Reviewed by Ruth Latta
by Olivia Chow
2014, ISBN 978-1-44342-829-3, www.harpercollins.ca
Olivia Chow’s memoir is an inspirational account of her rise from immigrant poverty and a troubled childhood to a position of fame, influence and respect. It is also about how she found and lost the great love of her life.
Chow is a member of the Canadian Parliament, representing the Toronto riding of Trinity Spadina. Although at time of writing she has not yet announced her plans to run for mayor of Toronto in the fall of 2014, rumours abound that she may. If so, she will offer the voters a philosophy and policy diametrically opposed to that of the incumbent, Rob Ford.
Chow’s childhood experiences led to her dedication to helping the disadvantaged, particularly women and children. During her years as a Toronto school board trustee (1985-1991) and city councillor, (1991-1998) she lobbied for school nutrition and dental programs, well-baby programs and family resource centres. Up to age thirteen, Olivia lived an upper middle class life in Hong Kong, raised by educators, who doted on her but were constantly fighting. Her father verbally and physically abused her mother and elder half-brother.
“If we separate, which would you choose to live with?” they asked her, a troubling question which had a negative effect on her school performance.
In 1970, the Chows immigrated to Canada and settled in downtown Toronto, where the parents suffered a “perilous descent in both income and status.” Her mother worked first in a sewing sweatshop, then as a maid, then in a hotel laundry, all for minimum wage. Her father, a cultivated man with expertise in music and a good knowledge of English never found a niche or made much money and was finally hospitalized for mental illness. He continued to abuse his wife until the couple finally separated.
In her forties, for her own peace of mind, Olivia forgave her father. Nevertheless, his behaviour kept her in a state of unease throughout her teens. Later, as an adult, she persisted in two abusive relationships because at some level she thought physical violence was normal, and that she was at fault for not being loving enough.
As a teen, Olivia was resourceful at finding ways to rise above her situation. In the summer of 1973, for example, she joined the Ontario Junior Ranger program. Travelling by bus eleven hours northwest of Toronto to Wawa on Lake Superior, then further into the hinterland to the ranger camp, she had her first experience of the Canadian bush.
“When I was in the north I felt in touch with the divine and that connection has endured,” she writes. She also attended the Chinese Baptist Church in Toronto, and, as a teenager was a fundamentalist Christian. It was in Nature, however, where she had her most intense spiritual experiences. In 1979, just out of university, and newly aware of the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, she wondered: “Was it more important to save souls or save lives?” The social gospel became her priority.
She studied philosophy at the University of Toronto and fine arts (sculpture) at the University of Guelph (graduating from the latter in 1979 with an Honours B.A.) She also waited tables and volunteered on a crisis line. Shortly after graduation she became a constituency office worker for Dan Heap, who was then Member of Parliament for Trinity Spadina. His office operated like a “drop-in centre” for inner city people with various needs.
Olivia next ran for school trustee, where she focused on creating heritage language programs, de-streaming to provide equal opportunities for poor and immigrant children, combating homophobia, and revamping a downtown high school with a low academic reputation.
In 1985, she was a co-volunteer at a charity auction with city councillor Jack Layton. In 2011, Layton would lead the New Democratic Party of Canada (the social democratic party) to Official Opposition status in the federal House of Commons, with Olivia, his wife, a Member of Parliament in the NDP caucus. But all that was in the future. Jack and Olivia fell in love at first sight and, over a meal, found that they were on the same political wave length.
They decided not to have children, because he already had two from his first marriage and because Olivia wanted to focus on public life. “I have never regretted that choice. I am glad it was mine to make,” she writes. She became a “playful aunt” figure and good friend to Jack’s children, now adults who are close to her and welcome her in a grandmother role. She was on “easy terms” with the children’s primary parent, Jack’s first wife, because she had not been the cause of their breakup, and because she made no attempt to usurp his ex’s maternal role.
