Olivia Chow and company arriving for the inauguration. July 12, 2023. Photo: David Gray-Donald.

OPINION: Olivia Chow's Troubling Start as Toronto's Mayor

The corporate-friendly speech, not acting to shelter asylum seekers, not stopping shelter hotel evictions, uncritical public support and more are cause for concern.

July 17, 2023

By David Gray-Donald

While many are celebrating Toronto’s new Mayor, Olivia Chow, it may feel like I’m raining on the parade.

The Grind, though, was one of very few – maybe the only – publications to endorse Chow for mayor during the election. (As individuals, David Bush writing for Spring and John Lorinc writing for Spacing pretty much endorsed Chow, and other individuals may have done similar. But at the level of a publication, I can’t find Chow endorsements beyond The Grind’s.)

So, while I see a lot of potential to address the pressing crises in the city and improve Toronto while she is mayor (which is why we endorsed her!), we also cautioned that if Torontonians relax and wait and see what happens, we’ll be setting ourselves up for disappointment and political demobilization.

This is not uncommon when conservatives or right-wing liberals are defeated and so-called “progressives” are elected. This Briarpatch Magazine article describes the steep drop in donations to advocacy organizations and general political demobilization when Conservative Stephen Harper was defeated in 2015 and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came to power. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory and aftermath were similar.

The Obama case is particularly relevant to Chow and her campaign, given Chow trained with Harvard University professor Marshall Ganz, a key architect of the 2008 Obama campaign. Chow then came back to Toronto to teach Ganz’s “public narrative” method of political campaigning for years at Toronto Metropolitan University, and used it in her own campaign.

But, as was the case with Obama, there are major questions about what happens when going from a campaign of hope and change to being in power.

Ganz, Chow’s former teacher, was quickly disappointed with Obama when he stepped in line with the Democrat’s defence of the status quo, and cut off the base who had elected him from the decision-making process.

I’ll start with the problems in the narratives and stories Chow has been telling, then get to the more pressing, concrete issues where she is moving slowly and avoiding responsibility.

Inauguration Day

Before the bike ride to Chow’s inauguration even started on Wednesday morning, July 12, Chow’s staff instructed one of the cyclists there, former mayoral candidate and anti-poverty activist Gru, who was wearing a “Defund the Police” t-shirt, not be in the media line-of-sight around Chow. According to Gru, the staffer said the Chow team wasn’t ready to have that conversation.

With Toronto facing a budget shortfall of over a billion dollars, this raises the pressing question of when will Mayor Chow be ready to even acknowledge that defunding one of the city’s largest and most controversial budget items is something many residents support? While the directive to Gru may not have come from Chow herself, it shows a very cautious approach on her team.

Before and after the bike ride, Chow spoke enthusiastically to the crowd about cycling, but was vague on what, if anything, will change for cyclists while she is mayor, and how she plans to make those changes.

Then came the inauguration speech employing Ganz’ public narrative formula: the story of self, the story of us, and the story of now. These are mixed into the speech at various moments, but we’ll go through them in order.

Chow’s story of self was briefly retold: of coming to Toronto from Hong Kong as a young teen with her family, who were looking for a better future.

The “story of us” is where we can hear some alarm bells. 

This is a minor point, but it feels worth noting that in explaining voters' motivations, she leaned on vague phrases reminiscent of Trudeau and Obama, such as “we need to work for change.” Whether , intentionally or not, she also used Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign slogan “Stronger Together,” claiming that in this election Torontonians “told us we are always stronger together.”

Chow then tells the big “story of us,” of Toronto. “Toronto’s story is of people who packed up what little they have, and arrived at this place of hope. A story of hard work, determination and the belief that Toronto is a place of belonging.”

There is no doubt this feels familiar to many, especially coming here with little and hoping for better.

