The best way to declare your mayoral candidacy without actually declaring it? Write a political memoir. My Journey, the new autobiography from Toronto MP Olivia Chow, doubles as a campaign pamphlet, articulating her key issues—women and children’s rights, the environment, immigration—and recounting her very public personal life with late husband Jack Layton. Much of it covers familiar territory, but Chow manages to drop in a few genuine surprises along the way. Here, the most tantalizing tidbits.
1. Chow came from a troubled family
While she was growing up in Hong Kong, Chow’s father, Wai Sun Chow, used to beat her mother and brother regularly. Olivia, the favourite, was spared, but almost hit her father with a lamp once to protect her mother. Wai Sun also kept a second household, with another woman and a daughter Chow’s age. When Chow’s family got to Toronto, Wai Sun suffered a nervous breakdown and was temporarily committed to a psychiatric ward.
2. She had some abusive relationships
No, not with Smiling Jack. When Chow was in her 20s, she had a string of abusive boyfriends. The first, a former marine with a black belt in karate, beat Chow for more than year—he choked, punched and, she writes, nearly killed her twice. A second guy hit her when she ended the relationship. She hit him back and called the police.
3. She was really into Christianity
In her teens and during her time at U of T, Chow was devoutly religious. She studied religion and philosophy, and became obsessed with finding answers in Ingmar Bergman’s Silence of God trilogy.
4. She used her mother as an undercover agent
In the early ’80s, while working as an assistant for the NDP MP Dan Heap, Chow worked with Globe and Mail reporter Victor Malarek to expose exploitation of immigrants by lawyers and consultants. After weeks of rehearsing, she sent her mother into the field with a wire and body pack, where lawyers tried to fleece her by charging $5,000 for services she could get for free elsewhere.
5. She was really into raves for a while
In 2000, when Mel Lastman’s administration banned raves on city property, Chow, then a city councillor, spoke out against the “moral panic.” She held a rave-slash-rally in Nathan Phillips Square, with a gargantuan disco ball and Lastman’s comments looped into the music.
6. She and Layton had a celebrity visitor
At the height of Jack Layton’s illness in 2011, he and Chow received plenty of visitors. One day, Sarah Polley showed up outside their house on Huron Street with an enormous gift basket full of DVDs, selected after she polled the directors at TIFF, Hot Docs and the National Film Board. She also had four pages of notes explaining her choices. Among the DVDs: Citizen Kane, a Woody Allen box set and, of course, dozens of Canadian flicks.