“This idea that we’re living in divisive times is overstated”: A Q&A with Olivia Chow, the new mayor of Toronto
Fresh off her decisive election win, Chow discusses Doug Ford’s best qualities, celebrating Jack Layton, and convincing the provincial and federal governments to pony up billions
Olivia Chow was the front runner in Toronto’s unexpected 2023 mayoral election from the moment she entered the race. And, despite a last-second nail-biter, the former school board trustee turned councillor turned MP turned failed 2014 mayoral candidate emerged victorious, with 37 per cent of the vote and strong support in each of the city’s wards. Chow campaigned on a kinder, more compassionate city—one focused on housing, transit and affordability. Here, the new mayor explains how she’ll deliver on her promises, her plan for kiboshing Doug Ford’s Ontario Place spa and what she did on her first day off in three months.
Congratulations on your monumental victory. How did you celebrate?
The Monday after Canada Day, I took my first day off in three months. I went kayaking, canoeing and paddleboarding. I swam and played with my grandkids. It was a lot of physical activity that I didn’t have a chance to do during the campaign.
Are you a Canada Day fireworks kind of person?
Normally, I love fireworks, but this year I did not partake as I was concerned about air quality. In past years, I’ve been out to Ashbridges Bay. Other times, I’ve taken the paddleboard down to Ontario Place to see the whole show on the lake.
I want to ask about a message you posted in recognition of Chinese People’s Railroad Day, a new holiday that also falls on July 1. You wrote about the thousands of Chinese immigrants who built Canada’s railroads, many of whom died because of unsafe working conditions. Some commenters were not happy—they accused you of being divisive and argued that July 1 should be Canada Day only. Was that a reaction you anticipated?
I don’t think those commenters understood the context. This year marks 100 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act, a racist federal law that banned Chinese people from coming to Canada—even after they played such an important role in binding our country together. Chinese people are the only group that has ever been excluded in such a way. I was not the only mayor of a major Canadian city to post about this, although the cause is very personal for me. As an MP, I spent years fighting for a formal apology for the act, which we got in 2006 from Stephen Harper. I think it is important for Torontonians and Canadians to know their history, so that is why I posted about it. But perhaps I should have done a better job explaining the connection.
You are Toronto’s first non-white mayor. Does the negative reaction to your post speak to why that is important?
Who even knows if these commenters are from Canada or Toronto or whether they’re even human? A lot of this type of behaviour comes from social media bots. What I do know is that I was in East York for the Canada Day parade, and the response I got was phenomenal—people rushing out to congratulate me and take photos.
You campaigned on bringing people together. How can you do that in these divisive times, especially when so many did not vote for you?
This idea that we are living in divisive times is overstated. We are not our neighbours to the south. Toronto is a beacon for major cities all over the world: a place where we, for the most part, live in peace. I want to maintain that. One of the things I promised in my campaign was to keep public spaces public. Our parks, our recreation centres, our libraries. These are places where young people meet and interact, and I plan to make sure they remain accessible and free.
If we could look back on the campaign for a second, was there a moment that stands out as your mic drop?
For me, the moments that stick out are the times when I was able to connect with people who were desperate for service. There was a homeless man whom I met at Ossington station. I said to him, “I’m Olivia—I’m running for mayor.” He looked at me and said, “What has city hall ever done for me?” He explained that he was living at a shelter down by Lake Shore but that he didn’t have counselling to help him get back on his feet. He wanted to see his daughter again, who lived nearby with her mom. When I asked her name, he showed me his knuckles: it was tattooed across them. You could tell that seeing her again meant a lot to him. So we had this conversation, and as he walked down to the platform he said, “Okay, I might vote for you.”
It’s not the vote that matters so much to me as these personal moments that reveal how the system and our policies can affect people’s lives. That’s always been the aha moment for me. This man’s case illustrates how essential services need to be integrated into our shelter systems. Right now, mental health is the concern of the province while shelters are run by the city.
What was your heart rate like in those early minutes when Ana Bailão was on top?
You always have two speeches. I never assume anything. When those results came in, I started to go over my concession speech, making some small edits. And then, by the time I was finished, the race had flipped and I was ahead.
Since your win, you have spent several days meeting with councillors and bureaucrats. How will those conversations influence your first moves in office?
We talked about the $1.5-billion funding shortfall. One of the things that came up was that one-third of the people in our shelters are refugees. Caring for refugees is a federal responsibility, yet we get no money from Ottawa. Instead, our property taxes are being used to house these 11,000 people, which is not reasonable. So that is something I plan to approach the feds about ASAP. A more immediate move could be keeping our pools open later than usual since it’s been so hot.
Often, these kinds of common-sense fixes are characterized as bureaucratically impossible. How will you avoid the 500 committee meetings? Can you just call someone and tell them to keep the pools open?
I’m meeting with the key staff, and I will tell them, “If it’s common sense, just do it.” Why do we need a committee? My phone can tell me whether Environment Canada has issued warnings about multi-day heat events.
