Illustration by Nick Ragetli
Illustration by Nick Ragetli


There’s something great about Olivia Chow and John Tory.

Tory and Chow are the likely forerunners in Toronto’s mayoral election—despite neither yet announcing a run. They should run, however, because they understand the city’s problems.


Their competence was on display last week as both individuals made appearances on the UofT campus: Chow spoke to the New College Student Life group on Jan 13, and two days later, John Tory spoke to the Law and Politics Society. They had similar messages for U of T students.

Olivia Chow told the crowd of her student days: “Politics was the furthest thing from my mind. I studied philosophy, fine arts; I didn’t take any political courses; I knew nothing about social work.” But after CTV News ran a racially insensitive program, she became more politically aware, and just plunged in, learning as she went along. She exhorted her audience to do the same: “Get involved! Go visit a councillor’s office, go volunteer.”

John Tory, happening to find himself speaking to a room of mostly white, male, law students, and a white male lawyer himself, told the crowd, “People privileged enough to go to law school should get involved in civic life.” They “should want to try to make a difference.”

Tory also touched on the disparities between the downtown and the city’s suburbs: “I don’t know how many of you have been there,” he said of the suburbs.

Arguing that ignorance of the suburbs hinders investment and revitalization and hence perpetuates inequality, Tory exhorted the room to visit the inner suburbs for themselves.

“Be surprised and worried about the inequality. We’ve collectively got to do something,” Tory said.

The two events were also an excellent opportunity to hear their stories, which are emblematic of Toronto at this moment.

Chow knows a thing or two about living in the underclass of Toronto. When Chow came to Toronto from Hong Kong, her educated and professional parents—her father, a school principal (“he gave me my English name, Olivia, from Twelfth Night”) and her mother, a teacher—couldn’t get jobs in their fields.

Poverty, racial, and class-barriers led to stress and physical violence in her home. Her mom worked a tough job as a hotel laundress for 30 years. Her father lost much of his hope and pride working as a taxi driver and a chinese food delivery driver.

Chow’s background is of critical importance because it represents this city right now. Toronto has more immigrants than any other in the world: over half of the people living here are not from Canada. Immigrants are the new face of poverty, and their poverty has been suburbanized. This means that the spatial problems of the suburbs have been pushed onto the shoulders of our immigrant population; the suburbs are the areas of the city with the least investment in transit, new housing, and the arts. In her talk, Chow referenced the Paris suburban riots, and spoke gladly that as a city “we are not at each other’s throats.” Toronto remains a model of civility and diversity, though some recent events are disquieting. There was the Project Traveler police raids that saw officers armed with battering rams and rifles storm apartment towers home to many of Toronto’s Somali community. And then there is the issue of “carding” -- the Toronto Police Force practice that allows officers to arbitrarily stop and question anyone -- wherein more black men have been stopped and carded than there are black men in Toronto.  

In his address, John Tory limited his personal story to his success in business as the CEO of Rogers Communications and chose to focus his talk on city issues: he spoke about emphasising priority neighborhoods, decreasing marginalization, investing in transit, and revitalizing crumbling suburbs. Tory’s background is different than Chow’s, but his perspective is valuable because he is well aware of the elite’s apathy and disengagement with the wider suburban and immigrant city.

A great neighborhood incorporates bicycles, urban life, mixed land use, mixed-income neighborhoods, public-private partnerships, said Tory.

To Tory, Toronto is failing: the condo boom represents a lack of consideration of families (not to mention the condos are terribly ugly, he says) and the city is not building with a consideration of its long-term future. Tory argued for less “chewing gum and chicken wire” solutions and more long term investments in social equity.

Some of that gumption was on display when I asked Chow how the city should find the revenue to pay for affordable housing. She mentioned a national transit strategy in order to spur investment in the suburbs. Her plan had four other parts, and her final point referenced her native Hong Kong: in capitalist Hong Kong, the state finances the building of apartment towers that can be bought by residents at affordable rates since less money spent on rent means more money spread around in society. Such a scheme is the kind of half loopy half brilliant idea that voters on the left will appreciate but will worry voters on the right.

When I asked Tory about how to pay for affordable housing, Tory’s answer was less clear than Chow, and included some inconclusive and unsubstantiated remarks about “how Rob Ford is right...about finding money in government” before Tory came about and said that “we all should invest in our community.” What that means is taxes, though if his loopy a. If that sort of political duck and cover gets Rob Ford voters to vote for someone as socially liberal as Tory, then so be it. Tory looks, acts, and sometimes even sounds like a conservative; but he also told a crowd of lawyers to go spend the day in Regent Park, because “the Regent Park redevelopment is a beacon of hope.”    

Because of the number of issues brewing in the city, this election is a particularly important time for citizens to actually learn about the city and its politics.  

Toronto has what’s known as a “weak mayor” system, meaning that any elected mayor has only one vote and limited powers. Therefore, Toronto’s mayoral position is most effectively filled by a empowering consensus builder who can set a unified tone and vision. Chow and Tory may both be able to create that consensus for social change due to their deep grasp of the urgent need in our city.  

Tory and Chow are smart, very progressive, and very professional. They have relatively similar visions for the city. In time a time of increasing social division and paradox (which led to the election of Rob Ford -- who won in every suburban ward but none downtown), the fact that we are seeing mayoral candidates campaigning on inclusion rather than division is crucial. In his talk, Tory strongly emphasised how counterproductive the media’s sensationalising and character assassinations are during campaigns. Let’s hope we together can avoid those pitfalls.

So heed their advice: get involved and know your city.

If an election were held tomorrow, who would you vote for mayor of Toronto?
Olivia Chow
Rob Ford
John Tory
Karen Stintz
David Soknaki
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