LORINC: The real Olivia Chow just stood up

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Throughout this gruelling campaign, voters have been treated to the uninspiring spectacle of a progressive candidate who has spoken to them – us – in multiple voices, none of them especially genuine.

There is the soothing, soft-spoken Olivia Chow, talking in low tones about children and her personal journey. Then there is the opposition critic Olivia, firing off gotcha questions, journo-style, on the many and varied failings of John Tory’s Smart Track scheme. And finally there is the almost-but-not-quite-funny Olivia, going after the cute riposte, such as her napkin stunt at this week’s Arts Vote debate.

But the woman who delivered a shoot-from-the-hip smack down in response to a racist question from an audience member at a Wednesday evening debate – that’s the authentic voice I’ve been waiting for, the one we all signed up to hear in this city’s epic fight to rid itself of the scourge of the brothers Ford.

The older man launched his question with a dog-whistle reference to Chow’s immigrant background, and went on to ask why she believed she had the qualifications to run the city, especially after living for free in a co-op building.

Chow has been on the receiving end of appalling racist crap since beginning of the race, a troubling echo of the homophobic slurs hurled at George Smitherman during the 2010 election. Let’s not forget who talked in council about gay men and AIDS, and then Asians “working like dogs.” We know where this stuff comes from.

And so Chow was not only angry; she allowed herself to express that anger, as opposed to dutifully delivering the over-rehearsed lines written out for her in the briefing binder that’s always under her nose. As she stood up to take on this man, she rediscovered the voice that so many people I know have found to be missing in action over these many months. She could likely have delivered an encore, given that neither John Tory nor Doug Ford sitting on the stage with her, made any attempt to repudiate the questioner’s twisted premise.

Chow’s certainly got it in her. She came of age in politics at a time when there was much dubious hang-wringing about Vietnamese “gangs,” “monster homes” and other proxy enemies. She endured the indignation of serving on the Toronto Police Services Board, an institution famously antagonistic towards strong, assertive women like Susan Eng and Judy Sgro. Point is, you don’t get as far as she’s gotten in politics without being tough, sharp-elbowed, and outspoken.

I’ve known Chow, as a journalist, for many years, and one particular habit of hers has always stuck with me. As I’d be scribbling away semi-illegibly in my notepad, she’d be reading what I’d written – up side down! – and would then correct my notes, jabbing with her finger at phrases I’d jotted down. It’s not a big thing, but I was always taken by the sheer audacity of that gesture. She wouldn’t flatter me by saying I’d just asked a terrific question. Chow corrected and argued a point like she meant it.

With her rebuttal to the man at the debate, Chow, perhaps inadvertently, gave full-throated expression to the anger that so many Torontonians feel today about the absurdly debased state of our civic politics. We are all but addicted to the grunts and putdowns uttered by the two fools who’ve dominated our public discourse for almost four years. We’ve watched them drive their ostentatious SUVs back and forth over the city’s political decorum until it resembles so much mangled road kill.

But none of the leading candidates have found a way to channel that entirely appropriate anger, because their strategists tell them that they’re going to alienate this group or that group. And so instead of genuine emotion, we get poll-tested talking points: the circus, building consensus, and so on and so forth.

For my money, I’d like to see someone who’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take this abuse any more. And who isn’t pretending.

Chow wasn’t pretending the other night. She’ has clearly had it up to here.

Hey, we all have. To her handlers, I’d say this: You have nothing to lose at this point in the game. Just back off and let her speak her mind.

photo by Pooyan Tabatabaei

27 comments

  1. Wow. I didn’t realize there were so many racist, lying bigots in Toronto. This is not my beautiful Canada. I hope Olivia wins this race and kicks these “people’ to the curb.

  2. Thanks for this piece, John Lorinc. The racism and homophobia emerging in this campaign is appalling. I find it disturbing that John Tory appears to be just letting it roll out – is that what he would do as mayor? Sit idly through racist attacks on a respected civic leader, as if they have no relevance to his campaign? We should expect more from a mayor. I’ve lost confidence that he will have any capacity to – or even interest in – implementing the city motto, Diversity is our strength. It doesn’t seem to be his.

  3. It’s about time, Olivia. Don’t allow people to be miserable to you anymore. I want this city back, away from the Fords.They’ve done nothing but damage us.

  4. Brilliant. Well thought and spoken. Thank you.

  5. Great article. Just a quick note, by including the statement “she lived in free co-op housing” without contestation or comment, you imply that this is a true fact, when it has repeatedly been demonstrated to be false (and it would be easy to link to a news source that debunks this claim).

