Update, February 2014: Former MP and Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow has taken a teaching job at Ryerson University. Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes last spoke to her as she was preparing to run in the Toronto mayoral election.
Even if she weren’t Jack Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow would have a tale to tell. More than one. An immigrant’s saga: Her family struggled after moving to Canada from Hong Kong in 1970 when she was 13. A politician’s story: She cut a swath as a Toronto school trustee and then a municipal councillor from 1985 to 2005 and, since 2006, has served as an NDP MP for a downtown riding. But her new memoir, My Journey, inevitably centres on her personal and political partnership with Layton, and offers her poignant account of his death from cancer in 2011. Chow spoke in her Parliament Hill office about the book, and also about what’s next.
Q: What made you think this might be the right time for this memoir?
A: It started after many conversations I had with people who came up to me after Jack’s death and said, “What was it like? It must have been difficult; how did you handle it?” I’m still getting asked that, actually. I started writing some of my thoughts down. So the idea started with maybe an article or something. Then I started expanding it and talking about it with some friends. A friend of mine, [journalist and author] Victor Malarek, said, “You have enough of a story, you know, Olivia.”
Q: It’s largely a political memoir, but you write candidly about your upbringing. Did you ever think of leaving out any of the painful, personal parts, especially about your parents?
A: In order to explain how I managed Jack’s death and deal with grief, I have to go into where my faith came from. My faith came from my church and during the period in my life when it was really quite difficult. I came to Canada [from Hong Kong] when I was 13. My mom and dad were professionals. My mom, a former schoolteacher, became a hotel maid. My dad drove a taxi, delivered Chinese food. I needed to go into it in order to explain how I managed. Also, the value of hard work: saving every penny, because there were a lot of rainy days. Those very important values needed to be in the memoir.
Q: I’m wondering, though, about the periods when your father was physically abusive toward you mother.
A: His mental illness needs to be talked about. I found it was so difficult to get help for him then. Mental health is an area in which services are so fragmented. I don’t wish for anyone to have to go through what I went through as a teenager, trying to find a psychiatrist for my dad. It’s important to talk about mental health and domestic violence. A lot of people are experiencing it. For a long time, it was something I didn’t talk about. It’s your family’s dark background. But what’s there to be ashamed of? Let’s talk about it collectively so our society can deal with it.
Q: There’s a tradition of church-based social conscience on the Canadian left, going back to Tommy Douglas and the CCF [Co-operative Commonwealth Federation]. Some might imagine that’s ancient history, but you were a devout Christian growing up. How did that feed into your early political activism?
A: Well, the church I went to, and the belief that I had, was you love your neighbour as yourself. But if there’s faith but no action, that just won’t work. And if we are to say we want heaven on Earth, then we want our lives here as heavenly as possible. So if others are suffering, why wouldn’t you want to do something about it? That’s why I started volunteering in a crisis intervention unit, and that’s why I cared about the Vietnamese boat people, and then I discovered that, collectively, we can change laws. So it’s a very natural flow from my belief to activism.
Q: Do you still go to church?
A: I don’t go to church regularly. On Christmas Eve, I go to the Metropolitan Community Church. But it’s not just whether it’s Christians or Jews, or Buddhism or Islam. It’s all the same thing. It’s about discovering that goodness inside us. If we can touch that kind of goodness in other people, and therefore motivate them to make the world a better place, that, to me, is the spiritual aspect.
Q: Given your image as such a downtown, big-city politician, some readers will be surprised by how much the wilderness figures in your life.
A: I became a junior forest ranger when I was 16. Then I discovered stars! If I don’t go away into wilderness for at least 10 days plus, my year’s shot. I get very cranky and I can’t centre myself. I need to get in a place where there’s just earth and sky.
Q: What’s your favourite river?
A: Oh my God, I have so many. The Alsek [which flows from Yukon to northern B.C. and into Alaska]—just being on a raft right beside the glacier with cliffs and mountains. The first one I did with Jack was the Dumoine in Quebec. Lots of fast water…
Q: He had to learn how to shoot rapids.
A: Yeah, and I taught our son, Mike Layton, last summer. We went back to the Dumoine, and he did dump.
Q: In your early days in politics, especially as a young assistant to Toronto NDP MP Dan Heap, did you feel right away that you’d found your calling?
A: No. Remember, I was an artist. I didn’t plan to become an elected representative. I just saw something that needed to be done and this is how you can get it done. My decision to become a school trustee after working in Dan Heap’s office was because my parents were always talking about education—when they weren’t fighting.
Q: You rose to prominence as a trustee and then a municipal councillor. You write about working closely with former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman, even though you are well to his left. Is that sort of co-operation across ideological lines possible in federal politics?
A: I can give you two or three examples. Jason Kenney, [minister of employment and social development] and I…
Q: Why do you laugh as you say that?
