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The Anti-Ford: Kristyn Wong-Tam believes Toronto is in better shape than you’re being told

In her first year on city council, Kristyn Wong-Tam hogged the spotlight with proposals to ban shark fin soup, save bike lanes and found a municipal bank. She’s a charismatic lesbian immigrant art lover who once lived on the street—the exact opposite of our mayor in every way

Kristyn Wong-Tam | The Anti-Ford

(Image: Naomi Harris)

The first time Kristyn Wong-Tam clashed with Rob Ford, she lay down on the carpet outside his office in protest. It was March 2008, and Ford was a councillor from Etobicoke, an outspoken character on the fringes of city politics with a talent for alienating his colleagues. Earlier that month, Ford had famously delivered a rambling speech in support of the economic advantages of holiday shopping hours that could have been cribbed from a 19th-century pamphlet about the Yellow Peril. “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines,” Ford said on the floor of council, punching the air with his fist for emphasis. “I’m telling you, the Oriental people, they’re slowly taking over.”

That last phrase rankled Wong-Tam. At the time, the 36-year-old Chinese-Canadian was a successful realtor with no ambitions to become a city councillor, a job she saw as demanding far too much time for too little compensation. She did, however, have a long history of rabble-rousing—for gay rights, for women’s equality, for immigrants’ rights—and she believed that Ford’s comment was a xenophobic stereotype that needed to be corrected. She decided to ask for an apology.

After her emails and phone calls went unanswered, Wong-Tam brought a group of around 20 Asian protesters down to city hall. Showing a talent for media-friendly political theatre, they walked down to the press gallery wearing white dress shirts and ties, what Wong-Tam called the “Asian office uniform,” and announced they were looking for Councillor Ford. “Essentially, we’re a group of people who are working very hard,” Wong-Tam quipped, walking to Ford’s office as members of the press trailed behind her. When they found that Ford wasn’t in the building, the group brought out various contraptions—blenders, sewing machines, toasters—and lay down to sleep beside them. Cameras flashed. The video ran on loop on CP24 all afternoon.

In council two weeks later, after Wong-Tam delivered a petition with 260 signatures, Ford finally stood up and gave what is surely one of the least apologetic apologies recorded. “Working like a dog,” he insisted, was a compliment. And if “Oriental” was such an offensive word, why was it used by so many mainstream institutions? “One of my Asian constituents brought this to my attention over the weekend,” he said, brandishing a junk mail flyer like the key piece of exonerating evidence in a murder trial. “At No Frills they’re advertising ‘Oriental Flavour, 100 per cent pure corn starch.’ ” The Speaker told Ford his comments didn’t constitute an apology. Ford insisted they did. She again asked him to apologize. He said he had already retracted his statement and challenged the chair, who was backed by council. “Sorry,” Ford finally said, quietly. “All right,” said the Speaker, sounding like a tired parent too worn out to keep fighting. “I will accept that as the apology.”

Up in the gallery, Kristyn Wong-Tam watched the whole affair unfold with more incredulity than anger. The protest had been her first time challenging a Toronto councillor’s actions, and it was surreal. “I started to wonder: how does someone like Rob Ford get elected?” says Wong-Tam. “He just seemed like an anomaly. The other councillors I had met—right wing, left wing, centrist—they were thoughtful, you could talk to them. And then there was Rob Ford.” Wong-Tam had received her belated apology, but she left council shaking her head. “It’s quite astounding,” she said to the Toronto Star. “I realize we’re not going to get a reasonable response, because we’re not dealing with a reasonable person.”

As strange and infuriating as it was, Wong-Tam’s experience helped create the faintest shadow of an idea that, over the next few years, slowly took on substance. When she told friends she was toying with the idea of running for council in 2010, they threw her a surprise party with a “KWT for 2010” banner. It was the nudge she needed. Wong-Tam put her real estate career on hold, knocked on the door of every house and condominium she could find in Ward 27 Toronto Centre–Rosedale and won a hard-fought race against 14 other candidates.

  • Welshgrrl

    No politician is perfect, but I have a million times more respect for Ms. Wong-Tam than either of the coddled, privileged Fords.

  • Ginger Baker

    I agree 100% with Welshgirl.

  • W. K. Lis

    “After her emails and phone calls went unanswered…” Rob Ford keeps parroting that he answers all calls to him. An obvious falsehood since he seems to only answer if he agrees with the comments made.

  • TIM DEVLIN

    Ask Mz Wong Tam why she’s obcessed with developers and development and could it have anything to do with her real estate business. Her predecessor Kyle Rae was the same and when he left city hall he became a high paid consultant to …..wait for it….developers. Do I see much in Ward 27 … NO … I want a councellor who improves the ward not spends all her time bitching the Mayor…get on with the job you were elected to do and forget the Unions who got you elected and the Left Wing…Do the Job.

