Who is Olivia Chow? Meet the woman who is set to lead Toronto as mayor
Published Wednesday, June 28, 2023 12:41PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, June 29, 2023 12:03PM EDT
Editor’s note: This story has been edited from a piece first published ahead of the election on June 15.
Olivia Chow doesn’t care if people think about the NDP when they hear her name.
“People know who I am, people know my values” Chow said during a sit-down interview with CP24.com two weeks ahead of Toronto’s mayoral election.
It would be hard not to. The now 66-year year-old mayor-elect served on council for more than a decade before going on to become a high-profile member of the party at the height of its power.
“You mean 2011,” she says, nodding her head with a smile, when asked if she minds being associated with the NDP’s “orange crush.”
At the time, she was married to then-party leader Jack Layton and was an MP in her own right. The couple was highly visible on the national stage as the first couple of the official opposition and it was conceivable then that the NDP might even form government for the first time. That period of success came to an untimely end with Layton’s sudden passing that year from cancer.
However Chow continued on as an MP, stepping down in 2014 in order to run for mayor for the first time. She lost that race, coming in third behind John Tory and Doug Ford.
But now, a decade later and months after Tory’s sudden resignation due to an affair with a staffer, she is set to assume the top job at Toronto City Hall.
Almost since the start of the race, polls showed Chow with a dramatic lead over her many rivals.
Recognizing that they had to take her down in order to carve out any feasible path to victory, the debates often called to mind a pride of lions trying to take down a sprinting gazelle.
While being the target of most of the attacks might unnerve some, Chow seldom appeared off-balance. She even looked like she was having fun.
Her voice, slow and quiet at times, can rapidly accelerate as she becomes animated about an issue. She gesticulates to make her points and occasionally erupts into full-bodied laughter in moments of levity. It’s not unusual to see her dancing at an announcement if there’s music playing.
If she’s enjoying herself, it’s likely because she made a commitment to do so. A key lesson she learned from her run in 2014, Chow says, is that she’s better off being herself than focusing on trying to come off poised and polished. It seems to have worked.
“Absolutely. Can’t you tell?” Chow says with a laugh when asked if she’s having more fun this time around.
Despite keeping up a busy schedule, Chow seems energized.
She rises each day between 6 and 6:30 a.m.
“I never snooze,” she confesses.
She cycles to get around and for fun, keeps up a roster of activities that would put many 20-somethings to shame.
“I have always been in very good physical shape; I run, I bike, I swim. I do long distance swimming. I do weights. I canoe, kayak, paddleboard. I do downhill ski and cross country ski in winter. I snowshoe, I skate. So I'm pretty active,” Chow laughs. “So I think that helps.”
That energy was useful in an election campaign that ran nearly three months.
Chow lunged and parried impressively during the debates given how much firepower was concentrated on her. She credits her experience.
“I know the budgeting process really well. I know the programs really well. I know how City Hall works, or can work.”
Her determined views are also shaped by her own life story.
The daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, she came to the city in 1970 when she was 13. Her father struggled to make a living while her mother cleaned homes to make ends meet. She also witnessed her father being violent towards her mother, an experience that impacted her greatly and shaped her thinking around mental health and housing.
She studied fine art and sculpting at OCAD as well as religion and philosophy at UofT, before eventually going on to become an activist and a politician.
Chow cut her teeth in politics as a TDSB trustee in the late 80s and early nineties. She won a seat on Toronto City Council in 1992 and went on to serve 13 years, including seven after amalgamation. She held a number of roles as a councillor, including chair of the Community Services Committee and vice-chair of the TTC. She then had eight years as an MP from 2006 to 2014, when she stepped down to launch her first mayoral bid.
Since that race, she has taught at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) as a distinguished visiting professor. She also founded the Institute for Change Leaders, an initiative at TMU which trains participants in “community and political organizing.”
“The key thing in the last seven, eight years is that because of the institute I ran, I'm in touch with a lot of ordinary people that want to contribute,” Chow says. “And they want to do something to make life better for themselves in their neighbourhood or their community.”
From those interactions, Chow says, she’s seen there are a lot of people who are worried about their futures.
“The housing crisis is so much worse now,” she says when asked how the city she’s set to lead today is different from the one she ran to lead almost 10 years ago.
She points to an explosion of homeless people in libraries and on subways and the opioid crisis as other examples of how the city has changed.
“Last time, it (the city’s main issue) was more congestion,” she says, referring to the 2014 race. “It’s still congestion. But the housing crisis is elevated, the affordability situation has gotten a lot tougher for people.”
Chow cites a former student of hers as an example. He missed three weeks of class after he was evicted.
“He had to stay in a shelter and he got his laptop stolen, because he was evicted. He was desperate,” she says.
Building more affordable housing, Chow says, is the best way to tackle multiple problems in the city, from homelessness to encampments.
While polling has indicated that people are concerned about crime and congestion, their biggest concern by far is now affordability and housing. That may go a ways to explaining Chow’s win.
While some of her opponents framed crime and safety as the top issues the city faces, she continued to talk about affordability, protections for renters and helping others who are struggling.
“I get it,” she says when asked how she would resolve a situation where an encampment has taken over the only green space some people have to play with their kids.
“I get it because I have four grandkids and (two of them) live right beside Alexandra Park,” Chow says.
Like so many green spaces in the city, the downtown park has seen encampments spring up over the past couple of years.
