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
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.