“What we’ve won today is an opportunity, a starting point in our journey towards a more affordable, safe and caring city.” This line towards the end of Olivia Chow’s victory speech on Monday evening stood out, and felt grounding after a mayoral election full of the usual lofty promises and platitudes. It’s common to hear a politician offer some version of “our work is only beginning” after a successful campaign. But it felt especially apt coming from Chow as she ended a dozen years of conservative rule in Toronto.
Chow has successfully revived hope that Toronto might be worth fighting for.
Unfortunately for her, and for all of us, no change in leadership can immediately reverse the decades of neglect and callousness this city has experienced. Yet I agree with our mayor-elect, in a way, that this is a moment of great opportunity for Toronto. Chow’s election presents a better chance for Toronto’s leftist and progressive forces to grow, to reject the urge to tie our hopes to a politician, and to continue building something more enduring and people-centred.
The legacy of the late Rob Ford haunts us still. Ford, who won decisively in 2010 by insisting Toronto was spending beyond its means, vowed to root out waste and save taxpayers money. His bark was thankfully worse than his bite — city council regularly pushed back on Ford’s proposed cuts, and he routinely exaggerated the so-called “efficiencies” he found in city budgets. But Rob Ford successfully branded Toronto as a beast to be tamed, rather than a growing city with needs and potential.
Rob Ford was a buffoon and a master of duplicity, an authentic bullshitter who didn’t merely lie, but who obliterated the value of truth. What’s more, he seemed to have very little ambition to improve the city he led. Rob’s charm wore off once the public learned the extent of his struggles with addiction, and his political demise allowed a much more respectable conservative named John Tory to emerge as mayor. Tory cemented Rob Ford’s city-as-a-business austerity approach, and lulled us to sleep with run-on sentences. The desire to move on from Ford’s antics gave Tory seemingly endless space to govern while promising very few substantial improvements to the city.
When the Toronto Star broke news in February that Tory had been having an affair with a staffer, the initial shock gave way to a notable amount of indifference, especially from Tory’s institutional peers. Was it really so bad? Couldn’t he still govern? A poll suggested that the public was split on whether Tory should stay or go, although few could say what mission he needed to stay on and complete. It felt like for many folks, the bother of imagining something beyond Tory was worse than his glaring abuse of power. Politically speaking, much of Toronto just wanted to be left alone.
Tory may have weathered the shame, but looming city investigation into his conduct would likely have sunk him. His resignation gave Chow, whom he defeated in 2014, another shot at power. Chow ran a much stronger campaign this time around, and beat out former councillor Ana Bailão, who got a late endorsement from Tory.
While we may feel relieved that Chow will not repeat the cruelest rhetoric and actions of the recent past, we deserve so much more.
In an excellent analysis of the last 20 years of local politics, David Bush urges us in Spring Magazine to be real about the limits of municipal power. He writes, “our best bet during and after the election is pushing a working class agenda in the Greater Toronto Area through a renewed and fighting union movement with strong social movements demanding change.”
Bush also wisely warns that too much investment in the mayor-elect could lead to a backlash “where expectations are raised for Chow and her inability to deliver any substantive change stokes rightwing resentment.”
Additionally, council is unlikely to stop representing the elitist interests it has in recent decades. Chow’s arrival doesn’t change the fact that developers, property owners and investors run Toronto. Our beef is less with politicians, and more with the upper classes they represent.
Many of Chow’s campaign promises seem possible to get through council and would be welcome: the doubling of the rent bank funds for tenants behind on rent, the tripling of the eviction prevention program funding, the expansion of library hours, the creation of a rapid bus line to replace the decrepit Scarborough RT, and perhaps even the reversal of recent transit cuts. All of these measures would help people struggling to survive, and are worth fighting for even if they don’t pass.
At the same time, Chow’s record includes a few reasons to temper expectations. While she is known for fighting for poor and working people, and brands herself in these terms, Chow has also caused harm to these groups.
As A.J. Withers documents in their book “Fight To Win,” Chow voted in 2005 to ban people from sleeping in Nathan Phillips Square during her tenure as a city councillor. She defended the vote by saying, “Is it called banning? No. Is it called gentle persuasion? Yes. And that is what we need.”
Rinaldo Walcott, chair of Africana and American Studies at the University of Buffalo, also posted a recent reminder on social media that Chow held a press conference during her 2014 mayoral campaign, during which she stood in front of a group of mostly Black children attending a summer camp while announcing her plans for a handgun ban. Most of the children did not speak. I don’t know if their parents gave permission for them to appear at Chow’s campaign announcement, but having them stand there as props felt exploitative and totally unnecessary.
Chow made things worse by advocating for “community policing” during a time when Black communities were very publicly mobilizing against carding, surveillance, and police brutality. Even during the recent campaign, Chow said police needed to be part of the city’s mental health crisis response, despite decades of evidence that such policies lead to the harm and death of oppressed people.
But Chow has also shown a willingness to criticize the police for overt violence. In 2000, she intervened during the police’s response to a demonstration led by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Police Association leader Craig Bromell called for Chow, who was a member of the police board at the time, to resign from that position, saying she had undermined her oath by directing police activity. Chow did resign, and also walked back some of her criticisms of police.
But her willingness to intervene in what she considered police brutality, and to pay a political price for it, is rare for any politician in this city.
Most local politicians have echoed Chow’s bygone vote regarding unhoused people sleeping in public. Many have sought out Black faces when discussing gun violence, while continuing to push the cops and their guns as a solution. When we recognize the limits of political discourse, we can resist the urge to defend harmful political ideas and acts, and continue pushing for our true needs and desires. We can also avoid getting caught up in the elitist, individualist narratives that cast politicians as the main characters of our struggles.
We must fight for the things Chow is limited in delivering: housing for all, an end to borders and deportation, Indigenous sovereignty and land back, liveable wages, queer and trans liberation, adequate welfare and disability programs, environmental stewardship, the destruction of all police and carceral systems in favour of caring responses to violence and harm.
Instead of worrying about Chow’s legacy, let’s build our own, and force the entire political establishment to move in our direction.