Olivia Chow has been a political force in Toronto for nearly 30 years.
According to her memoir, My Journey, Chow learned a great deal about politics as the constituent assistant to Dan Heap, who ran successfully in 1980 for federal MP in Toronto’s Spadina riding (now Trinity-Spadina).
She also says she learned a lot from Dan Leckie, who also worked in Heap’s office. Leckie would later become Jack Layton’s executive assistant and was his best man at the couple’s wedding in July 1988.
Chow says Leckie taught her that “good political leaders are a conduit between the people and public services” and learned how campaigns are run and how to approach public policy in a strategic way.
She met her political and love match in Layton during a charity auction in 1985, the same year both ran successfully for school trustees in downtown Toronto.
Below are must-know things about Chow as she enters the Toronto mayoral race.
Birthplace: born on March 24, 1957, in Hong Kong to father Wilson Wai Sun Chow and mother Ho Sze Chow.
Immigrant story: her school superintendent father decides to move the family to Toronto in 1970 given the political turmoil in Hong Kong. They give up a comfortable middle-class existence in a roomy apartment with a housekeeper in Hong Kong for the third floor of a rooming house in the Annex before settling into a high-rise unit in St. James Town, where her father still lives. Both parents, who were educators in Hong Kong, must take on menial work; mother as a seamstress and laundry worker at the Delta Chelsea Hotel and father as a delivery person.
Early years and education: Chow attended Catholic schools in Hong Kong and described her young self as “naughty, spoiled, rebellious and lazy.” She failed Grade 3 but she says she discovered self-discipline and studied hard and skipped Grade 8 at Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate. She studied philosophy and religion part time at the University of Toronto and took sculpture courses at the Ontario College of Arts now OCAD. She graduated from Guelph University with an honours degree in fine arts. She is a sculptor and the base of her late husband’s cemetery headstone is a bronze sculpture she created the year after his death.
Youth: one of the first things she did in Canada was learn to skate and she was a junior forest ranger at 16, planting trees in northern Ontario. This is when she begins her life-long love of the Canadian wilderness, canoeing and kayaking river rapids.
Family life: describes her father as abusive to her half-brother Andre and her mother but nurturing and loving to her. Their apartment in St. James Town is “a combat zone” until her parents separated (for more than 30 years now). She says she was attracted to the wrong kind of men, including an ex-marine boyfriend who nearly killed her twice and a third boyfriend who beat her when she broke up with him.
Work experience: Before getting in to politics, Chow held a position working with Vietnamese refugees and Chinese immigrants at WoodGreen Community Services. At 28, she ran for school trustee and won in 1985. She says she fought hard for after-school programs, childcare and a good education during her stint from 85-91. After six years as a school trustee she ran successfully for city council from 1991-2005. Both she and Layton left for Ottawa in 2006 when both won MP seats and he became the leader of the NDP.
On children: she says she’s never regretted not having biological children. She is mother to her step-children, Mike and Sarah, and is grandmother to Beatrice and Solace.
On Jack Layton: described Layton as her soulmate and that they were “two political peas in a pod.” They were married for 26 years and shared a semi-detached Victorian home on Huron Street, which was their political nerve centre until Layton died of cancer in August 2011.