Rookie councillor no more

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Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam speaks at an oath-taking ceremony for new Canadian citizens held last February at Mars Discovery District. Photo: MARS DISCOVERY DISTRICT

The term ‘model minority’ is ‘problematic,’ says Wong-Tam

In 2010, when Kristyn Wong-Tam was elected councillor of Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), she was considered one of the City Hall rookies to watch.

Before she became one of 15 women and one of five racialized persons on the 45-member city council, she had already earned a formidable reputation as a passionate community advocate, an accomplished real estate professional, businesswoman, and champion of the arts.

A co-founder of Asian Canadians for Equal Marriage, she was also past president of the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) in Toronto, which sought an apology and redress from the federal government on behalf of surviving Chinese Head Tax payers and their families. [The persistence of the CCNC – the largest Chinese Canadian human rights group in Canada – resulted in a full apology 22 years later. In 2006, Prime Minister Harper apologized to Chinese Canadians for the head tax and for six decades of legislated racism imposed against them.]

Not one to mince words, Wong-Tam has been one of the more outspoken members of council who have taken Mayor Rob Ford to task for his refusal to attend Gay Pride celebrations and his cavalier attitude towards immigrants and women in politics. She had butted heads with him once, before she became councillor, when she demanded an apology following his remarks about how “Those Oriental people work like dogs” and how “they’re slowly taking over.” She had led Asian protesters at City Hall and gathered hundreds of signatures demanding an apology, which she presented to the council. Ford was forced to retract his words and delivered what critics called a half apology.

Following the recent scandal involving Ford and a “crack video,” whose existence he had repeatedly denied until it was confirmed by none other than Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, Wong-Tam issued a statement expressing the hope that Ford would take a leave of absence and seek help.

“Like many other Torontonians, I was disappointed to learn that the alleged video of Mayor Ford exists and that the Mayor has not been transparent and accountable to the residents of Toronto,” she said in a statement. “I do not judge the Mayor for his use of illicit drugs and understand that drug addiction is a serious illness.”

She said she was “most saddened that the allegations of Mayor Ford making racist and homophobic remarks in this video are now confirmed.  We deserve a mayor that champions social inclusion and equity, a city leader that inspires excellence from all residents. Toronto deserves better leadership.”

The Origami’s MARITES N. SISON sat down with Wong-Tam before the Blair revelations. Excerpts:

Q: You’re in your third year in office. What have the highs and lows been? What were the surprises?

A: There were many surprises, simply because it’s a brand new path for me. I’ve oftentimes been engaged with community organizing so the actual skills needed were very transferable… I’ve been most excited about community transformation pieces, working with neighbourhoods, with various stakeholders, [and] finding common objectives to get us to a better place, to build a safer, more inclusive, more equitable, more prosperous city.

Some of the highlights have been working on public realm improvement projects. I care very much about the quality of life people are having in Toronto. Toronto is one of the best cities in the world, bar none, and I’ve traveled to more than 60 cities in my short lifetime. Every single time, I come back with some new ideas, some passion, new energy, but I also am very mindful that Toronto is doing a lot of things well; we just don’t often congratulate ourselves or pat ourselves on the back.

There’s a level of cynicism in the city about what we can’t do. But having been to many different places, there’s a lot that Toronto is already doing… We’re undergoing what I call a park renaissance in the ward. We’re investing millions of dollars in new park infrastructure, redesign and expansion of public parks. We know that gives people a better quality of life and gives people a space to come together, to meet friends and to interact with family.

Celebrate Yonge in 2012 was a big positive experience for us. This is where we took ten blocks of Yonge Street and we reprogrammed and retransformed it over four weeks. That, in many ways, was the very first time that Yonge Street had a different look and a different animation. It was a very ambitious program, and it subsequently won a number of awards.  It became one of the top events for the Ontario Business Improvement Association. It’s something that we’re very proud of and my office worked very closely with the downtown BIA. That was a big marquee event for us. It was the catalytic change to begin a new conversation about how to re-imagine, redesign and rebuild Yonge Street for the future. The Yonge Street of 2016 and 2017, if we lay out the groundwork properly, will have a different look, very different feel than the Yonge Street you see today.  I’m envisioning wider sidewalks, very dynamic street life, roll up windows and animated storefronts that allow for patios and a big investment, enhancement in the public realm.

Q: What is Toronto doing right?

