In many ways, Olivia Chow’s life has been a testament to unheralded courage.
That doesn’t mean she hasn’t made her share of mistakes in a mayoral race in which she was once frontrunner and now trails John Tory and Doug Ford (open Doug Ford's policard). Over the past few months, the most prevalent questions on the political circuit have been “Whatever happened to Olivia?” and “What went wrong with the Chow campaign?”
We’ll return to that later. First, though, there are many ways in which she has shown grit without complaint.
The first and most obvious is how she bore the death of her beloved husband, friend and colleague, Jack Layton, three months after he led the NDP to Opposition status in the May 2011 federal election.
The couple spent only one night at Stornoway, home of the Official Opposition leader in Ottawa, because of Layton’s illness.
We never learned the type of cancer that killed him on Aug. 22 at 61, but the country grieved openly with Chow. Slight, her dark hair shining, she stood without tears by his coffin at the state funeral at Roy Thomson Hall.
Then came the private torment. She went back to work as MP for Trinity Spadina and became very sick over that fall. In her autobiography, My Journey, she writes that she woke up at night wheezing, thinking she was hearing Layton’s laboured breath.
She pushed on, one event after another, until she was finally diagnosed with pneumonia.
A year later, in late 2012, she woke up one morning and the left side of her face was paralyzed. She had Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a viral infection of the facial nerve from the same family that causes chickenpox and shingles. It was very painful, destroying her tear duct and distorting her face.
She cried so little in public, and then her face became immobile. Was this an illustration of Norman Mailer’s statement that “disease is the speech of the psyche?”
Gradually, the virus waned, but its effects were still noticeable by the time she resigned her federal seat in March 2014 for the gruelling Toronto race for mayor.
She tries to make light of her predicament with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, half-laughing as she tells me. “I look mean,” she says. “I can’t smile properly and I look so stern, disapproving. Look at my face and it seems like I’m mad at you.”
It’s the last thing a politician needs, especially — sadly — a female one. Maybe you’re no longer expected to be smiling all the time, but it’s not good to look sour — cold.
She doesn’t want to think about trying to lift the left side of her mouth when she’s talking about better child care in Toronto or putting more buses on the roads immediately. It can be distracting.
“I think it does affect how voters see me,” she says. When she does television interviews she prefers to sit with the right side of her face to the camera.
When I sit down for an interview with her on a recent Sunday morning, Chow is warm and engaged. Asked if she’s OK, she replies, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Really, I’m fine. Not very much bothers me.”
Besides, she adds, “I love campaigning. Getting ideas. Having ideas on how to create a better city matters, whereas Mr. Tory and Mr. Ford want to attack each other in a more personal way.”
Our conversation takes place in her large bedroom/sitting room at the top floor of the house off Spadina Ave. she shares with her mother. It looks out over a roof garden, and the sun is shining.
Both Chow, 57, and Ho Tze Chow, 89, have a green thumb. There’s a fish pond with water lilies in the back garden; Olivia brings the koi inside every winter.
This election has been problematic, she says, although with hindsight it might have been expected.
For much of the summer, she was drowned out by John Tory and (then) Rob Ford (open Rob Ford's policard) in debates. “I had options,” she says. “I could either talk on top of them, which I can do, or let them bicker and then get my points out.”
She didn’t try to outshout them and finally realized her mistake at a Board of Trade debate after Labour Day. “If you look at TV, it’s fine, I come across. But if you’re there, all you see is those two talking. I changed after that because people who were there said I should have jumped in more. So that’s what I’m doing now.”
Councillor Jon Filion, who has endorsed Tory, believes that “Olivia just got overtaken in the campaign. It turned into ‘Who could beat the Fords,’ and there’s a general consensus John Tory is best able to do that.”
That’s a common theme among people interviewed in the street. Often, they say they like Chow and her policies best but will vote for Tory to thwart Ford. It’s called strategic voting, and it drives staunch Chow supporters crazy.
Even the Star, in an editorial which endorses Tory, makes the point: “Either Olivia Chow or John Tory would make a fine mayor for Toronto, But at this time, with the challenges the city faces now, we believe Tory is the clear choice to bring Toronto together, make progress on the key issues and put the chaos of the past four years behind us.”
The Star calls Chow “Toronto’s political conscience.”
