Olivia Chow on election night.
Olivia Chow on election night at the Great Hall in Toronto on Monday, June 26. Credit: Kim Elliott Credit: Kim Elliott

Olivia Chow’s victory as Mayor of Toronto is the first major political victory for the Left in a very long time in Ontario. It’s hard to remember another time that a victory felt so sweet. Olivia, as everyone calls her, is the first racialized person to be mayor of one of the most diverse cities in the world. She is the third woman to be mayor and the first woman since amalgamation of the suburbs and the city. Her acceptance speech was outstanding. “Collaboration, compassion and conviction,” were her watchwords.

It was a dramatic defeat for Premier Doug Ford who warned her election would be “an unmitigated disaster” and whose endorsed candidate just got 8.58 per cent of the vote. In the last week of the campaign, the opposition to her united behind a centre right candidate, Ana Bailão who still lost to Olivia despite support from former Mayor John Tory. Less known is the fact that it was also a defeat for the federal Liberal machine that mobilized against Olivia in Scarborough. She was also opposed by the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star.  

Best said by Maya Menezes on Twitter:

To watch the city condemn the right’s hegemonic deathgrip on Toronto’s housing, encampments, healthcare, social services, climate action & policing – in the downtown, in the suburbs, is truly spectacular. Olivia took out the darlings of both developers & cops”

The most exciting thing about Olivia’s campaign to me was how much grassroots organizers were involved not only in supporting her but campaigning against her opponents. Mainstream media commentators were surprised by Olivia’s win in five out of six wards in Scarborough. The general wisdom is that Toronto downtown supports the Left and the suburbs the Right. But this ignores the incredible community organizing that has been going on in Scarborough for years.  Those organizers turned their energy towards Olivia’s campaign with extraordinary results.  

The Breach reported on a new group called Toronto Citizen’s Collective of people who campaigned successfully against right-wing candidates saying, “They want to ruin the city we call home. This election we stop them!”  And so, we did. Progress Toronto, a non-profit group that has been organizing in the city for years mobilized powerfully behind her campaign. And there was tremendous union organizing too. At the beginning of Olivia’s acceptance speech, a chant came up from the crowd, “ATU, ATU, ATU.”  That’s the transit union that mobilized along with many others to ensure her victory.

There are no parties in Toronto politics but everyone knows that Olivia is a long standing NDP member and was an NDP Member of Parliament not to mention the partner of Jack Layton, the most beloved NDP leader in recent history.  No-one mentioned him last night, but I could see him standing behind her smiling.  

Now is the time to celebrate the victory but there is no doubt the obstacles to her carrying out her promises are daunting. Toronto has been in the grip of right-wing politicians since David Miller was last mayor in 2010. It has become unaffordable to live here and you can feel the decline in quality of life everywhere. It is also a familiar story that left-wing politicians that win and govern are often captured by the power of lobbyists, the challenge of making progressive change in a capitalist society in decline. But Olivia might be different both because she has been out of politics for ten years, training leaders of social movements, so she is not part of the existing system and she understands the importance of social movements to making progressive change. But the city is a billion dollars in debt and despite her promise to raise property taxes will have to rely on provincial and federal government support.  

She reached out to her opponents in her acceptance speech and I hope she carries through.  Council is divided. The new Council members supported Olivia, the old ones supported Bailão but the clear message of her victory might unite Council behind her, at least at first. The other left-wing candidate Josh Matlow made his support for her very clear and he will be pushing her to carry through with her promises. But most importantly, those activists who mobilized to elect her must continue their mobilization to support her initiatives. Hopefully, she has enough experience not to get captured by the system and to continue to work with and for the people who got her elected.  

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick

Judy Rebick is one of Canada’s best-known feminists. She was the founding publisher of rabble.ca , wrote our advice column auntie.com and was co-host of one of our first podcasts called Reel Women....