Hong Kong-born Olivia Chow's challenge for Toronto mayor against wildman Rob Ford

Hong Kong-born Olivia Chow's challenge to Toronto's Rob Ford sees a byword for dignity and compassion up against a crack-smoking wildman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 6:39am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 9:17am

It's tough to imagine two more vividly contrasting figures than those of Rob Ford and the woman who wants to replace him as mayor of Toronto, Olivia Chow.

Ford, the hulking conservative whose crack-smoking, booze-addled antics have made him an international punchline.

Chow, the diminutive left-leaning Hong Kong immigrant who became a byword for dignity after the death of her husband, federal opposition leader Jack Layton.

Ford, who was filmed in a sweaty rant threatening "firstdegree murder" against an unidentified enemy, saying he would "rip his f***ing throat out … poke his eyes out".

Chow, who has made a life's work out of compassion, starting as a teenage volunteer counsellor at a Toronto hospital trying to help suicidal people.

To this list, the Ford camp would add his credentials as a relentless cost-cutter, and their depiction of Chow, 57, as a typical tax-and-spend liberal.

Then there is Ford's support base in the Toronto suburbs known as "Ford Nation", and Chow's in the city's sophisticated downtown core.

But both sides agree that their October contest to capture the mayoralty of Canada's largest city presents a clear choice.

They share at least one similarity. Just as Ford has an indelible place in the Canadian psyche, so too has Chow.

She entered Toronto municipal politics in 1985 as a school board trustee, joined the council in 1991, then jumped to federal parliament with the New Democratic Party in the 2006 election, when she and Layton became husband-and-wife lawmakers.

But her place in the forefront of the Canadian consciousness was cemented by tragedy - the death of the charismatic Layton, who died of cancer in 2011.

He died just three months after the election at which he triumphantly led the NDP out of third-party status to become Canada's official opposition. Layton was 61. His death shocked the country and he was given a state funeral.

Chow's story begins on Blue Pool Road in Happy Valley. Her father was a school superintendent and the family enjoyed a solidly middle-class lifestyle, complete with a live-in helper, before migrating to Canada in 1970 when Olivia was 13.

Chow said in a phone interview with the South China Morning Post that she returned often to the city. Her best friend is documentarian Nancy Tong, a teacher at the University of Hong Kong.

She said her immigrant history and familiarity with Hong Kong were not merely of nostalgic value - they helped frame her views, as well as a platform that calls for the creation of a world-class public transit system in Toronto. "I am from Hong Kong so I understand the immigrant story," she said. "The platform I have is to move people now, faster, and not 10 years from now.

"I think that Hong Kong Chinese and Torontonians living in Hong Kong understand the need for mass transit. Hong Kong is phenomenal in terms of its public transit system.

"Then there is the importance of supporting small businesses in order to create jobs and keeping tax low, which is my platform.

"I think Hong Kong Chinese understand the importance of small businesses because there is a huge number of small businesses that fuel the economy, both in Toronto and Hong Kong."

Chow's political views were forged by grass-roots activism. In her recently published memoir, My Journey, she referred to her political awakening alongside fellow Hong Kong-born activists, who campaigned successfully for Canada to help the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s.

"We were all born in Hong Kong, where no political dissent was allowed," Chow wrote. "Canada wasn't like that. The boat people issue taught us what was possible if we took a stand."

Ford has sneered at Chow's brand of progressive politics - she has been a strong advocate for the gay community, the homeless and the environment.

The mayor, on the other hand, has emphasised an economic mantra of low tax, low spending.

Chow, who last month quit her federal seat to run against Ford, sees no reason to modify her views in the municipal arena.

"Progress just means to move forward. And in a fast-changing world, we can't be stuck in the same place," she said.

"The world is going to leave you behind. One of the reasons that Toronto hasn't built any public transit in a long time is that we don't have progressive elected representatives. They are always resting on their laurels."

Chow's politics are popular in the city's urban core, but if she is to claim the mayoral chains, she will have to win over the suburbs too. The amalgamation of Toronto and its suburbs into a single municipality in 1998 has posed a major challenge for progressive candidates ever since.

The urban-suburban divide makes public transit a potentially polarising issue - urbanites might cheer increased expenditure, but it could be a different story in the car-loving suburbs.

One of Ford's first mayoral acts was to rip up a public transit plan for Toronto, citing costs. Chow puts the opposite case, but also in economic terms.

"Look at the traffic gridlock we are experiencing. We are losing C$6 billion [HK$42 billion] in lost productivity because of traffic gridlock," she said.

For the moment, Chow leads the pack. A poll conducted by Forum Research the day she launched her campaign last month gave her the support of 36 per cent of respondents. Ford got 28 per cent and the other main candidate, John Tory, a centrist conservative, got 22 per cent.

Her candidacy was widely anticipated and cheered by her Torontonian supporters, weary of the ridicule and contempt heaped on their city since it was revealed last year that Ford had been caught on video smoking crack cocaine. Chow said Ford was an "embarrassment", adding with a degree of understatement that a mayor "smoking crack is not something that a city can be proud of".

The election is more than six months away and Chow is wary of losing her focus. She has been following the recent ructions of Hong Kong politics, including the debate over how the chief executive should be chosen.

But she chooses not to wade in on the topic, other than observing that it should be "up to the Hong Kong people to decide", while adding: "It's very encouraging to see so many Hong Kong people expressing their opinions in many forms. That's good for democracy."

She is more enthusiastic when the subject turns to Layton, who she married in 1988. During their courtship, Layton won over Chow's suspicious mother with his efforts to learn Cantonese.

Chow is no believer in superstition. But her relationship with Layton, made in the crucible of Toronto's municipal politics, suggests a hint of destiny.

In her book, she describes their wedding day and her "gorgeous red Chinese wedding dress", purchased in Hong Kong when Chow was still a little girl.

But the dress was a gift from Layton's mother, not Chow's.

Layton's father, Bob, bought the dress as a souvenir for his wife, Doris, during a long-ago trip to Hong Kong, and it had been lying in a drawer ever since.

"She pulled it out 20 years later when Jack and I told her we were getting married," Chow wrote. "When I tried it on, it fitted like a glove. 'It was meant to be,' said Doris."

Chow's voice rose with delight as she described Layton's affection for Hong Kong, their trips to Nathan Road, Sai Kung, the Kadoorie Farm and Mid-Levels.

"He loved it! He loved all of Hong Kong," said Chow with a laugh. "He couldn't get over that escalator that goes up the hill."