“Olivia works as hard as they come,” says Councillor Joe Mihevc (open Joe Mihevc's policard), who supports her. “She’s a fine leader . . . a consensus-builder. You should have seen her effective work on council during the (mayor) Mel Lastman years . . . We need a healer on City Council.”
She has “a great sense of humour,” he adds.
There’s another issue in this campaign, one that seems more pronounced than in the past: her gender and ethnicity.
About a year ago, I began to phone around to get the early lay of the land. I talked to a few political stalwarts (nobody running in this race) and was surprised by the venom against Chow.
A normally mild-mannered conservative described her as a radical communist who had to be stopped or she would destroy Toronto. There was an uncomfortable backbeat in his words that hinted being a Chinese woman was some kind of insurmountable problem. Frankly, I was surprised at his tone because it had never come up in our conversations about Chow — and especially not after such a public period of mourning for her husband three years earlier.
She has lived it before. Who can forget the 2006 federal election campaign in which a Liberal party executive compared her to a chow chow dog on his blog.
But the negative tone from a political operative in the late summer of 2013 should have been my wake-up call. And Chow was reminded of it disturbingly as soon as she announced her candidacy.
“I got a huge number of emails that were racist, sexist rants,” she says, opening her laptop.
She scrolls down and shows me a few. They’re not printable and are the kind that make women go, “Oh, YUCK!” and try to physically shake off the effects of such slurs.
At a debate on Sept 23 at York Memorial Collegiate in Weston, it got nasty.
Hecklers shouted: “She’s Chinese. She’s not Canadian.” And: “Go home. Go back to China.”
Chow, born in what was then British-ruled Hong Kong, bristles: “I’m not even from China.”
She continues: “Here I am running for the top job of the city and some people feel threatened. Maybe because I don’t look like them.”
It’s that sentiment that “you’re not one of us, you’re a foreigner,” she adds. “How dare you? . . . Sometimes I get angry and call them out on it.”
She did, raising her voice and telling the crowd: “I-am-a-Canadian. I-am-a-proud-Torontonian.” There were loud cheers.
At home on this Sunday, Chow says of John Tory and Doug Ford (who replaced his ailing brother): “They said nothing on stage, which was surprising to me.”
Both men later denounced the slurs from the crowd to the media.
It’s been 44 years since Chow immigrated to Canada at 13 with her mother and her father, Wilson Wai Sun Chow. Her stepbrother André was already at university in the United States. In her book, she describes leaving her family, her friends, her dog Ah Woo and her “comfortable, middle-class life on Blue Pool Road in Happy Valley.”
She missed her dog terribly and lost his trail after he was passed from one set of relatives to another. She became, she writes, “Woo-less.”
The family settled eventually in the massive housing complex of St. James Town, and she praises Jarvis Collegiate for taking a “little immigrant girl and making her feel loved.”
The hard part for Chow was life at home. Her mother found low-paying work as a seamstress in a sweatshop and then as a hotel maid and laundress. Her father, a teacher in Hong Kong, found it hard to keep jobs as a substitute teacher, cab driver or Chinese food delivery man.
She was frightened by the beatings her mother suffered at the hands of her father, now in a nursing home and suffering from Alzheimer’s. As a teenager she had an abusive relationship with a boyfriend.
Education and talent saved her. She excelled at school, graduating from the Ontario College of Art and from Guelph University with a fine arts degree (she also took religion and philosophy courses at the University of Toronto). Some of her powerful sculptures in cement hang on the walls in the home she shared with Jack.
Chow continues to keep the biggest heartache, the loss of Jack, for private moments.
She recently heard K.D. Lang sing “Hallelujah” and thought she was going to break down. “It’s so beautiful and Steven Page sang it at Jack’s funeral,” she says. “But I didn’t cry.”
They met in 1985 and married on the Toronto Islands in July 1988. They served on council together, supported causes together, canoed in the Arctic — did everything together. Chow even cut Layton’s meat for him at restaurants.
Through Layton, Chow got another family in his son, Mike, a Toronto city councillor, his daughter, Sarah Layton, her husband, Hugh Campbell, and their children Beatrice, 5, and Solace, 2.
She finds she has more happy memories now than sad ones, and that’s a big step into a bright future. But ask if she might marry again and she shakes her head.
“My husband died, he died already.”