A story of winning in a new land - Keith Roulston editorial
Aside from Native Canadians, those of us who immigrated to the country or are descendents of immigrants, have different, often fascinating stories. I recently found out the story of Toronto’s most recent Mayor, Olivia Chow.
Ms. Chow has been around so long that her story often gets overlooked, but Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee recently told the tale of Toronto’s new Mayor, elected only on June 26. Chow was only 13 when her parents decided to leave Hong Kong, rightly fearing the uncertainty that would take over the British outpost when it was turned over to Communist China in 1999.
Canada was quite a step backward for her parents. They lived in the huge St. Jamestown apartment complex in midtown Toronto, similar to many other immigrant families. In Hong Kong, they had been a middle-class family with a housekeeper and Olivia was spoiled. Her father, a school superintendent in Hong Kong, was reduced to driving a cab. Her mother, a teacher, became a seamstress. Embittered by the new conditions, her father beat her mother.
In school, the formerly privileged Olivia, ashamed of her imperfect English, tried to be invisible, sliding down in her seat so she’d be ignored by teachers. Slowly, however, her English improved and she changed. Surprisingly for a city girl, she joined the junior forest ranger program, working in Ontario’s northland, against the desires of her parents. She developed a lifelong love of the wilderness.
At school, she earned a spot at the University of Toronto. She volunteered at a hospital emergency department.
She became dedicated to causes, volunteering to help the Boat People, refugees from the Communist regime that took over Vietnam when the Americans withdrew. She helped in an election campaign, and at 28 she became a candidate for school board, winning a post as trustee. Later she became a city councillor.
Then she suffered another crippling blow when her beloved husband, Jack Layton, leader of the national NDP, died. “The two had been inseparable,” Gee writes, “soulmates and life partners who served together at city council and on Parliament Hill. Though in public she was a dignified, composed widow, in private she was having panic attacks that set her heart pounding in her chest. Yet again, her settled world had been swept away.”
Fighting through the pain, she ran for mayor, finishing behind the now-retiring Mayor John Tory and (now) Premier Doug Ford. She ran for Parliament again but lost. Her career in politics seemed over. Then Tory, caught in a marriage scandal, resigned.
Early in the election campaign, both Ford and Tory said they would stay out of the campaign. Later, as Chow, traditionally an NDP supporter, drew into a stronger lead, both leaders, similarly Progressive Conservatives, came out for other candidates. It may have narrowed the gap, but Chow still won.
Both Ford and Tory are also the products of immigrants, but from a much earlier vintage. Ford’s paternal grandparents were English immigrants, but his father co-founded an important label company in 1962 and Doug inherited wealth. Tory was the son of the president of Thomson Investments Limited and a director of Rogers Communications.
It’s a common story - the children and grandchildren of poor immigrants who sacrifice so their children and grandchildren can prosper. Most of us, however, didn’t have parents who stepped backward in coming to Canada as Chow’s parents did.
My own grandfather, on my mother’s side, came as a teenager from Scotland to northern Huron with his parents in the 1850s. He took up a farm, then gave it up when relatives arrived and wanted it. He took up another farm across the border in Bruce County. He cleared the land and prospered, becoming an early Warden of Bruce County and assembling hundreds of acres. When he died at the turn of the 20th century, his land was divided up among his sons.
Jill’s mother came to Canada 80 years later from England. They struggled, but their daughter did better when she married another English immigrant and moved to Scarborough following World War II.
Canada has become rich thanks to the efforts of immigrants like these. Each year, nearly a half-million people arrive from around the world, the barriers being widened by governments in the 1960s and 1970s.
As we were reminded over our Canada Day holiday, the land these immigrants prosper on was tricked from Native Canadians by sneaky land agents and governments. Many Natives haven’t prospered at all. We must work to change that, but let’s not forget the triumphs of people like Olivia Chow.