  6. Kind of annoying that this article repeats the lie, “living for free…” without calling it out as such.

  7. and then Asians “working like dogs.” We know where this stuff comes from.

    Do “we”? Because you seem to be stating that this innocuous simile implies racism. It does not. For the record it means, “To work very hard” in the sense of dogs running to heard sheep. It is traditionally used as a compliment to one’s work ethic. The brouhaha when this issue arose around Ms. Chow the last time was the one and only time that I have ever heard someone take offense at such a compliment.

  8. I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with you (as per usual). I have felt like this since the (non)response of my own (lefty) councillor to the Fords’ contortions at city hall. There has got to be a discursive position between grandstanding and saying nothing!
    But we’ve heard enough salacious details about the drinking, drugging and lying. (Although I think various constituencies might want to say more about the Mayor and Chief Magistrate of Toronto buying drugs from and doing drugs with their children.) And, I agree more should be said about the Fords’ pervasive racism and homophobia, by ALL the candidates for mayor (Tory I’m talking about you). But, perhaps more importantly, where-oh-where is the obviously missing ECONOMIC critique of the Fords’ record of mismanagement and overspending at City Hall? Aside from the billions they want to spend on subways, off the top of my head I can think of millions they wasted on taking out bike lanes, cancelling bridges and pulling out of transit contracts. This is the kind of critique we should be hearing from our mayoralty candidates and especially our incumbent councillors who, considering they have sat on the committees that decided these things, are best-placed to know the details of the economic tomfoolery of the Ford regime.
    The political choice isn’t between spending money and not spending money, it’s between spending money productively and throwing it away on destroying the stuff you don’t like in a sustained fit of petulance. It would be so easy to show that the Fords spend money like drunken sailors (pun intended) when it suits their political goals.
    C’mon politicos (and journos), it’s a no-brainer (again intended).

  9. Oh Joe, you do not have the ability to judge what is and isn’t a racist remark based on what you think is offensive. That’s your white privilege speaking. Let me guess, you think “orientals” is also a valid term?

  10. Chow’s website goes on and on about the fact she’s an immigrant, all he asked is what many people are wondering, “Cool, soooo… what does being an immigrant have to do with running the city of Toronto?”

  11. This article is indicative of the knee-jerk liberal crowd who seek social status and acceptance by blithely following whatever tripe they are spoon fed by their supposed intellectual superiors. Olivia Chow is indeed disliked by many people on a visceral level, and there is of course prejudice in some of that reaction. It may be a shock to some of you delicate souls, but any psychiatrist worth his salt can tell you that tribalism, which underpins prejudice, is endemic to human nature. If Chow receives an overwhelming share of the Asian vote, will anyone raise the question of whether race factored in to those voters’ decision? I doubt it. When Chow was asked how she is different from the other candidates in the race, she responded by saying, “I am not male and I am not white”. Barely a peep was heard from the PC sycophants at 1 Yonge Street, yet had John Tory or Rob or Doug Ford made the equivalent statement in differentiating themselves from Chow, people’s heads would have been exploding. Chow’s lack of proficiency with the language is another serious issue for many people. There is a widespread feeling that to be mayor it is necessary to be capable of communicating clearly using the spoken word, and Chow does not possess the level of proficiency that many voters are demanding. For my part, I have the aforementioned reasons and many more to explain why I would not consider voting for her. Some of those reasons are what people in this forum would characterize as racist, sexist, etc. and that is of course their right. We must each apply our own criteria in determining for whom we will vote. I can say that regardless of gender, race or linguistic anomalies, Chow’s ideology alone provides more than adequate reason why she is completely unsuitable to be mayor of Toronto.

  12. Olivia has contributed more to this country than most of us ever will.

  13. Chow will increase taxes and debt. Torontonians won’t stand for more tax increases. Miller increased size of City staff by 20% – the City is already overburdened with taxes !!!!

  14. no worries people, JOHN TORY is here to rid the City of Rob Ford. Olivia just insulted every single artist/musician in this town bu releasing her garbage so-called “Theme” song. This is the best writing that artists in our city can do right Olivia? Sounds like early 80’s Isaac Hates, Theme From Shaft, and her comment about electronic music, well. dear Olivia, electronic music is what’s putting real live musicians and artists out of work, so if she ever got elected, bye,bye Arts and Culture in this town. What a huge disappointment she is. Her little rant here is about as effective as her defense of finding a naked Jack Layton in a rub & tug. Pathetic! No worrie sthough, Mayor John Tory to the rescue.