“But moving people from one park to another park, and then to the subways, trains and buses and libraries, shuffling them around is not going to solve anything,” she says, pointing out that shelters are already turning people away every night for lack of space. “You can’t just push them around.”
She says the situation is the result of a decade of building no affordable housing.
But if housing is the answer to solving many of the city’s woes, the solution will be costly. The plan that Chow’s campaigned on to create 25,000 rent-controlled homes over eight years weighs heavily on federal partnerships. But that isn’t the only arena where the city needs help from higher levels of government.
Toronto is facing a massive shortfall of around $1.5 billion brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a problem both the federal and provincial governments have been noncommittal about.
In a rare moment where she appeared to be thrown during an exchange with Ana Bailao in an early debate, Chow said budgets always get balanced at city hall (they are required to be by law), leaving some to speculate as to whether she fully grasped the problem.
“I know exactly what I’m talking about. Of course I do,” Chow exclaims when asked about that moment. “I even read the staff report about what to do with it if the federal and the provincial government don't come to the table.”
Chow slows down when asked to put the problem in her own words and launches into a careful explanation about declining TTC revenue through the pandemic, increased shelter costs and a chronic lack of funding from higher orders of government for areas like transit, housing and help for refugees.
Chow says she knows that staff have said without that money from the feds and the province, the city would have to dip into one-time reserves, delay capital infrastructure projects and possibly cut services.
But she says she would not follow that advice, calling the solution “severe.” Saying now where she’d find the money would be letting the other governments “off the hook” she says.
She says the city needs to negotiate to get a better deal first before contemplating the staff advice.
But what makes Chow think that the governments involved — a federal Liberal government which draws plenty of seats from Toronto and a provincial Progressive Conservative government which had friendly relations with the former mayor, who once led the PC party – will give her a different answer?
“The negotiation hasn't been successful because the people are not involved,” Chow says. “The people need to be involved. That's where the power is, right?”
She says she believes that a respectful, but more transparent and open budget process, which involves council and the public will yield a better result than "closed door” negotiations between leaders.
But as mayor, what will she cut if it does not?
“I will never speculate because that's giving up hope,” Chow says. “That's not who I am, okay. I do not say I'm gonna throw in the towel and just assume that (it) won't happen. That's not my style.”
Chow acknowledges that those governments are also listening to other cities and provinces and trying to balance everyone’s needs, but the answer she says, is a better deal for cities across the country.
It is an idea which would undoubtedly help solve many problems for Toronto, but one that municipal leaders have talked about for decades and have yet to make a reality.
Chow sounds passionate and optimistic, but this line of thought has also left her open to criticism from those who say she is dodging the answer to a problem which will not go away on its own. City staff have estimated that the shortfall for this year alone would amount to a roughly 25 per cent property tax increase, leading her rivals in the campaign to proclaim that’s her real plan.
She dismisses that claim.
“It won’t be 25 per cent,” she says, laughing and shaking her head.
Aside from saying it won’t be 25 per cent, she has declined multiple requests from her rivals and from CP24 to provide an upper limit. Doing so now, she said, would not make sense.
“I do not take the old way of doing budgets, which I've said several times, many times, because that's a backward way of doing budgets,” Chow says. “It led to the mess we're in right now.”
She says the city’s needs should be worked out first before any number is proposed for property tax increases, as opposed to first setting a hard limit for property taxes, which has been the method for the past decade or so.
Chow will say that she supports a 0.33 per cent increase to the city-building levy to help pay for housing and while she refuses to provide a number, she has said any property tax increase would be “modest.”
She has also proposed a tax which would target wealthier residents of the city by increasing the land transfer tax for homes over $3 million.
Chow has made no secret over the years that she favours policies which help lift up those who are most disadvantaged.
Those who know her say she’s not only capable of understanding issues, but is able to conceptualize how solutions can be implemented.
“I've known Olivia since back in my activist days when I was in the environmental movement,” Parkdale-High Park Coun. Gord Perks told CP24.com during the campaign. “She has always been my go to for both understanding an issue, understanding why making people's lives better is the core of what we do, and then understanding tactically how to make it happen.
“I've never met anyone with that triple threat before.”
And despite her party affiliation, which is sometimes used as an attack point by her opponents (though she points out most of them belong to other parties themselves), Chow says she has always worked with people of other political stripes to get things done.
She recalls working with former mayor Mel Lastman on the creation of a dental program for low-income kids and seniors, as well as with former prime minister Paul Martin to get a share of the gas tax directed toward transit. She also cites work with John Baird on protecting national parks and says if she can work with others to get things done at the federal level, she can definitely do it at the city.
“This is the magic about municipal government. You can just work together and find common ground, which is what I love about municipal government,” Chow says.
That includes Premier Doug Ford, who Chow says she can “absolutely work with” to find common ground despite their differences.
Speaking of working with others, Chow fully acknowledges that the man she lost to in 2014 did some things right.
Polls during the campaign showed that if John Tory had run, he would have been the preferred candidate in the race by a long shot.
His latest-minute endorsement of former deputy mayor Ana Bailao also appeared to make the election a lot closer than many anticipated, with Bailao ending up just five points back of Chow on Monday.
“‘One city,’” Chow quotes the former mayor from his final speech. “That piece was so moving — that we are one Toronto, that we are strong because of it.”
As mayor, Chow says, she will carry that ethos forward.
“There are some really good ideas out there,” Chow says.
“Election Day is just the beginning.”