Olivia Chow will make history as Toronto’s 1st racialized mayor. Here’s why that matters

Experts and advocates say representation is the first step, now it’s time for action

By Lane Harrison

The story of Olivia Chow’s life isn’t one Torontonians are used to hearing from their mayor. But it’s one that represents the city she will soon lead.

According to the 2021 census, 55.7 percent of Torontonians are visible minorities and 46.6 percent of the city’s population immigrated to Canada. Chow, who was born in Hong Kong and came to Toronto at age 13, will become the third woman and first racialized mayor in the city’s history.

Diana Chan McNally, a crisis support worker and homelessness advocate, said Chow’s personal story struck a chord with voters for a simple reason.

“I think it resonated because she is the city. This is what the city’s demographic looks like,” Chan McNally told CBC Toronto. “But at the same time, we can’t just rest on representation. We need to see action to make sure that the city is actually more inclusive for everybody who lives here.”

It wasn’t only Chow’s victory that represented the Toronto of today.  All three of the top finishers — Chow, Ana Bailão and Mark Saunders — immigrated to Canada when they were young and centered that story in their campaigns.

And Chow’s story featured prominently in her victory speech on Monday night.

From St. James Town to city hall

“Toronto is a place of hope. A place of second chances,” Chow told a jubilant crowd. “A city where an immigrant kid from St. James Town can be standing in front of you as your new mayor.”

In her speech, Chow spoke about growing up in a city where her mother could afford to put a roof over her head and food on her plate by working as a hotel maid. Her father, she said, was unable to work due to mental illness.

“Toronto was a place where someone like me could afford to grow up,” she said.

After university, it was a place where she could afford an apartment.

“That’s where my mother came to live with me and rebuild her life, after my dad hurt her very badly,” Chow said.

Now, after what she calls “decades of neglect,” she wants to make the city more affordable and livable for the generations who will follow her.

On Tuesday, she was also likely the first mayor-elect to answer a question in Cantonese during a media scrum.

Charting a path

Anjum Sultana, a public affairs strategist in Toronto, agreed with Chan McNally that Chow’s lived experience is something that likely appealed to voters, who may have seen themselves in her story.

“Evidence shows us that when you see a leadership that is reflective of its constituents, that actually creates a greater sense of trust, a greater sense that your government cares about you,” Sultana said.

Sultana said Chow is also showing Torontonians what’s possible. She said people from under-represented communities often don’t know if their futures include spaces like municipal government.

“I think having that role model, having that possibility that this can be our journey too, I think it’s really inspiring,” she said. “I think yesterday’s election created another type of role model in the city.”

When it comes to the action that Chan McNally mentioned, Sultana said people are looking to Chow for collaborative solutions on big issues like housing, transit and community safety.

“They know it won’t happen overnight, but they want to see that there is some sort of shift in the leadership style. And I think that’s something that is on the horizon in Toronto.”


Lane Harrison is a reporter and web writer with CBC Toronto. He previously worked for CBC New Brunswick in Saint John. You can reach him at lane.harrison@cbc.ca

The article was first published by the CBC news 


Voices & Bridges publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive discussion and debate on important issues. Views represented in the articles are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the V&B.