Photo: flickr/ Olivia Chow

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In March of 2014, Olivia Chow resigned from the House of Commons to run for mayor of Toronto.

At the time, this writer wrote that her departure meant parliament was losing one of its rare members whose stature transcended partisanship.

As the NDP’s Transport and Infrastructure critic, Chow was hardworking, focused and knowledgeable.

She doggedly pursued issues such as rail and truck safety, putting fact and evidence-based questions to the government.

Like her late husband, former NDP Leader Jack Layton, Chow believed in “proposition not opposition.”

Chow was calm, determined and persistent in holding the government accountable for its management of transport and infrastructure.

More important, she also actively pushed a broader and more creative federal agenda on transport.

Like millions of other Canadians, Chow saw how transit in most of Canada’s major metropolitan areas is a mess. Toronto and Montreal have punishing commute times, with some of the worst traffic congestion in the world, and other, smaller Canadian cities struggle as well.

On a national scale, Canada’s urban public transit system is a frayed patchwork quilt. Despite that fact, successive federal governments have paid little heed to public transit, beyond throwing a bit of cash cities’ way via the federal gas tax.

Back in 2011, Chow thought it was time the federal Parliament did more about the crucial business of mass urban transit.

The NDP MP believed the government of all of Canada should elaborate a nation-wide public transit strategy, and she proposed as much in a private member’s bill. The House Transport Committee, of which Chow was a member, considered that proposal, but Conservative members (the majority) fiercely resisted.

Conservative committee members — among them that unlikely future Harper government star, Pierre Poilievre — treated Chow with a somewhat greater measure of respect than they do most opposition members. However, they made it clear that they consider urban transit to be a provincial responsibility, full stop.

Chow was not, in fact, suggesting the federal government should interfere in the affairs of the provinces, or those of the provinces’ constitutional “creatures,” the cities. She was merely insisting that the federal government is in a unique position to forge a vision of public transit for all of Canada. Any action Ottawa took, she tried to explain, would be in full collaboration with the provinces and cities.

In any case, raising the jurisdictional argument was something of a red herring on the part of the Conservatives.

When it suits their purposes, the Harper Conservatives are only too happy to stomp all over the prerogatives of the federal government’s notional partners in the Canadian federation. What more likely turned Conservative MPs off Chow’s idea was a near-intuitive aversion to public services, especially transit services.

Most Conservative MPs, it appears, are big fans of the private automobile. They tend to view public transit as not much more than an expensive sop to the kind of folks who are not likely to vote for them.

Getting the federal government involved in a national effort to improve urban transit will have to be a job for a future, more environmentally and socially aware Canadian government.

Toward the end of her tenure as an MP, Chow had turned her attention to Canada’s much-neglected passenger rail company, Via Rail, by means of another private member’s bill.

Anyone who has experienced the excellent passenger rail services of Europe and then tried Canada’s own creaky, archaic system knows that such an initiative is long past due.

Now, Chow is seeking to return to Parliament, and there has been a good deal of chatter on the politics, tactics and strategy of her return.

Whatever else one might say about the former front bench NDP MP and her current chances, however, nobody could argue that she was not an effective and hardworking member of the House of Commons. 

Photo: flickr/ Olivia Chow

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...