A: Because people will think, “Olivia Chow and Jason Kenney have very different political points of view,” right? Well, we worked on the Chinese Head Tax redress and apology. I just got elected, so I went to him immediately, and said, “I know you believe in this; let’s get this done and do it properly.” And then later on, we did many other things [such as] cracking down on crooked immigration consultants. We worked pretty closely on it; we had some in-depth conversations.
Q: Of course, as soon you talk about working in Ottawa, I start thinking of your relationship with Jack Layton. But you two had met and become a couple back when you were both in Toronto city politics. Was there ever a sense of competition between you?
A: No, never.
Q: How could you not have felt competitive at times, working on the same issues in the same political theatre?
A: No, none whatsoever. The main goal is to get something done for others—build affordable housing, let’s say. He has one way of building it and I can contribute in a different way. As to who leads it, who cares who leads it? We worked together for so long. It became merged into a direction. We were quite blessed that our direction was always identical, which is unusual. I heard other couples say, “That’s not possible!” Well, yes it is. It is possible.
Q: People who like you, and liked him, admired your ability to attract media attention. But people who were suspicious thought you were too fond of the spotlight. Did that ever bother you?
A: No. I was glad that we were able to capture the public imagination. One of my journalist friends in Toronto said, “I really miss your Sunday-morning special.” Sunday is usually a very slow media day, so, every Sunday—well, not every Sunday, but occasionally—at 10:30 or 11 a.m., we’d call a news conference. We weren’t doing it for the sake of getting our faces into the media. It’s really trying to find a solution, bring the people together. The best way to get things done is get the people who are affected, get their voices out there, get the public participating. In order to do that, you need to get your story out there.
Q: During that quick succession of elections in 2004, 2006 and 2008, did you feel the NDP was building toward a breakthrough, or was what happened in 2011 really unforeseeable?
A: The NDP had more MPs, more donations, more members; we were growing in every way. We were building systematically. There was a plan in 2003 when Jack became leader.
Q: Still, the way it happened in the 2011 election couldn’t have been predicted; Jack Layton campaigning through pain, with that cane. Voters were sympathetic and impressed. Were you worried about him over-taxing himself during that race?
A: No, I wasn’t worried at all. He had his sister Nancy. They were in the gym 45 minutes a day, at least. A few times, I joined them; Jack was doing much better.
Q: I want to ask about the tough period after the campaign.
A: It was actually quite good after the campaign, from May to the end of June.
Q: Yes, you write about dancing with Jack six weeks after the May 2 election at an NDP convention in Vancouver. It seems like a very good moment.
A: It was great. We had all these young MPs. It was marvellous.
Q: In retrospect, though, people have wondered if you both knew by then that there were still questions about his health.
A: No, no. The pain he experienced was in mid- to late June. The doctor’s appointment followed our parliamentary calendar.
Q: You’re saying that between the end of the campaign and those doctors’ appointments in late June, early July, there wasn’t any inkling that he was sick again?
A: I’ve forgotten exactly when, but sometime in June, his hip was hurting. “Why are you still using the cane?” “Well, you know…” He’d broken one knee during our wedding: We crashed the tandem bike and he smashed it on a newspaper box, so the other leg was the one he’d had the [hip] surgery on, and it was recovering. We thought the pain in the other leg was related to the old bike accident. So then he went to see the doctor.
Q: So then, through July…
A: Doctors’ appointments and then doctors’ appointments. There’s the blood test, the scan, a whole host of stuff.
Q: I don’t know how to ask you about that summer.
A: A bit of a blur.
Q: Your book tells the story very poignantly. Anything you particularly think back on from those final weeks?
A: Jack’s riding association president. He and his mom decided to make amazing casseroles, soups. Every two days, there was a delivery. He didn’t want to come in—he’d just knock on the door and leave it. I wrote to [actor and director] Sarah Polley and said, “Jack and I never had much time to see movies. Now we’d like to see some movies.” She went to the Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs, the NFB [and dropped] this big basket of DVDs on the doorstep.
Q: After he died, did you ever think of getting out of politics and retreating to a more private sort of life?
A: No. Why would I do that? Now I need to do more. Jack’s not there to do it.
Q: Does that mean you’ll be running for mayor of Toronto next fall?
A: I’m seriously considering it. Talking to friends and family, I want to make sure my grandchildren and other people’s kids have a better role model than Rob Ford.
Q: You could even set a higher bar than that.
A: I love Toronto. This is where I came when I was 13. I know every inch of the place.
Q: What factors will go into the decision?
A: Where can I get done the most and done best? Here in Ottawa, I’ve been going after public transit, rail safety, airport management, infrastructure funding. There is lots to do here, but also a huge amount to be done in Toronto.
Q: Such as?
A: Newcomers who have been there for a bit of time, they are really struggling. There are pockets of Toronto, the inner suburbs, where there are families who are not doing well at all. Which level of government can assist more?
Q: So your memoir, in a way, leads up to this decision: your next move. Maybe that’s what it’s about.
A: When someone asks me what the book is about, I tend to give this long answer, because it’s a big book. But I can narrow it down: immigration, adversity, public service and love.