What Toronto does right, in many ways, is that we have our neighbourhoods right. For example, we have 140 neighbourhoods across the city and everyone is deeply connected to their local community.

From that perspective, Toronto has been a place in Canada that has encouraged individualism in one way –  in terms of retention of culture, retention of language –  but also has encouraged participation in the local community levels.

That’s why you have very dynamic and rich neighbourhoods with some very rich history perhaps and some cultural context, and each one of them sits side by side in the city in relative peace and harmony. That’s fantastic. You would be challenged to go to another big part of the world with this much racial, cultural and linguistic diversity and have people live in relative peace and harmony, interacting, completely integrated.

We don’t oftentimes give ourselves credit for it, but the level of multiculturalism in Toronto should be a model for the rest of the world. It’s not that New York doesn’t have diversity, it’s not that London, England, doesn’t have diverse people, but we don’t have the level of segregation that they have.

Our population in many ways is integrated and that’s what makes me feel like a very proud Canadian – that we have this level of access and this level of participation from many communities. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t any problems, and for sure there are. But some of those problems, not to take away from it, are not as magnified and as severe and as immediate as some other places where you have people of a religious background literally in civil war. They’re of the same country, of the same land, the same language, the same culture and they have guns to their head. We don’t have that in Canada and I’m very grateful for that.

Q: You’re one of a few visible minority in Canadian politics. Do you feel a certain responsibility to represent minority voices?

A: I am the only racial visible minority woman councillor and I do feel a sense of responsibility. It’s really important that I stand up and I speak up when the community expects me to. It could sometimes be a tough place to put myself, but I know that from the questions and sometimes the inquiries that have come in from various communities, I will field phone calls from Scarborough residents because they see an Asian woman on television and they think that you’ll be able to assist them – and they could be of Vietnamese background.

I myself am from Chinese-Canadian background. I’m that hyphenated Canadian 2.0  and I think that my responsibility is to respond. We respond to all the constituent calls, but because of my visible profile as a racial minority person, I sometimes get the extra calls…

There is an additional burden of responsibility that I rise to meet because I have to and it’s expected of me. At some point in time, as there are more visible minority elected to office, I will not have to carry that on my own or there will be more shoulders to carry that work and do the work, and I look forward to that day.

Q: A recent Pew Research study on Asian Americans suggests that they are the “highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing” of racial groups in the U.S. But it also said half of Asian newcomers suffer the lowest incomes and struggle adjusting to a new language and culture. Is it the same reality in Canada?

A: In Toronto, absolutely, I don’t have to look very far. Even in the Chinese-Canadian community we see that there are a number of economic hardships, especially as people who are coming new to this country and are settling into their new home.

If they’ve chosen Toronto to be their home, we’re very glad that they’re here and we want them to stay and we want them to fall in love with the city. We want them to settle in and put down some roots.

We also want to make sure that people have access to opportunities. I think that’s what’s really important. It’s about making sure there’s a level playing field. ..

As Asian communities, we’re oftentimes held up as a model minority and that is very problematic to me in terms of the term,  “model minority,” because it means there’s someone else who’s not desirable. I think that sets up an “us vs. them” dichotomy, which is extremely problematic. It also sets up some power constructs that I think we need to be very critical of in our thinking, of who is considered ideal as an immigrant and who is not.

So there is a wanted and not wanted list and oftentimes, the darker your skin colour, the less you’re wanted. So we might as well just call it for what it is and say, we still live in a world where we do have racial discrimination and those lived experience for people who have darker-skilled would be very different for those perhaps an immigrant who is of white skinned background.

When I look at the Asian diaspora and what we would call the Pan-Asian experience right now in the West, we should not be embracing necessarily the fact that some of us are viewed as model minority and I would probably count myself in that category now because of my middle class stature, because I came from a wealthy British colony, Hong Kong, that would have been the desired immigrant…We should not be fooled that all Asians are desired because we’re not necessarily viewed as equals.

At the same time it’s very important for us to not get complacent and say that, ‘There are enough of us now that are doctors and lawyers, there’s even a city councilor who looks like me, who eats what I eat at home, we’re equals, so our work is done.”  That’s not the case. There’s very much a social trend right now that newer immigrants are having a harder time integrating in civil society, access to services are becoming more difficult to obtain and access to good employment with decent paying job are even more challenging. We cannot forget the fact that we have people in different economic strata that are struggling and the marker of progress and the benchmark for success for many is where we actually remove those obstacles and we give people access and it’s up to them to do the best they can. I’m not saying carry them across the door; we have to open the door and let them walk across the threshold.

