Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Olivia Chow Biography

Oliva Chow is perhaps best known as Jack Layton's wife, while others might remember her as a school trustee or on Toronto council and as a mayoral candidate.  This book appears to have been written as she was preparing for her mayoral campaign.  She has been involved in many significant political events, partly because of her husband, but in reality she is a key reason he was so prominent.

Grew up in Hong Kong with her mother, father and step brother.  It turned out that her father had another secret family and resented her brother (from her mother's first husband).  As she wrote this book she lived with her mother and regularly visited her father who suffered from dementia.

Part of her education was at my alma mater, University of Guelph which attracted her attention for its sculpture program which had also attracted one of my room mates.  Earlier she was at Jarvis Collegiate.

Married and had two step children.  She got along with Jack's ex wife, Sally, attending each other's weddings with Olivia being the photographer at Sally's.  They also spent Hallowe'en and Christmas Eve and Christmas mornings at Sally's.

Her wedding to Jack took place in 1988.  One of his presents to her was bicycle built for two which was used a lot.  The entertainment was provided by local bands including the Parachute club which had a big hit, "Rise Up" which has become an anthem of lesbians.

Olivia made a conscious decision not to have children.  She involved herself with the raising of her two step children.  She wanted to devote her time and energy to activist causes.

Her focus has been on children.  She quotes from UN World Summit for Children:  "The growing minds and bodies of children should have first call on society's capacities and...children should be able to depend upon that commitment in good times and bad."  The first six years of life are critical and require nutrition and stimulation  Olivia promoted school lunches, dental care, library programs and also was concerned about care for new mothers. She ends her story with concerns for her new grandchildren and extending again to all children.

One of her earliest causes was working with the Vietnamese boat people which led to her working with councilor Dan Heap.  Many of the Vietnamese ended up in Hamilton and I have enjoyed dealing with them and eating some of their food.  A few years later Olivia worked with refugees from Chile and El Salvador as America  refused to protect those fleeing in many cases death squads.  One of the Chilean refugees worked at a newspaper where I worked.  He had been a journalist in Chile, but here he started out as a classifieds manager.  About two years ago I met the son of El Salvador immigrants in Montreal and he went onto marry my niece in a wonderful multi cultural event.  

As an outsider I have watched and listened to John Tory and he seems an honorable and competent mayor, but I feel Toronto lost something by not electing her.   Although at one time leading in the polls she had at least three strikes against her.  First as a woman.  Second as Chinese and probably most devastating as a Socialist.

Her first elected position was as a school trustee although she had no children of her own.  One of her concerns was to develop heritage languages.  She helped bring in programs to temper homophobia ,bringing in students to testify.  She realized dental care for poor children had an effect on confidence.  She also campaigned for more affordable child care.

As a city councillor she ran into conflict with the police union, particularly as they were supported by the Mike Harris, law and order provincial government.  Police were not supposed to be involved in political decisions, but had been trying to publicize candidates that favored law and order policies.  

For Canada Reads 2005 she championed a book by Margaret Atwood, "Oryx and Crak."  She made it to the final, but lost to Donna Morrisey. 

Both she and Jack had been elected to the House of Commons.  One event that has struck me as unfortunate is explained.  In one election Jack found himself in a position to help organize a coalition to take over the Conservative government.  To prevent the decisive vote on the matter, Stephen Harper pro-rogued Parliament which in essence meant votes were suspended.  Harper than went to the Governor-General who agreed.  In the meantime Harper added some stimulus measures to the budget there were enough to win over the new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff.  That was perhaps Ignatieff's (a man I admire) biggest mistake and we launched into years of a Stephen Harper administration.

Ill treatment of the Chinese was another cause.  The Chinese had been instrumental in building the Canadian Pacific Railway that united Canada.  Many of the labourers returned to China, but some wanted to come to Canada and bring their wives and families.  A head tax was imposed and it was calculated to be $23 million dollars (equivalent to a much larger amount in today's dollars).  In 1923 immigration was stopped completely from China.   In 1947 after many Chinese fought for Canada in World War II immigration was legal again.   Several governments had an opportunity to legislate some sort of restitution, but never got around to it.  Olivia was part of a group that got a token amount of money for the few survivors of the head tax and most important to have Stephen Harper officially apologize.

As socialists are often accused of being spendthrifts, Olivia made a point of getting involved with the budget process.  With all her many proposals for progressive change she included the process for obtaining funds to pay for it.  She was against across the board cuts as they too often punished those who had managed funds more carefully.  She was also careful to protect budgets that effected the most vulnerable, children, elderly and disabled.   She was very critical of a computer leasing deal made by the City of Toronto as it ended up costing much more than it needed to.  A big part of the problem was that the process was not transparent.

She and Jack had an interesting strategy when invited to political events.  They felt they could have more influence if they sat separately. Most of us have a tendency to sit with people we feel most comfortable with, but they felt it was better to meet a wider range of people.  Often enough they would be invited to more than one event in which case they would cover two separately.

At age 61 Jack had a re-ocurrence of cancer and died in 2011.  Stephen Harper agreed to a state funeral.  He had discussed funeral arrangements with Olivia and one incidence got my attention.  He wanted different faiths allowed to speak and when it came to the Muslim faith he thought that a particular mosque should be contacted, but Olivia intervened to point he was close to Tasleen Ruez.  Mike had wanted to respect Muslim tradition which meant it would have to be a male.  Olivia suggested this would be a good time to let a female speak.  And she did.  My sister, a Muslim was allowed to speak at another sister's wedding in a church.  Lorraine Segato of the Parachute Club sang at the funeral.

A number of commemorative items were created.  Olivia, as a sculpter helped develop Jack's smile for one bust.   One that is talked about was a statue of Jack on a tandem bike with one seat vacant.

For Olivia giving a dying person some comfort and dignity was a high priority.  Jack was given palliative care and taken to his home where flowers had been planted that he could see from a bedroom window.  Olivia feels palliative care is an important part of medical care.

She credits Lawrence Scanlan with getting her started with this book.  I met Lawrence at a Monty  Roberts demonstration.  Lawrence had written the introduction to Monty's book "The Man who Listens to Horses."  Later corresponded with him and received a rough draft of a book on the Canadian horse breed while Lawrence was taking riding lessons.

In conclusion Olivia achieved many important things on her own, but as part of the Layton team gave Canada immeasurable benefits.  Another example of an immigrant enriching Canada.

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