  • foxnewssucks

    i am a pretty strong anti-union person but people who vote belong to unions and deserve to have their voices heard to…

  • Mavis

    I think it’s time for all the councillors to stop spending their time attacking Ford and doing the job they are supposed to do. Like it or not, Ford was elected Mayor by the people. It seems that none of the anti-Ford people understand this or care about what the people of Toronto want. Start supporting each other and working together and we may be able to get Toronto back where it is supposed to be. If you keep fighting each other, this will not be good for anyone.

  • Soji

    She needs to get over herself. Rob Ford and “anomaly”, maybe she is the anomaly

  • Diane

    The job of councillors is to represent their constituents and develop fiscally responsible policies that maintain or improve the quality of life for city residents. If accomplishing that means disagreeing with the mayor it doesn’t mean their not doing their job,it means they are doing their job very well.

  • michael

    Hey Tim Devlin did you read the whole article? there are many things going on in her ward – and what , The Unions Elected a Councillor ? I hope she runs for Mayor so we can all be Adults again.

  • joseph

    Wong tam is one of the best politicians I have ever met. One is amazed by her very calm and quiet and polite response to the verbally abusive right wing councillors. I was present in the Jarvis meeting you mention above and I was so impressed with her behaviour there. I really appreciate her dedication to her ward and her work, she seems to be present everywhere and in every community event, and if she can’t do it herself, somebody from her office is always there. Great job Kristyn, and if you ever choose to take part in mayoral elections you can count on my, and all my friend’s votes.

  • Eva D

    Exactley what kind of Mayor do the people of the GTA want. A spender and tax raiser or a person who cares about the people and is stopping over spending in city hall. I sit here and see all this mayor bashing and really would like to know what do you the bashers want. Who really is bashing the mayor, Toronto Star, the councillors who over spend, sensitive and weak people, who are swayed by negative publicity, really let some one come forward and tell us the residents of the GTA what kind of mayor would you like. I never heard of Rob Ford until he became mayor and can truly say he is doing a great job. Mayor Ford is a regular person who is really thinking about us the residents. Do we want a spender who does not care about what the residents say? Leave the mayor alone. Try running a city full of different nationalities. Everyone has a say but really exactly what is he doing wrong?

  • Jizelle

    I too agree 1000% with Welshgrrl! Toronto needs more like Kristyn Wong-Tam!

  • tfarih

    eva d- where do you live?? Ford does not care about the people of TORONTO proper.

  • EdwaRD

    She sounds like a smart and competent politician, something we are all in need of right about now…

  • dave davis

    I have never met a councillor who has a set agenda than kwt. Unless you are gay, a cyclist, or transit advocate, she has no time for you. That’s her brand.

  • Jon Lidolt

    “She has no time for you.” I respectfully disagree with that comment. Kristyn has shown time and time again that she is totally engaged in her fight for all of us who are lucky enough to live in her ward. If she ever decides to run for the mayor’s job, she’s got my vote… that’s for sure.

  • Alexa

    Eva D: did you even read the article?

  • CKEXPRESS

    Kristyn Wong-Tam is an incredibly committed and genuine person. Her sense of public duty is immense and her presentation absolutely sincere. the city is lucky to have her in office and yes, of course the woman should be our Mayor. We’d only be so lucky.

  • Jay

    She’s a clueless moron

  • sol_chrom

    I wish I’d seen this piece when it first appeared. I do not live in Kristyn Wong-Tam’s ward. And I’ve been lucky enough not to have to face the obstacles she’s overcome. Nonetheless, I’ve come to respect, trust, and even admire her personally. Since her arrival at City Hall, she has fulfilled her duties with quiet grace, integrity, competence, and an incredible commitment to the public good — and she continues to do it in the face of some of the most ignorant, poisonous, hateful hostility ever directed at a public servant. She embodies not only thoughtful, reflective inclusiveness, but that rare quality we call “generosity of spirit.” Toronto is privileged to have her.

  • Dale Hennessey

    KWT is the Councillor for my Ward and she is fantastic. I look forward to the regular email messages she said, explaining what went on in the Ward and at City Hall, and outlining her vision for the future. I’d like to see her throw her hat in the ring for Mayor’s chair one day.

  • ephena

    You forget, more than half of the people of Toronto voted for someone other than Ford. He did not win by a majority, and has spent a lot of time bashing residents who do not agree with him. He is the Mayor of Ford Nation, and not the rest of us.

 

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