Q: Your ward includes the richest and poorest neighbourhoods of Toronto. Does that make your work harder? What have the poorest of the poor been asking you to do on their behalf and how do you make sure those needs are met?

It certainly makes for interesting times. We don’t have a dull moment in the ward and you’re right, Ward 27 is very much diverse even along the lines of social location and economic stature.

We will be very honest about it. I represent one of the wealthiest, established neighbourhoods in all of the country, where you’re really looking at the old money and it comes across from the times of Hudson Bay and the whole trade route.

At the same time I represent one of the poorest communities in the country and the whole in between.

They have different issues and it’s not to say that one is more important than the other. It’s all about the relevancy to them and their lives. But certainly in our wealthier, upper-middle class neighbourhoods we don’t see a lot of change, not a lot of development, not a lot of urban planning. They’re very stable, so things tend to remain a bit static. As long as we provide a level of service that they expect from the city, they’re largely satisfied.

We have one of the largest shelter populations in the city, so there are more homeless people living on Ward 27 than any part of Toronto. We also have the lion’s share of Toronto Community Housing; along with that comes a host of issues that we may not see in other more well-adjusted, affluent neighbourhoods.  It sometimes comes with a population that’s street-involved or homeless, struggling with mental health, addictions and alcoholism. Combine that all with poverty and inter-generational systemic poverty and you have a brewing pot for something that’s waiting to just explode.

That’s something that we work with and we try to work with those communities to actually empower themselves because the change isn’t going to come from city hall. The change for economic renewal, revitalization and personal progress when it comes to economic independence, has to come from within. That’s the challenge for me as a local councillor when I deal with a ward that’s so economically diverse.

Q: You are not only an openly gay politician, but you continue to be active in LGBTQ causes. Why is it important to you to continue doing this?  Is it because within the Asian-Canadian population discussing sexuality is largely considered a taboo?

A: As someone who has intersecting identity, this is who I am and these are the cultures that I come with me. Yes, I’m very much proud to be part of the LGBTQ community and I’ve always been out for some time. One of the things I do in my work is that I actually try to be visible, not just from the racial minority perspective but to give voice to people who are normally not at the table of decision making.

I think it’s very important that now that I’m here at City Hall, I actually try raise some issues that normally don’t get attention…I have this level of responsibility to the community and I know that’s what’s expected of me. They’ve [LGBTQ] said to me in many occasions, “We’re really glad that you’re there,” because they couldn’t imagine City Hall run by a Ford administration without a progressive voice representing LGBTQ issues. So from that perspective, it’s a privilege and an honour to serve.

But when I move into the Asian community to talk about issues that affect the Asian community, I do not hide my sexuality. It doesn’t have to be in your face, of course, because that’s not necessarily where we need to be. But if it comes up, I don’t deny it and if it comes up, I address it, and if the issue is around LGBTQ rights, same-sex adoption or equal marriage then I will address it head on.

When I was the president of the Chinese Canadian National Council, Toronto chapter, we led the campaign for redress reform on the head tax and we got an apology from Prime minister Harper in 2006.  At the same time that I was the president of CCNC Toronto, I was also working with the equal marriage campaign to educate the Chinese Canadian community around lesbian and gay equality marriage rights.

I know that within the Chinese Canadian press there were some very right wing social conservative forces that did not want to advance the LGBT equality rights within the Chinese Canadian community. They oftentimes belittled it as, ‘That’s just a Western disease, that’s something that inflicts the people who are from the west.” Even though it’s such an archaic stereotype I still had to confront it. And I know that it made a difference that I stood up as president of the CCNC Toronto, [to say] that actually not all Chinese Canadians are social conservatives and not all of us and I can certainly say not this human rights organization would condemn LGBT equality rights; as a matter of fact, we support it and we’re working with the LGBT community because there are people within the Asian Diaspora that happen to be LGBT and if they want to be married we would support that.

I know that there were times when certain very social conservative forces that are very much faith-based really did not like that message. It ran contrary to what they wanted to achieve, which is to paint one community with one brush and say that they are monolithic and they have one opinion and the opinion is they don’t support LGBT rights. Of course, that’s not true… we don’t have one single identity, and we certainly don’t have one single opinion.

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