Olivia Chow, unplugged

Olivia Chow, My Journey
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Photos by THE ORIGAMI

by THE ORIGAMI STAFF

Notwithstanding the return of the polar vortex-generated frigid weather, a standing-room only crowd packed the multi-purpose hall at Trinity-St. Paul United Church on Bloor St. West Jan. 22 for the launch of Olivia Chow’s book, My Journey.

Will she or won’t she – run for mayor that is – was clearly on the minds of many who hang on to Chow’s every word, lest they miss the much-anticipated announcement of this year’s political season in Toronto. Chow, (MP for Trinity-Spadina, NDP) is being touted as the key challenger to Toronto City Mayor Rob Ford, who has been stripped of mayoral powers and continues to be hounded by a scandal involving drug and alcohol abuse.

But after nearly an hour of being interview on stage by filmmaker and CBC broadcaster Sook-Yin Lee, no such declaration came from Chow. Well, she wasn’t even asked, and the audience was too polite to holler the question.

Nonetheless, the crowd (enthusiastic Chow die-hards, political pundits, members of the media, and Chow’s family, including her mother, Ho Sze Chow, and late husband Jack Layton’s mother, Doris Layton) got a glimpse of what makes Chow tick.

At times introspective and most of the time, candid and funny, Chow revealed what it was like growing up with a father who took out his frustrations on his wife; she reflected on her family’s struggle as immigrants and how, in many ways, the personal became political for her. She related the story of how her mother, Ho Sze Chow, a former teacher in Hong Kong, couldn’t speak English when they settled in Toronto’s St. James Town high-rise community. So Ho Sze Chow became a maid, and later, a laundry woman at a downtown hotel. The latter job took its toll – she developed arthritis. When she retired, she received a lump sum pension of just over $3,000. “Later in my political life, I would come to understand the importance of a good pension plan so that seniors could retire in dignity. Her story would become a powerful motivating force,” said Chow, reading a passage from her book.

My Journey, said Chow, is a book about immigration, overcoming adversity, public service, and love. The chapters on love, of course, includes stories of what she calls the “unrelenting optimism” of Jack Layton, social democratic politician and leader of Canada’s official political opposition, who died of cancer in 2011.

Olivia Chow

 Excerpts from the Chow interview at the book launch:

‘Tempestuous home’

My mother spoke very little English but my father spoke fluent English and I had studied English in school. I had some advantage entering into this new world. I had grown up watching Batman, Bugs Bunny, Mr. Ed and the delightful Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote… Not along after we settled in Toronto, we moved to the newly-built high rise neighbourhood of St. James Town, south of Rosedale, Toronto’s most affluent neighbourhood. I was still a tomboy who used to arm wrestle the boys and sometimes women. One thing I did not do was to bring my friends in school for home, more than ever, was a tempestuous place.

The move to Canada was supposed to bring us a wonderful new life. We experienced setbacks and shocks. My father the former school superintendent and my mother the former teacher suffered a dramatic decline in income and status…

I wish I could tell you that after a gruelling shift she [mother]  could find respite at home but there was none. My father although qualified and spoke English well, there was no work for him as a substitute teacher.  He pursued a master’s degree but it didn’t seem to make a difference… He worked for a few months as a taxi driver but he couldn’t understand the rapid fire dispatch orders. He worked as a labourer…later he delivered Chinese food.. He was increasingly frustrated and bitter… The beatings escalated as new pressures came to bear…

 

Naima Hassan (left) Shukri Dualeh (right) perform spoken word poetry.

 

No help

There was loneliness and great shame for which no help was forthcoming. I did seek help from guidance department at Jarvis Collegiate… but it got nowhere. My mother couldn’t speak English so she couldn’t seek help either. Like so many immigrant families we were on our own, in a new land with no relatives to help us. I think back to those times and I wonder how much differently things would have gone for my parents had there been comprehensive support, counselling and psychological help…

Solace in nature

When I turned 16 I saw this ad for junior forest ranger. Escape! I applied, my mother said…not a chance… I went anyway. All of a sudden I saw stars. At St. James Town you don’t see stars. I saw the sunrise and the sunset. I saw the beautiful majestic sky and the forest and the loons. I fell  in love even with the horse flies and the deer flies. It was just amazing. It just put things in perspective. I am just this small and it put all my troubles in that spot.

Over time, I went to a church. I found this notion of the power of unconditional love. Wow. That was my second home.

Her half-brother, Andre

He always reached out with great deal of love… He spoke about not looking at the past, to look at moments, to understand the here and now. He taught me kung fu… We were not that different from other families (who valued) hard work, saving every penny for rainy days.

Mental health

We don’t talk about mental health enough. As a society we have a patchwork of services. Just two weeks ago I had a meeting with primary workers. I asked them what service we need to extend and they all said, mental health, support, counseling…

Forgiveness

[How were you able to forgive your father?] I tried to imagine what it was like for him and for my mother, who was not to be able to call 911 because she couldn’t communicate… I will bring Jack into this. [He said] you have to see the goodness in each person no matter how bad that person is… I was hanging out with a guy that was forever optimistic.

Church and the ‘power of the collective’

You can have faith but have no action. In 1979,  with the arrival of Vietnamese boat people…we had a rally [advocating for] refugee sponsorships. We saw that we came together… that’s what government is all about. I was beginning to figure it out and one thing led to another…

Love and death

When Jack died, psychologically I understood that.. I accepted that his life and my life, we lived it to the fullest. Sometimes that moment can be incredibly rich, so beautiful and important that it’s like eternity and when you experience that time is not necessarily linear.  I’m grateful for what I had.

Olivia Chow book launch

Abusive relationships

[On having had relationships with men who were physically abusive before she met Jack Layton] Maybe I thought that this was normal. This is the cycle of violence…. I thought, he will change… [What made you break the cycle?] Guy’s a loser, just leave.

Political apathy

Canadians, Torontonians are incredibly generous. We saw that in the ice storm, the [response] to the typhoon in the Philippines, [the earthquake] in Haiti…We volunteer so people do care. It’s just that somehow the political system, the people in charge, they don’t want us to change the status quo. Some people who are struggling, they’ll say politics is all dirty… In order to overcome that feeling that you can’t effect change, you can start really small… celebrate that. The minute we can do few things [people] realize they have power to effect change…

Life after Jack

The emotions started catching up…I had panic attacks. I found that in moments of deep sorrow – my friend taught me – if you do routine stuff, it really makes a difference. I made the bed five times… I did things to distract myself… [During the period of grief] I had pneumonia, shingles, part of my face was paralyzed… My body was telling me I was working too hard…. Last year was quite busy. We had the memorial for Jack, the [launch of the Jack Layton] terminal, being an MP, the film, the book. But this year will be pretty relaxing.

 

The evolution of the NDP

One big story that I’d like to leave behind tonight is how we [NDP] were able to get through Quebec [in the 2011 federal elections]. We said to the Quebecois, ‘whether you’re in Quebec or outside Quebec, we’re together.’ Whether in Toronto or in the suburbs, we’re one city. We’re one country, one Canada. The theme of working together is so important. Some people want to divide us – you’re an immigrant, I’m not; I’ve experienced poverty, you haven’t. But we are so much stronger if we work together.

 

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