But there is another way the story could be told, that is more accurate. First, this is a place of Treaty-making with Indigenous Peoples, and then colonial treachery, violence, and displacement. And through it all, of Indigenous resistance. This is also a place where a rich, mostly (but certainly not exclusively) white elite live in relative luxury while, through the coerced force of the capitalist market, many are pushed to work and live in terrible conditions. Toronto has one of the largest populations of ultra-wealthy individuals in the world (categorized as people with over $30 million in assets), and for many years Canadian immigration has favoured wealthier people.

So, while the story Chow tells is true for a segment of the population, it is a misleading story of Toronto. Crucially, it is missing anyone, any system, or any force that is responsible for causing the problems we see.

This section of the speech highlights this:

"Even with all the challenges we face, we can’t forget all the wonderful things already happening. Recently, I met with people involved in the community-focused development model in Scarborough’s Golden Mile. Many of you are nodding your head, you know. Where we saw United Way and other community organizations sitting alongside corporate CEOs and developers; they’re working together to deliver housing and economic opportunities to the area for the local residents, because they know that they can deliver more for people when they come together and work together. That’s the magic."

A critical investigation needs to be written about the Golden Mile development, but for now, here are the basics.

Over 30,000 residential units are proposed along the under-construction Eglinton East transit line, to replace existing retail stores and surface parking lots. It would increase urban density (a good thing!) and there is a provision for some of the construction jobs to go to local residents and for some – though certainly not all – of the construction profits to be controlled by a new community organization.

Proposed developments on Eglinton East's Golden Mile as of 2022. Credit: City of Toronto.

But the big money-maker isn’t construction; it’s real estate and finance. And the private real estate developers, who must be thrilled to get to build huge towers along a transit line, is a who’s who of companies seen by many renters as sworn enemies

BMO is the bank working with the United Way, and the list of corporate leaders assembled to guide the John Tory-era initiative is likewise distressing. For example, Enbridge is highly involved, seemingly expecting the buildings to have fossil (aka “natural”) gas hookups, which is something we need to move away from in the climate crisis, which other municipalities are doing.

Amenities such as a public library and an existing grocery store are getting torn down. If what gets put up after looks anything like the urban renewal at Regent Park, we can expect high rents, pricier stores, and less access to public services for the former users of the area. The big companies will benefit, as will new, wealthier residents who want to live along a transit line.

If status quo charities, BMO, corporate CEOs and real estate developers getting together is Chow’s idea of “magic,” we are going to be in for four years of status quo, profit-over-people urban development.

If Ana Bailao was mayor and had said those exact same words about the Golden Mile development, you can bet that Chow supporters would have howled, quickly and thoroughly criticizing her for being too friendly with developers.

One last note about the speech, which gets us to “the story of now,” as Ganz would say.

Chow mentions a former refugee from Uganda named Christopher, who is in the audience. Christopher went on to found the African Centre for Refugees Ontario. Chow says Christopher’s “rise from the streets to serve others is an example of the best of what we can be.”

I have no reason to doubt that Christopher is a wonderful person doing important work. But many people, through no fault of their own, have not and cannot rise up through hard work alone. Glorifying individual successes is a classic liberal tool which obscures systemic barriers.

It is also troubling how Chow points to service provision as the best thing a person can do. While providing services is certainly important (especially for the government to do!), there is so much work we need to do to make systemic changes in pursuit of a better, more just society. We need to build collective power to stop the investor class from extracting more and more wealth while life gets harder for everyone else.

We are at a low point in Canada for non-electoral political organizing, with some notable exceptions among Indigenous Peoples' movements, in the labour movement, and with tenant organizing. Chow’s speech, however, narrowly holds up service provision as valuable, to the exclusion of more political activities.

Toronto Is Worse for Asylum Seekers Today Than it Was under John Tory

Chow noted that Christopher spoke to her two days before the inauguration, asking for help with the refugees and other homeless people struggling to find shelter in the city.

