By Jordan Omstead in Toronto
Olivia Chow encouraged residents to envision a more compassionate and affordable Toronto on Wednesday as she officially took office as mayor in a city facing major housing and financial challenges.
The 66-year-old, the first person of colour to lead Canada’s most populous city, is taking the top job at a time when Toronto needs to tackle significant affordability concerns and find a way to emerge from a mountain of pandemic-related debt.
Chow, a longtime progressive stalwart, referenced those issues in her first speech as mayor and promised action.
“Let’s build a Toronto that is more affordable, safe and caring, where everyone belongs,” she said to cheers and applause. “Together we can and today, we start.”
Chow, a former NDP MP and past city councillor, defeated 101 other candidates to win last month’s mayoral byelection to replace John Tory, who resigned after admitting to an affair with a staffer.
Her speech played on themes familiar to her successful campaign, casting Toronto as a resilient city primed for change.
She made overtures to the shortage of affordable housing and a transit system burdened by service cuts, while taking a jab at what she called the city’s “reluctant partners” in the provincial and federal governments for withholding a bailout of Toronto’s pandemic-ravaged finances.
The city faces a nearly $1-billion shortfall in this year’s budget, largely driven by increased shelter costs and decreased transit revenues.
“We need a new deal for our city. Toronto needs strong federal and provincial partners who recognize our city’s crucial role in the economic and social life of our province,” she said.
Chow immigrated to Canada at 13 years old with her parents, who were educators in Hong Kong but who struggled to make ends meet when they moved to Toronto. The family settled in the high rises of St. James Town, a familiar landing in the downtown core for many working-class newcomers.
“Toronto’s story is also my story,” Chow said as she asked her audience to imagine a young family arriving in the city today with the same dreams for a better future.
“I think we all know what they’re up against. So let’s imagine what could be possible when we meet our challenges with the boundless potential of our ideas and the strength of our collective action.”
Chow’s ascension to the mayor’s office is a high mark in political career spanning nearly four decades. She was first elected as a school board trustee in 1985, sat for 13 years on Toronto city council until 2005, and then went to Ottawa as an NDP MP alongside her late husband, former federal New Democrat leader Jack Layton.
Her declaration of office ceremony, emceed by actor Jean Yoon, featured a reading from the city’s poet laureate and remarks from Indigenous elders. An acapella group led by Lorraine Segato, the frontwoman for Toronto band The Parachute Club, got the chamber to their feet with a rendition of the group’s 1983 hit “Rise Up”.
Chow’s family looked on from the front row of the council chambers as she was introduced with a standing ovation.
“There’s no one I can think of that would do a better job,” said Mike Layton, her stepson and a former city councillor. “To see her back here serving in that capacity, I know it’s something that she feels is great privilege.”
Since the June 26 byelection, Chow has been meeting with city administration, finalizing her team and holding transition engagements with civil service and non-profits on priority issues.
Chow has pledged to get local government back into the business of building social housing and to spend millions to acquire and preserve affordable units.
“We can and must start by tackling the housing crisis,” she said. “The suffering is real.”
Chow’s mayoral term runs until 2026 but will be quickly tested by the city’s turbulent finances.
A city staff report indicates there are enough COVID-19 reserve funds set aside to prop up this year’s budget, but without more money, the backstop would be insufficient to cover next year’s projected shortfall of up to $927 million.
Another pressing issue is the city’s housing crisis and the record levels of people experiencing homelessness.
Adding to a sense of urgency, the city has been deadlocked with the federal government over a request to provide more money to help house asylum seekers, with the city recently instituting a policy of turning away those applicants from at-capacity shelters towards federal programs.
Chow would not commit to overturning the controversial policy on Wednesday, even as critics argue it violates the city’s own standards against turning people away based on immigration status. She pressed Ottawa for an additional $160 million to help shelter refugees, calling it a federal responsibility.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 12, 2023.
Banner image via The Canadian Press