Toronto's 13 years of conservative rule comes to an end
Olivia Chow was able to maintain her momentum despite a hostile media and political establishment.
After 13 years of conservative rule, Toronto has elected a progressive mayor.
While Edmonton and Calgary were electing Don Iveson and Amarjeet Sohi, Naheed Nenshi and Jyoti Gondek, Toronto had Rob Ford and John Tory.
Olivia Chow is now the first racialized mayor of the second-most diverse city in the world. She ran on an explicitly progressive platform in the lead-up to the June 26 by-election triggered by John Tory’s surprise resignation over an inappropriate relationship with a staffer.
She did so by prioritizing public services over her rivals’ anti-tax sloganeering.
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Under Chow’s mayoralty, she promised, the city would look at what services need improvement, and how much other levels of government are bringing to the table, and then determine how much property taxes will increase based on need. She also pledged to increase the vacant home tax and land transfer tax on houses worth more than $3 million.
The obstinately anti-tax messaging of Tory, and Ford before him, contributed to a “culture of cheapness at city hall,” asput it in the Toronto Star, leading to a significant degradation of city services.
It now takes upwards of five days for a city worker to pick up a dead animal carcass from the streets.
It was a remarkable comeback for Chow, who served on Toronto city council 1992 to 2005 and then as NDP MP for Trinity-Spadina from 2006 to 2014.
She left Parliament to run for Toronto mayor. While starting out as a frontrunner, she finished a distant third behind Tory and Doug Ford. Her attempt to re-enter the House in 2015 was also a failure.
So what was different this time? Speaking to CBC News, former Tory strategist Andrew Tumility attributed Chow’s success to “bold policy” that shored up her base. This included restoring transit cuts, freezing fares, investing directly in affordable housing, rather than subsidizing developers, and replacing the eastern leg of the Gardiner Expressway with a public boulevard.
Timing was also on her side. In 2014, Tory was able to present himself as a steady hand who would implement much of Rob Ford’s agenda without the personal baggage. He certainly was more effective in implementing Ford’s agenda — although we all know how the latter turned out.
This time, Torontonians were ready for a change in direction. This is borne out by the by-election turnout of 38%, which was remarkably higher than the 28% who turned out for last year’s civic election, but still embarrassingly low.
"There's a recognition that there's a high price to be paid for not increasing municipal revenue," Toronto Metropolitan University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki told the Ceeb. "The lack of affordable housing, problems with transit, the perceived deterioration of municipal services. That all traces back to a lack of revenue on the part of the city."
It’s likely progressives who felt defeated by Tory’s inevitable victory in October were energized by a race without him.
With Chow remaining as the clear frontrunner throughout the campaign, much of the corporate press went into a meltdown.
The National Post tied her mayoral campaign into recent hysteria over alleged Chinese government interference in Canadian politics.
“Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow meets with group aligned with China,” reads a May 15 headline from reporter Tom Blackwell.
While acknowledging that Chow, who immigrated from Hong Kong as a teenager, has been a long-time critic of the Communist Party of China, Blackwell nonetheless says her meeting with a Chinese immigrant support group “is raising some eyebrows.”
Unsurprisingly, a group serving Chinese immigrants may have a different perception of the Chinese state than Canada’s snow white media class.
The Council of Newcomer Organizations was critical of Parliament for declaring the treatment of Muslims Uyghurs in Xinjiang a genocide, and expressed skepticism of protests against Chinese rule in Hong Kong.
No doubt, some Chinese newcomers share these views, others don’t. But the new Red Scare about alleged Chinese political interference — fuelled by sketchy reporting from Global News, the Globe and Mail and National Post — collapses these distinctions. Every Chinese person is either a victim of the Chinese government or an asset.
In less reputable corners, Chow’s meeting with the council was regarded as proof that she’s an outright Chinese state asset.
That a Chinese immigrant was able to win an election in Canada’s most populous city under this backdrop is a remarkable achievement. It shows how little sway media narratives can have in the real world.
Runner-up Ana Bailão, who immigrated from Portugal as a teenager, received the endorsement of the nominally left-leaning Toronto Star, despite the editorial board criticizing her “arbitrary pledge to keep property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation.”
The Star nonetheless expressed “concerns about [Chow’s] ability to unite council and forge effective relationships with senior governments,” citing her long history as a New Democrat partisan. The Star, however, had no compunctions about John Tory’s history as the leader of the Ontario PCs when it endorsed him in 2014, 2018 and 2022.
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