Jack and Olivia thrived on political activity. Many ideas were generated when a crowd of like-minded friends and acquaintances gathered around their dining room table to brainstorm and enjoy a meal, cooked by Mrs. Chow. Indeed, in writing her memoir, Olivia hosted similar gatherings of friends and colleagues and sought their memories and input. Attracting informed and insightful advisors was one of Jack Layton’s strengths and was crucial, too, to Olivia at City Hall. When Mayor Mel Lastman appointed her Toronto’s First Advocate for Children and Youth, she focused on such areas as school food programs, family resource centres, and city-paid dental care to families earning under $30,000 per year.
Less satisfactory was her experience on the police services board, a body established to provide civilian oversight of the police, and from which she eventually resigned. At that time, the police force’s “de facto union”, the Toronto Police Association, was hostile to civilian oversight and wanted to endorse and financially support the campaigns of “law-and-order” candidates for public office. While on council, she proposed an audit of police practices on sexual assault investigations, following a case in which the police chose not to warn women in the downtown about a serial rapist in their area, but rather, used them as bait.
In 2002, Jack Layton left Toronto City Council to win the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. Olivia was elected in 2006 as M.P. for Trinity Spadina and the two became a team in Ottawa. Known for their enjoyment of sport and a healthy lifestyle, they were often seen riding their bicycle-built-for-two around Parliament Hill.
Under Layton, the NDP wrested funding for social programs from the scandal-ridden Liberal government, which eventually fell and was replaced by a Conservative minority led by Stephen Harper. Harper’s government did not respond with adequate economic measures to the stock market crash and recession of 2008. In a bold move, Layton attempted to organize a coalition of the three opposition parties to replace Harper’s government. Though Harper foiled this perfectly legal alternative by proroguing Parliament, the Conservatives introduced an economic stimulus program in 2009.
Jack Layton led the New Democrats to Official Opposition status in the spring of 2011 on a platform of practical measures to benefit everyday people. Then came the couple’s hardest test. Jack, who had recovered from prostate cancer and a broken hip, started to feel weak, so in late June he and Olivia went to Toronto for medical tests. The results were grim – he had a new aggressive cancer, the name of which neither he nor Olivia would reveal to the public for fear of discouraging others struggling with the disease.
Olivia describes Jack’s last summer as “extraordinary.” Surrounded by family and friends at their downtown Toronto home, he lived his last two months in a positive atmosphere. Toward the end, with help from trusted party advisors, he composed an inspirational message for the Canadian people. Two days before his death on August 22, 2011, he wrote:
“The idea of passing my heart and soul to Olivia to shepherd to the next phase of my spirit and soul is totally comforting. Held in her arms, I have no fears.”
Drawing on her ability to focus on the task at hand, a capacity probably developed during her troubled childhood, Olivia concentrated on planning Jack’s state funeral. His body lay in state in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, and then in Toronto City Hall, followed by a funeral at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall. Millions of Canadians coast to coast wept as they watched the funeral on television.
“In the days following Jack’s death,” she writes, “A makeshift shrine formed on the sidewalk leading up to our front door. Candles and flowers were left and someone painted the words, ‘Alive in our hearts.'”
Such manifestations of shared grief helped her, as did friends, family, meditation, wilderness excursions, swimming, and work. Still, she writes: “Little did I know how sorrow gnaws at the bone, how it creeps up at the most unexpected place, how devastating and soul-destroying it can be.”
Turning to her artistic talent, Olivia created two sculptures of Jack, a bust for his tombstone and a unique monument called “Jack’s Got Your Back”, which was unveiled on Toronto Island in 2013. The latter sculpture shows Jack on the rear seat of their bicycle-built-for-two. Visitors can sit on the front seat and “ride with Jack”.
Two and a half years after Jack’s death, Olivia is still very much alive, serving as NDP Transport Critic, representing her constituents, and carrying on the progressive work in which they both believed.
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