashedly emotional and empathetic. To describe her as a bleeding-heart liberal isn’t an insult

That same month, Wong-Tam proposed another big idea—a city-owned Bank of Toronto. In an op-ed piece in the National Post, she wrote that the solution to many of Toronto’s budget woes was to “put the creative power of credit back in public hands.” The bank would use money from the city’s property tax revenues, user fees and capital assets to form a reserve and then make loans for major city infrastructure projects. The proposal was immediately met with jeers by economists and critics. Laurence Booth, a finance professor at the Rotman School of Management, said the basis of the idea was “incredibly flawed.” Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who had already butted heads with Wong-Tam on multiple occasions, called it “one of those stupid, insane ideas that not only is illegal, but is beyond comprehension.” It seemed a case of a rookie councillor overreaching, but Wong-Tam remains undeterred. While she acknowledges there may be flaws in the plan, she insists that it’s worth talking about innovative ways for the city to raise money. In February, she spoke about her concept at a conference hosted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. “Maybe Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi or Vancouver’s Mayor Robertson would be interested in public banking,” Wong-Tam told me in the days before she left for the conference.

Her work as a councillor has become all-consuming. Last December, Wong-Tam spent her holidays in Ajijic, Mexico. It was a trip she’d booked months earlier with Renee Pilgrim. When the relationship fell apart, the councillor chose to take the much-needed vacation anyway. She would relax, go to the spa, catch up on reading. A few days before Christmas, she sent me a long email in the middle of the night. She had decided to take a quick side trip to Guadalajara to meet a group of urban advocates and see what she could learn from the sprawling Mexican city. “I want to share with you a most extraordinary experience I had yesterday,” she wrote, going on to enthuse about a municipal government initiative to shut down 64 kilometres of road across the city to cars every Sunday. “It was incredible to watch hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets,” she wrote. “Can you imagine Toronto council supporting such an inclusive, participatory and health-focused event? This would require true collaboration, not to mention a paradigm shift in urban thinking.”

In the new year, back in Toronto, Wong-Tam was figuring out her priorities. Back in 2011, on her first day in city hall, she, along with most of the rest of council, had agreed to scrap the vehicle registration tax. It had been a gesture of good faith for a mayor who had just received an overwhelming majority, but it’s a vote she now deeply regrets. In January, she was preparing a motion to have staff examine mobility pricing—not just a reinstatement of the registration tax, but possible road tolls, parking fees and so on. There were other big goals, too, and she was trying not to lose sight of them amid the flood of meetings and committees and community events that can so easily drown a new councillor’s ambitions. She’s pushing for a Women’s Equality Office at city hall that would look at city policies through the lens of gender equality. She was also working with Councillor De Baeremaeker on a motion to exempt Toronto from a free-trade agreement between Canada and the European Union. Later in the year, a motion she made to abolish the Ontario Municipal Board—the unelected provincial body that has authority over many of Toronto’s city planning decisions—should come up for debate.

Taken as a whole, Wong-Tam’s big ideas point to interests that go beyond the borders of Ward 27. It’s easy to imagine Wong-Tam looking for a spot on a bigger stage—a run for mayor, perhaps, or even Parliament. And, with her energy and passion and a story that seems to point to the best of what 21st-century Toronto can be, it’s easy to imagine her succeeding. For now, though, she wants to get as much done as possible. “I’ve always said I’ll do two terms, tops,” says Wong-Tam. “Worrying about re-election, sticking around too long—that’s the downfall of the career politician.”

Last summer, Kristyn Wong-Tam once again tried to get Rob Ford to do something he didn’t want to do. As the only openly queer member of council and the representative of the largest LGBT population in the country, she wanted to bring Ford to Toronto’s Pride Parade to help mend relations between the mayor and a community he had publicly insulted in the past. This time there were no theatrical protests. Instead, for months she quietly prodded him, looking for a way to open the door and make him feel comfortable coming to one of the many events over the 10-day festival. It was like a replay of the time she spent trying to connect with her parents, patiently and unrelentingly pushing to find a way to meet, if not in the middle then at least somewhere slightly closer to it. “His response was always, ‘I’m very busy, we’ll have to check my schedule,’ ” she says.

At the honorary rainbow flag–raising ceremony in June, Ford was nowhere to be seen. It was the first time since the early ’90s that Toronto’s mayor had skipped the event, and it seemed a deliberate affront. People were angry. At the ceremony, Speaker Frances Nunziata, a staunch Ford supporter, took his place. As she spoke, the crowd jeered and booed. “Sit down, Frances, you’re an embarrassment,” someone yelled. “The mayor’s a homophobe,” shouted someone else. Wong-Tam took the microphone to defend Nunziata. She asked the crowd to be respectful. She reminded them that this could still be a celebration. It was a simple but generous gesture, the kind of gesture that, under different circumstances, a mayor might have made.

“It takes time, like with parents and family members. It takes time,” she told the crowd. “And I have patience.”