It’s up to us to make Olivia Chow’s time as Mayor count

What will it mean for Toronto to have Olivia Chow as our new Mayor? Since her victory on June 26th, there has naturally been a lot of discussion centered on this question.

Chow, Toronto’s first racialized Mayor, is taking office during a time like no other. Toronto is still experiencing and recovering from a pandemic, while grappling with intersecting crises and a dire financial situation that has been years in the making. The Province has bestowed undemocratic strong mayor powers on municipalities across Ontario, which generates pressure on mayors to override the democratic processes of local government. We urgently need to reframe the question around how we, the residents of Toronto, are going to make her first term as Mayor count.

The New Face of City Hall

Many people see Olivia Chow’s election as a milestone, regardless of how they feel about her politics. Beginning her Toronto journey as an adolescent immigrant living in a low-income household, Chow has had to overcome incredible challenges in her personal and professional life to become Toronto’s first racialized Mayor. The by-election field also included other racialized women, Mitzie Hunter and Chloe Brown, who finished sixth and seventh respectively. 

It is also important to note that the 2022 municipal election resulted in a more racially diverse City Council than ever before. This Council has the power to inspire people from different backgrounds, especially young people, to see themselves in decision-making roles and processes. From a policy perspective, lived experience (personal and professional) can translate into vision and action. The great value of having more diverse voices at City Hall is that policy and programs can be made better - more attuned, relevant, and impactful - to the many Toronto communities that our local government serves. Organizations like TEA have a significant role to play in building bridges from communities to City Hall, so that more diverse and equity-owed people can shape the decisions that impact their lives. 

Many will be observing with keen interest to see how Olivia Chow will apply her unique experiences and track record to the big job of Mayor. However, catalyzing the change that Toronto so desperately needs, transcends Olivia Chow the person. A lot is riding on her (and her team’s) ability to get Council on board with an agenda for transformative action, which is based on broad public support. And that’s where grassroots movements are most needed.

A ‘Strong’ Mayor

Olivia Chow promised not to enact the undemocratic ‘strong mayor’ powers, and now faces an uphill battle to reclaim what being a strong mayor means. In 2022, the Ford government bestowed the Mayors of Toronto and Ottawa with extra powers to pass housing-related bylaws and veto bylaws that may conflict with provincial priorities, without majority support from Council; as well as greater authority over city budgets and hiring and firing department heads.[1]

This poses an important moral and ideological question: should we be governed by a strong collective Council or the Mayor as a ‘strongman’?[2] There is something profoundly important about the one-person, one-vote model of our local government. It means that for Mayors to be strong and effective, regardless of their leanings and ideologies, they must work with City Council to get important things done at City Hall. By default, this gives the public power over the Mayor via their locally-elected representatives. By contrast if strong mayor powers are enacted (or even the possibility that they will be), this creates a chill effect and diminishes our democratic power.

To establish herself as a strong, democratic leader, Mayor Chow will need to centre power in consensus-building. It is important that environmental and social justice movements come out strongly in support of this model of decision-making, since we have decades of work ahead that can only be achieved through a strong, local democracy. Power that is built from many voices sharing one vision will prove to be more effective and resilient over the longer term.

Building the Toronto We Want

What kind of campaign does it take to win an election in Toronto? I like to think that it still comes down to boots on the ground - knocking at thousands of doors, making thousands of phone calls, and having thousands of conversations at hundreds of community meetings. And a good campaign centres all this organizing around a compelling vision for change that motivates folks to show up when you need them.

As our new Mayor gets sworn in, it’s time to put our boots on. This Council term, we are going to have to run the biggest campaign ever to win what we want at City Hall. This time, the door-knocking, phone calls, and conversations need to be aimed at getting our locally-elected officials to move on critical priorities such as housing, transit, climate, and finally take real action to address the City’s long-running financial crisis. We need an all-ward strategy, where Councillors hear from constituents and community groups - on an unrelenting basis - to drive a people’s agenda for change.

When political leaders get elected on pro-environment and social justice platforms, it’s tempting for activists to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The biggest mistake our movement can make right now is to sit back while the new leadership tries to sort things out at City Hall. Our Mayor and Council must urgently use the City’s abilities to raise additional revenue as well as compel other levels of government to make new fiscal arrangements with Toronto. This is only going to happen if Toronto residents stay engaged, vocal, and push City Council and other levels of government every step of the way.

As dire as the situation is, we have an opening and an opportunity. During the election, Olivia Chow and other mayoral candidates, as well as community organizations and residents, put forward ideas that could potentially be transformative for our city. With the election behind us, the work ahead is to make sure that the best, most impactful ideas and commitments become reality. Political mandates are not simply created by going to the polls, the role of grassroots movements is to organize communities and build a shared vision to which politicians must respond.

Last year, TEA worked with our partners to launch the City for All platform, which is a collective call to action to build an equitable and accessible city that is affordable, liveable, safe, and prosperous for all. The platform calls for a city that is grounded in truth, reconciliation, justice, equality, and democratic processes and priorities that are shaped by communities. This platform is the culmination of speaking with thousands of community members over the years through numerous conversations and consultations. Now we have much collective work to bring this platform to life, especially by creating pathways for more people to get involved in shaping the decisions at City Hall.

As our new Mayor gets sworn in and takes office, it’s time for us to ask ourselves the big questions. What kind of city do we want and what will we do to make it happen?

[1] As of July 1, 2023, strong mayor powers have been expanded to an additional 26 municipalities.
[2] I intentionally use this term to characterize a paternalistic, top-down model of rule.