  15. I’m sorry, am I missing something here? How could anyone constue this man’s question as being racist? He identifies himself with immigrants. His issue is that the lady in question has never had a ‘normal’ life, being a politician, and has no grounding in the day to day problems of setting up a business, looking for a job or having problems with a landlord. The article also mentions that the lady was offended by the term “working like dogs”, is her grasp of the English language so incomplete that she doesn’t realise that’s a compliment? It sounds to me like her and her handlers main contribution to politics is to stir up racial angst.

  16. The tone of voice he used granted was harsh. However had Olivia listened carefully, she would of heard himself say that he himself was an immigrant. He was trying to tell her that as an immigrant he worked hard and opened up his own business without being on the public purse. In other words trying to say that she on the other hand has lived her whole adult life living off the public purse so how could she possibly relate to those such as him vs her living off the public purse? Olivia’s reply was out of line. She went on the attack (like we see her do constantly on Tory as if that is a platform), and in fact kept attacking she was a Canadian citizen. Well Olivia, living off the public purse does not make you more Canadian and above that of that gentlemen’s Canadian Citizenship as well.

  17. To the people above…he was trying to equate her choice of public service as an example of not knowing how to govern – to me, that’s ludicrous. The point of coming to canada is the freedom of choosing a path. So what she didn’t open a business? It’s an inherently flawed question with lots of negativity buried in it and to deny that is to demonstrate am agenda.

  18. Well put Ana.

    Frankly, I think Chow, and Tory too, has had a rather light ride throughout this campaign. Neither has endured the out of control scrutiny of the Fords on a policy or personal level.

    I’m not defending the Fords or their behavior but if the media, and others, is going to call out one individual over the slightest or thinnest excuse under the guise ‘the public has a right to know’, then does not the same mantra hold true, to the same extremes for all?

    Chow for her part has really not presented a single original idea but borrowed from everyone and everywhere calling it hers. And still she has not answered the very questions she puts to others on their various transit plans. She also does NOT seem to hear the TTC when it tells her she can’t institute her more buses ‘idea’ immediately, or even in a full term. She too often takes credit for past successes merely because she was a member of the committee charged with the job at the time. But what type of member and contributor was she? That information would be extremely useful in determining her qualifications. Tell me, us all, Mr. Lorinc.

    Her campaign from the launch was opportunistic of the highest order. Planned to profit by the movie released on her late husband, her own book release, etc. And this is while she collects pensions from taxpayers for both herself and her husband.

    Her claims to pull at heartstrings by attempting to usurp the children of the city as her own charge is shameless at best, a vamp at least.

    And to challenge your assertion Mr. Lorinc, Chow has never come clean on the subsidized housing event. All we have is her words. Where are supporting docs? The same as would be demanded of any other politico in similar circumstances. If she, and others of her ‘tribe’ really want to put this issue down for good, present the goods.

  19. I am an immigrant and don’t see how this is racist. She keeps incessantly repeating how she is an immigrant so the man just asked how that relates to her ability to lead the city. Seems like her campaign cinsists of playing “I am an immigrant” on repeat and slinging mud at other candidtaes, U.S. politics stlye…..weak. I don’t like the Fords but I respect them, they state what they stand for and make no apologies for it; that’s why people support them. Other candidates with a better vision should take note.

  20. What people don’t realize today is that $800/month rent was pretty high at that time. It was subsidized housing but many units were at the current market rent in order to get a mix of incomes from low to high, to prevent it turning into the poverty ghettos that subsidized housing had become, in other areas, in the past.. Also there was never any such thing as “free” housing for anyone other than the institutionalized.

  21. I find the man’s comments poorly stated and he takes too long to get to the point, but don’t find him racist.

    He was asking Oliva Chow to defend her record, and tell the audience what qualified her to be Toronto’s mayor. The background people should be aware of is that Chow was asked earlier in the campaign what makes her qualified to be mayor and her answer was “I’m not a man, and I’m not white”.

    Ford and Tory both come from privilege. Chow doesn’t. But these facts have nothing to do with answering the question as to what makes her qualified to be Toronto’s next mayor – a question she has refused to answer. Why not list her accomplishments (she has many) instead of crying victim?

  22. What the hell are people talking about, saying that man had a right to say she only knows how to “live off the public purse”? Are you kidding me? Being a politician is not just some plum job that you only work for at election time. Hard-working politicians, and it would seem that Olivia Chow is one of those, routinely work 80 hour weeks. She gives her entire life over to public service and then has to deal with crap from people who think that because she is a public servant she doesn’t actually deserve any respect. Politicians make reasonably good money, but I’m not sure it’s worth it for what they have to put up with.

