Olvia Chow: The Woman Taking On Toronto’s Rob Ford - OZY | A Modern Media Company


You know all about Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor. Now meet the lefty, no-nonsense woman who is going after his seat. 

Bad news, Jimmy Kimmel. You might need to start looking for some new material when it comes to mocking the scandal-ridden mayor of the city of Toronto. Rob Ford’s days as head of Canada’s largest city may be numbered.

Meet Olivia Chow. She’s the woman poised to snatch the seat for Toronto’s top job from underneath the incumbent Ford. And while she’s not a celebrity in the late-night talk-show sense, she’s a definitely a star in her own right — for her long-term political service and her marriage to one of Canada’s much-loved federal leaders. And if elected, she would make history as the city’s first Chinese-born mayor.

To help earn back Toronto’s cred, she may need to sharpen her political jousting spear.

And she’s about as opposite from Rob Ford as you can imagine: a lefty, fitness-enthusiast, artist, immigrant Asian female. The differences that divide them go as deep as how they were raised to the issues they’re flogging on the campaign trail.

“It’s almost comical, the contrast,” notes Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Star City Hall reporter and author of Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story (incidentally, Doolittle is also known for chasing the Ford-smoking-crack video). “They really are complete polar opposites of one another.” After all, Rob Ford is decidedly right-wing. His first mayoral campaign was based on stopping the “gravy train” at City Hall. Even in stature, the large and round Ford opposes Chow’s shorter, petite build. He drives a Cadillac Escalade. She prefers to commute via a flower-bedecked bicycle — or the bus.

Olivia with bicycle holding bike helmet outdoors

Olivia with her husband, Jack Layton.

Source Rebecca Baran/Biking Toronto

Early polls suggest strong support for Chow — the only left-leaning candidate — but this mayoral race is more of a marathon than a sprint; the municipal election is on a distant October 27. Campaigning is just heating up. During the first televised candidates’ debate in late March, Chow called Ford an “embarrassment” and said that the time had come to “pack up the circus tent at city hall” and get back to the business of running the city.

This is the crux of her platform: getting Toronto’s respect back. However, to earn back city cred, she may need to sharpen her political jousting spear. Critics have questioned Chow’s debating prowess. A recent Globe and Mail op-ed challenged Chow’s “rhetorical passion.” She will also need to defend her financial plans. Ford and other the front-runner John Tory have renounced her as a “tax and spend” socialist. Doug Ford, Rob’s blustery brother and partner in Ford Nation says, “You may despise Rob Ford, but I know deep in your heart if you had Olivia Chow taking [care of] your bank account and Rob Ford, you wouldn’t care if Rob had 10 beers. Because he’d watch every single penny.” 


But Chow vows to “keep taxes low.” In addition to keeping the city safe and diverse and fixing transit, she plans to “protect the public purse” — a buzz phrase that sounds off-pitch for a left-winger.

“Olivia is running a much more centrist campaign than I think she would have a couple of years ago,” says Doolittle. “She’s using a lot of Ford lines, like ‘respecting taxpayers.’” 

What does Chow envision as her legacy in Toronto’s top seat? Building a better city for her grandchildren, one with a better role model. “I want to put children at the heart of the city,” she told OZY in her downtown campaign headquarters. 

Understanding weakness becomes a source of strength.

– Olivia Chow

Chow had a challenging childhood — an upbringing that sits in stark contrast to Ford’s, who grew up in an affluent Toronto suburb, the son of a successful businessman and politician. Born in 1954 in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, to parents in the school system, Chow was an avid reader and loved comics (Her favorite? Batman; it’s his “sense of justice,” she tells us — and the gadget factor of the Batmobile.) But times were difficult. Her father was abusive toward her mother. When she was 13, her family immigrated to Canada, but work was scarce and the family lived pretty much in poverty, which left an indelible mark.

While in university, studying philosophy, religion and art — not politics — Chow worked at a crisis center answering suicide hotlines and taught courses at an assaulted women’s and children’s counselor program. In her recently released autobiography, she recollects: “As I taught, I also learned to appreciate the vital importance of achieving true equality for women in the political sphere. Understanding weakness becomes a source of strength. The key is to empower, to turn helplessness and despair into a quest for political action.”

The moment that sparked her move to politics? A rally in 1979 focused on the plight of the Vietnamese “boat people.” Moved by the stories of those who had fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Chow began working with refugees and immigrants coming to Canada, organizing classes and advocating for them. Cutting her political teeth. 

Both of them holding hands waving at the crowd

Source Getty

Six years later, in her first elected position as a Toronto school board trustee, she met Jack Layton, who would become her husband; he was a caller at a hospital auction, she was the Cantonese translator. It was a “love at first sight” relationship that moved into marriage in 1988. Their eco-friendly wedding gift to each other: a tandem bicycle. It was a partnership that has been compared to that of Hillary and Bill Clinton

They became only the second husband-and-wife team in Canadian parliamentary history.

Layton and Chow tag-teamed policy in both municipal and federal spheres. During her 14-year stint on the Toronto council — as the first Asian woman to achieve city-wide office — she was appointed the city’s child advocate, and was voted “Best City Councillor” on numerous occasions in a magazine readers poll. Chow followed Layton into federal politics in 2006; as a Member of Parliament she was the party’s transit critic, and Jack was the leader of the New Democratic Party. Together they became only the second husband-and-wife team in Canadian parliamentary history. In 2011, Layton led the NDP to its first-ever official opposition. Canadians watched as Chow — and Torontonians — very publicly grieved his death months later. Chow even sculpted a bronze bust for his grave.

When OZY asked about her crowning political achievement, Chow said, “Children being able to have decent breakfast programs or meal programs in school” — which is now law throughout the province of Ontario. In her nearly three decades in elected office, Chow’s policies have ranged from advocating for the homeless and victims of physical abuse, to fighting racism, homophobia and bullying — some areas where Rob Ford has a less impressive track record.

But what’s really interesting about the Chow-Ford divide? They actually have something key in common: They “share a lot of voters,” Doolittle says. How’s that? Both have “appeal to the Every Guy.” Rob Ford is the crusader to the average Josephine in the suburbs and Olivia Chow champions causes for the average Joe in the downtown core. They’re taking different approaches but they “share the support.”

Despite any commonality, one thing is for sure: Chow does not like to talk about the mayor. We asked what she thinks non-Torontonians need to know about Rob Ford. The answer: “They watch the shows; they can form their own opinions.”

However, Chow recently asked Torontonians living in Hong Kong to “share the shame” of having Ford as mayor, urging them to help vote Ford out — a move met with backlash by Ford supporters.

And for all of those inquiring talk show hosts out there: Do Ford and Chow have anything else in common? You know, in the recreational sense?

Chow admitted in an interview with CBC that she “smoked marijuana a little bit” in art school and her early days as a school-board trustee. But it’s never been her “thing.” Other than the occasional antihistamine, “no [drugs].”

How about promotional gimmicks? Is there a bobblehead doll in Chow’s campaigning future? 

“I don’t know yet. We’ll see,” she says coyly. Guess Jimmy Kimmel will just have to wait.

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