Olivia Chow is often seen as a strong female leader, in politics, her community and her family. She was a recent Toronto Mayoral Candidate, a former Canadian NDP Member of Parliment, and former city Councillor in Toronto. In May 2012, Chow was named one of the top 25 Canadian immigrants in Canada by Canadian Immigrant magazine. Chow’s personal memoir, titled My Journey, was published January 21, 2014.
1. When did you immigrate to Canada and from where?
I came to Toronto in 1970 when I was 13 years old from Hong Kong.
2. Why did you leave Hong Kong and with whom?
My mother HoSze, father WaiSun, and I came here together.
3. What were some of your first thoughts about Canada when you arrived?
I don’t remember much culture shock. We specifically chose Toronto because it already had an established Chinese community. What was difficult was the fact that my parents, educated and middle class in China, could not find work in the city. My mother essentially had to work in a sweatshop as a seamstress while my father served Chinese food. It was difficult. But there were good things too, like peanut butter and saltine crackers which always make me think of first coming to Toronto.
4. What was something that you missed the most about back home?
My dog, Ah Woo, a little terrier, was left behind.
5. What did you struggle with the most for the first few years you were here?
There were two things I thought would make me fit in best in Canada when we first arrived. One, to learn to skate, and two, to get rid of my accent. I succeeded at skating, but I’ve come to embrace my accent. The accents that make up our city are something to be proud of, not a problem to get rid of.
6. Was there anything that was a pleasant surprise for you in Canada?
Peanut butter and saltine crackers. And the Chinese books available in the public libraries.
7. What made you get into politics and was that always your goal?
My passion for helping those in need really began with the crisis caused by the SinoVietnamese War. To flee the conflict, hundreds of thousands of people were bribing, paying, and being forced into small boats to escape. Between 200,000 and 400,000 people died at sea trying to escape. In 1979, alongside Winne Ng and Joseph Wong, we decided to take action and set up the Toronto Interagency Project for South East Asian Refugees. And since, I’ve never stopped advocating for those in need.
8. How long was it until Canada really started feeling like home?
I don’t remember the exact moment. What I do remember is that the more I got involved in my community, the more I gave back, and the more I stood up to the issues that lay close to my heart the stronger the sense of belonging and at home was. What I can confidently say now is that I love this city and it is my home.
9. What would you say is one of your greatest successes while living in Canada?
There are many. But I would have to say, it is seeing kids grow up who have benefited from the programs I helped implement as a leader. In 1989 it was student nutrition programs, in 1998 it was free dental care for low income
seniors and children, in 2005 it was after school recreation and care programs. There are volunteers in my office now who have benefited from all of these services and they are amazing, beautiful, strong people. And I like to think I had some part in that, whatever little it was.
10. If you could give other newcomer Canadians one piece of advice, what would it be?
That regardless of where you come from, what colour your skin, what your background or income level you have every right to be here, to have your voice heard, and ultimately that you count. I’ll be there beside you and with you, to help us work with each other, for each other. Together, we’ll continue to show that diversity is our strength.