    I’m sick of these people who malign politicians because they think all they do is raise taxes. Stop being so damn self-centred. They are making decisions about, quite literally, civilization. Yours is not the only opinion that matters. And to complain about poor service provision while simultaneously bemoaning increased taxes is ridiculous. It’s one or the other, people. Civic administrations are not nearly as inefficient as the pro-business, low-taxes spin we’ve been listening to for decades would have you believe. I work in the private sector. There’s waste here, too, kids. The vast majority of people in the public sector work very hard at their jobs and get very little credit for all the things that go right, and get disproportionate crap for the relatively few things that go wrong.

    Go Olivia Chow. Way to defend yourself.

  23. Jack Layton and Olivia Chow lived in co-operative housing, a different model from public housing (called HLM in Québec and other French-speaking countries). Public housing is also a great idea, but there was a problem in its application in many places in North America. There simply wasn’t enough of it. Thus, while most people in HLMs in Paris or the equivalent in Amsterdam are workers, the shortage of public housing in many North American cities meant that they had to accept the most desperate cases. This meant a preponderance of people who were out of work or had other serious problems, and the creation of poverty ghettos.

    Ana, the man did NOT say he was an immigrant. He said his father was an immigrant. Especially considering that he is white, that makes a huge difference.

    Doug Taylor has a lot of dogwhistle comments, such as the crap about “delicate souls”. Go for it, macho man. Yes, I think you are racist, sexist, and most of all, reactionary. And you love your frigging SUV.

    Co-ops depend on a mix of people who can pay market rents (and enjoy the stability of longterm occupancy) and those who need a subsidy. Chow and Layton did not benefit from an especially low rent when they were co-op members; remember that co-ops are non-profit, so even members who are paying their full share enjoy the benefit of that, simply because it is an anti-speculative model.

  24. Rob Ford’s offensive remarks about Asian Canadians can be argued about forever. However, the part that cannot be justified or overlooked is his classification of a group of people by stereotypes. Any variation of the concept of “these people” is offensive by its very nature. People of all races and origins are individuals – the vast majority are good, a few are dodgy and very very few are bad.

  25. Okay, it took me a minute, but here is the actual question, in writing:

    “Question: With due respect, this is directed to Ms. Chow. I’ve heard you talk many times about your immigrant background, and how important it was, et cetera. I presume that in this room, there are plenty of people with the same background. I, myself, am the son of an immigrant. However, what we have done when we came.. Well, we – I talk about myself. We founded companies, were professionals or did something of that nature. I don’t know all of your background, but what I do know indicates you have.. you haven’t been in that position. You’ve been a city councillor – public purse. You’ve been a member of parliament – public purse. And unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember when you were city councillor and you were living in council housing – for free. I remember these things. But was I would like to know it, to explain to me, what you think of all of these things qualify you to be mayor of the largest city in Canada, with a budget larger than most provinces?”

    The problem with this question, other than the generally disjointedness it displays, is that it does not get immediately to the point. Let me take a stab at it:

    Ms. Chow, I have heard you talk about how important your experience as an immigrant is. I know that you have been a city councillor. I know that you have been a member of parliament. Many people have been all these things. Many of your opponents are, or have been, some or all of these things. You have never been, to my knowledge, owned or operated a business, worked as a professional in any field, or even worked at all in the private sector for an extended period. Can you tell me what part of your experience makes you uniquely qualified for the Office of Mayor of Toronto.

    The problem was he started with the immigrant part, then immediately back-pedaled to try and not sound as if he was racist. He also tried to defend himself by stating he was the child of an immigrant, attempting to personalize and further defend himself from potential charges of racism. Much like the Black Friend defense, this is a non-starter.

    Of course he immediately seemed a racist the moment that the word immigrant was spoken. Non-immigrants can never discuss the experience of immigrants, similar to the fact that men can never talk about the pain of childbirth. But that was his mistake, and I don’t believe the man is a trained and experienced public speaker, so let’s just say he made a gaff and leave it at that. Olivia then did what any experienced debater would do when faced with a question that could not be directly answered, without sounding weak: she attacked the question itself.

    The fact that the speaker gifted her with this opportunity was unfortunate. If he had never mentioned it, nor repeated the unfounded belief that she lived in public housing for free, then the question would have been fine. What does makes her more qualified than John Tory to be Mayor of Toronto?

    The answer, of course, is: nothing. They are apples and oranges. One is a well-educated, well-spoken management executive; the other is a well-educated, well-meaning public servant.

    I feel bad, though, that this man is now branded a racist. He’s probably not, just too clueless to not talk about the childbirth being painful to a woman.

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