Keeping services open isn’t free, though. What do you say to Torontonians who worry that your vision of a more compassionate city means higher taxes and radical socialism?
I don’t think anyone would describe former mayor John Tory as a socialist, but before he stepped down, he ushered in a seven per cent property tax increase—not to mention leaving a $1.5-billion budget hole. If you look at our neighbouring municipalities, some of them are taxed a lot higher than Toronto. It’s important to separate myth from fact.
The myth of Olivia Chow is that you are an Orange Menace.
Right. Or that I’m an “unmitigated disaster.”
You’re quoting Premier Ford, who has changed his tune about you since your victory, recently calling you a “very nice person” that he can work with. Can you say something nice about him?
Oh, sure. I have said many nice things about him. Doug Ford loves this city, and he wants to support people. He and his late brother Rob would visit community housing and spend time talking to the people there. They would learn about their experiences and figure out how to help them with living conditions. They wanted to fix things.
You have promised to thwart the Ford government’s desire to build a luxury spa at Ontario Place. What’s your plan?
We will negotiate. I will invite the premier to join me on the waterfront one of these hot days and ask if he thinks it is acceptable to eliminate this public land as well as to destroy the amazing exhibits at the Science Centre. Such a move would deprive our children of great imagination and wonder, especially the kids of Thorncliffe Park.
I agree, but what if the premier says, “No dice, Madam Mayor—I want my spa.”
We’ll see. We do have pieces of land and water down there that belong to the city, so one way or another, we will figure it out.
Are you saying you could swap some city land and the spa could go there instead?
As it stands, the city’s funding model relies on massive investment from higher levels of government, and it’s on you, the mayor, to get them to pay up. How will your approach to this differ from John Tory’s?
I will be straight up with the public and involve as many people as possible. Voters need a stronger understanding of the issues. Just as with the refugee crisis, Torontonians don’t want their property taxes to rise because the federal government is not stepping up.
If I’m understanding correctly, your plan is to publicly shame the other levels of government into paying their fair share?
Of course, some negotiations are confidential, but I think it is important that the public has a better understanding of why we are experiencing a problem. It’s the same with mental health, which is under the province’s jurisdiction: while the city does have Toronto Public Health, our services do not include psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers because we don’t charge a municipal income tax to pay for those services. Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the provincial government has uploaded all responsibility for mental health from cities to the province, which is where it belongs.
You have identified housing affordability as your top priority, and you want the city to act as developer for 25,000 new rental units. You’ve also pledged not to use strong-mayor powers. But what if council votes down your housing plan?
I still believe that a majority should be 50 per cent plus one. I’m also sure that the priority of all councillors is to build affordable housing. We saw the recent change in the planning approval process that allows for the building of multiplexes in residential neighbourhoods. If my plan doesn’t go through, we will come up with a plan and do it together.
What about addressing the encampments in Toronto parks? As a progressive, you have rejected the military-style use of force employed by John Tory last summer in favour of addressing root causes. That seems like the right approach, but not a fast one.
This issue cannot be improved until you deal with the bigger pieces. For example, providing rent subsidies so that people can be housed immediately—an integrated approach that includes having services such as therapy and rehab. Yes, this kind of human-centred approach takes time, but it’s not as though mayor Tory’s approach was quick. His might have looked faster because the encampments were forced out in two days, but that’s not solving the problem. Displacing people hasn’t worked.
Bike lanes were another major election bogeyman, though some have said that this was a tactic certain candidates employed to rile up suburban voters.
Well, if it was, it didn’t work. I have strong support in the suburbs. It’s funny because every councillor except one voted to extend the Bloor bike lanes. Bike lanes are not actually controversial at city hall.
It’s impossible to talk about you and bikes and not think about that iconic bicycle built for two. Your 35th wedding anniversary is coming up. Do you still celebrate that occasion?
I do. Jack’s birthday is July 18. Our wedding was the first week of August, and he passed away on August 22. The organization I ran, the Institute for Change Leaders, gives out scholarships and awards to activists and community leaders as part of the Layton Legacy project.
That is a very Olivia-and-Jack way to mark a special occasion, but is there anything more personal that you do?
I get together with Jack’s children and our grandchildren, and we visit the cemetery. In fact, you’ve just reminded me that I need to renew the contract for watering the flowers at his grave site. I’ve been a little busy.
Any particular type of flower?
Lavender—Jack’s mom always loved lavender.
Observers have credited your win, at least partly, to a greater sense of authenticity compared with your 2014 campaign. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
Yes. This time around, I wrote my own speeches, whereas last time most of them were written by someone else.
Does Olivia Chow ever have a slothful moment?
I do. When I was out on my paddleboard with my grandchildren, I just floated about and watched the sunset. I got some amazing photos.
So the Lake Ontario sunset is your Netflix?
Yes, that is definitely true.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity