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Olivia Chow reflects on early challenges in Toronto as she celebrates election win

TORONTO — As Olivia Chow celebrated her election as Toronto’s next mayor on Monday, she reflected on how her life in the city began as a young immigrant in a family supported by one modest income – her mother’s job as a hotel maid.

The 66-year-old has been a fixture in Toronto politics, having served for years as a city councillor and as a federal parliamentarian.

But after becoming the first person of colour to be elected mayor of Toronto, she reminded supporters of the challenges she has faced, while praising Canada’s most populous city as a place where adversity can be overcome.

“I immigrated here when I was 13, to this place of hope where my family found an affordable apartment in St. James Town. My father had mental illness and could not work, but my mother was able to pay the rent and put food on the table with one single income as a hotel maid,” she said.

“Toronto is a place of hope, a place of second chances. A city where an immigrant kid from St. James Town can be standing in front of you as your new mayor,” added Chow, whose family moved to Canada from Hong Kong.

She recalled her father’s abuse, which drove her mother to live with Chow in her apartment after university. Chow said the Toronto of her youth was what helped her mother to endure.

“She could heal because she had a home. Toronto was a place where someone like me could afford to grow up, become a school trustee and a member of parliament,” she told a crowd of cheering supporters.

Chow became a school board trustee in 1985, served 13 years on city council and eventually became a New Democrat parliamentarian in the House of Commons alongside her late husband, former federal NDP leader Jack Layton.

She was the early poll favourite in the 2014 mayor’s race, but ultimately finished third. She has said that in her previous run she struggled to maintain an authentic message and relied too heavily on advisors who wanted to win but didn’t fully share her beliefs.

After that electoral loss, Chow called one of her mentors, Marshall Ganz, a longtime organizer with the United Farm Workers credited for helping shape Barack Obama’s field operations during his 2008 U.S. presidential run.

Chow took Ganz’s political leadership course at Harvard University and returned with the curriculum that inspired the Institute for Change Leaders, the organization she founded in 2016.

Those close to her have said her renewed emphasis on leadership and political organizing helped inform her 2023 run.

Days before the election, Chow told The Canadian Press this campaign had been different.

“I feel very much myself. I have a wonderful team that are very supportive. We work as a team, we strategize together,” she said.

Chow led the polls throughout this campaign and while election night proved tense, the veteran progressive ultimately held off a late charge from former deputy mayor Ana Bailão.

Zac Spicer, a political science expert at York University, said Chow had benefited from her years in politics.

“Toronto voters know her, I think have a fairly favourable opinion of her and she’s been kind of a household name in Toronto for 30-plus years,” he said.

Chow, in her victory speech, acknowledged her range of experiences.

“I’ve been knocked down a few times over the years but, just like you, I always got back up,” she said.

Spicer said Chow appeared to campaign like someone unafraid to lose.

“She seemed a lot more comfortable and having been in politics for so long, winning, losing, this was almost like a bonus run,” he said. “With the comfortable lead and with the knowledge that she’s lost before, I think she felt a little more free to be herself.”

The mood at Chow’s election night party was boisterous, as supporters shouted “Olivia” at various points during her speech.

But she faces a daunting task beginning Tuesday as she readies to take charge of a city facing a nearly $1 billion budget hole and work with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who had said her mayoralty would be “an unmitigated disaster.”

Ford struck a more conciliatory note on Monday congratulating Chow on her win.

Spicer predicted “a very short honeymoon period.”

“The work begins very, very quickly, and she’s not going to have a lot of time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2023.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press


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