When I think about Olivia Chow I always think about her seemingly endless energy and her infectious enthusiasm as she works with people on a huge array of social issues.
Olivia's memoir is aptly named My Journey. The only still moment in the book is the gorgeous picture of Olivia on the book's cover. Inside, we're taken on a journey with Olivia that takes us from Blue Pool Road in Hong Kong to her new home in Toronto as a 13 year old. We travel with her through her years growing up in St. Jamestown, studying at the Ontario College of Art and University of Guelph (it is not widely known that Olivia is an accomplished sculptor), working with new immigrants and teaching at George Brown College. We journey with her through a groundbreaking political career: constituency worker in MP Dan (Don) Heap's office, elected school trustee at the age of 28, first Asian woman elected as a Toronto city councillor and then to Ottawa as a Member of Parliament. Throughout the journey there is also swimming, cycling (sometimes on a bicycle built for two), running, kayaking, canoeing, white water rafting and numerous meetings -- many at her own dining room table.
Toronto is at the heart of this book and clearly Toronto is in Olivia's heart. Its presence is felt through her telling of significant moments in her life. Standing on the steps of the Toronto Chinese Baptist Church, she looks across to Grange Park, reflecting on the relationship between church and community, as she remembers the rain-soaked day that she attended her first political rally in 1979 for 'Vietnamese boat people,' in that very park. There are vivid and poignant descriptions of Toronto's waterfront and Toronto Island -- from the homeless encampments of Rooster Squat and Tent City on a polluted and barren waterfront to the meadow on Toronto Island where she married her beloved Jack Layton.
In many ways the book is an antidote to dismay, despair or disengagement that many might experience today as we contemplate the political climate or the role of politics and politicians. It was for me.
Olivia's journey chronicles the many social justice struggles that she was central to, although she fervently acknowledges the community central to all those struggles. In her own words "It's all about the community." How refreshing to be reminded and, even more importantly, to learn from the lessons of these major wins for justice. The stories recounted are endless but include: successful efforts to fight the streaming of poor and immigrant students at Toronto high schools, reports exposing homophobia in the school system, the introduction of heritage languages in the public school system, creating a Toronto Youth Cabinet, expanding children's food programs in Toronto's suburbs, the creation of a student Metropass, winning federal dollars for childcare and housing, same-sex benefits, same-sex marriage! The list is huge!
The bonus in these stories is the subtle lessons in rich detail on how to do community development, community organizing, build campaigns and win. In the chapter on her own political awakening, Olivia writes that there is a Cantonese word 'guo' which means 'the hand that stirs' and that at a very young age, she began to stir the pot on political issues. One of the essences to how Olivia works is that she involves many hands in the stirring of the pot.
My Journey is not a simple or superficial walk down memory lane. Olivia shares and gives attention due to pretty significant life hurdles. Her ability to disclose so many deeply personal stories offers a great gift of healing and hope to anyone experiencing similar pain. Her personal experiences with family violence, the challenges her family experienced with immigration, which included precarious employment, the harassment she experienced as a politician, her own thyroid cancer and, of course, her partner Jack's cancer and death are shared with great generosity and are recounted with such a clear vision that you can't help but feel they have been passages that have infused her wisdom and philosophy about life.
At a recent book launch for My Journey, held on the Ryerson University campus, I was struck by several things. First it was a standing room only event, hundreds in the room, in the middle of a school day. Students hanging on her every word, inspired by the stories from her book and their connection to living, breathing issues that they care about: violence against women, mental illness, discrimination, tuition fees, the challenges new immigrants face, transportation, child care.
Yet it was a student panelist's opening question to Olivia that set the tone and almost left her speechless. Having read the book, he asked her, with great poise, a very deep question about spirituality and the meaning in life -- a 'how do you know?' kind of question about life and living. Olivia responded with a huge grin, laughed and said "Wow!" and then launched into a beautiful life lesson demonstrating she is still on her journey and we know that all of Toronto will benefit!
Cathy Crowe is a long-time Street Nurse and currently a Distinguished Visiting Practitioner in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University.
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