Today is July 17th, Chow’s fifth day in office, and the city is still worse off for unhoused people, and especially for asylum seekers, than it was under former Mayor John Tory. Chow has not made any changes for the better on this file, despite calls to do so.

Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie and Councillor Shelley Carroll announced at the end of May that the city would ban asylum seekers from accessing the city’s shelter services due to a funding squabble with the federal government.

That was not Chow’s doing – but it is a decision she has stuck with.

Chow has the power to make life better for asylum seekers by allowing them once again to access services, then figure out the funding later (this sort of emergency spending happened at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic). She could also move to raise revenues soon through various property taxes or parking levies. But she hasn’t. And people are suffering, sleeping on concrete downtown in thunderstorms.

Chow has chosen instead to play a bargaining game. A meeting with other levels of government is scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday, July 18.

129 Peter St, where asylum seekers, mostly Africans, are sleeping rough. July 14, 2023.

In an interview on CBC Radio’s Sunday Magazine on Sunday, July 16, Chow spoke at length about getting a better deal with the other levels of government. She hardly mentioned anything about what the municipal government, which she now leads, can do.

This may be a sign of what to expect: that Chow will deflect responsibility to other levels of government, and resist acting at the municipal level.

There is certainly a responsibility for the federal and provincial governments to act on many issues, especially regarding funding. But pointing out that fact doesn’t mean they will do anything. What is the strategy to get them to act? And what will the city do when those other levels of government inevitably skirt their responsibilities? Those are essential questions for Chow, and for us.

The “story of now” with Chow as mayor is unclear.

In her speech, she asked people to imagine a better city. But what does it take to get there? What are the challenges, the obstacles, the forces at play?

Before Chow had taken office, Progress Toronto, a small organization which ran a powerful campaigning machine for Chow during the election, launched a petition in line with Chow’s eventual position: call on the feds and the province to intervene to fund services for asylum seekers. The petition didn’t call on the city government to do anything, even though the city was the one refusing to provide services.

Chow has faced little criticism so far over the issue. A couple speakers at the Friday, July 14, press conference at 129 Peter Street downtown called on the city to allow asylum seekers into the system. Other speakers did not.

Upstart group Toronto Citizen’s Collective has been calling on the federal and municipal governments to act, as has Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Toronto.

I asked Chow’s office on Thursday whether the city would reverse the decision to ban asylum seekers and followed up several times, including tagging Chow on Twitter. As of Monday mid-day, I have received no response. There was no announcement made after the city manager met last Friday with the feds, but Chow has indicated she is hopeful for something to come out of Tuesday's meeting.

On her inauguration day, as The Grind’s Fernando Arce reported, residents of the Strathcona Shelter Hotel also called on Chow to intervene to stop their unexpected and rushed evictions, and to act immediately to fix the shelter system. So far, no action has been announced by the mayor.

What Does It All Mean?

Maybe you’re of the opinion that this is all premature, unnecessary nit-picking. Maybe you’re right. Time will tell.

For now, there are big questions about how Chow is going to shift from campaigning to governing, what her strategy is to make changes that benefit the working class, and what actions will people take (or not take) to pressure her to act.  

Chow, as I’ve heard from activists and politicos, and as The Local’s profile showed, likes to build consensus with everyone. And she is friendly with (if not friends with) many on the social democrat left.

Worst case, she will be a very slow-moving mayor who accommodates corporate interests far too much, and there will be very few people and organizations willing to call out her administration publicly.

There are troubling seeds of that future from her first five days.

But there is also some – though not nearly enough – grassroots organizing activity calling for better, both now and in the long-term.

As Emmay Mah of the Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA) wrote last week, in a piece with similarities to our endorsement of Chow in June, “It’s up to us to make Olivia Chow’s time as Mayor count.”

That’s the bottom line: we can’t afford to just wait and see what Chow will do. The clock is ticking.

David Gray-Donald is The Grind's publisher and editorial director. This article appears online only.