By winning Monday’s mayoral byelection in Toronto, Olivia Chow made all kinds of important history. She’s the first person born outside of North America to sit in the mayor’s chair since the 1950s, and the first person of colour to ever hold the job. She’s also the first woman to lead the post-amalgamation “megacity” and the first who will commute to city hall using transit or bicycle since John Sewell famously did during his term from 1978-80.

Now, the real work begins.

Chow is taking the reins of a city that’s in much worse shape than it was when she unsuccessfully ran for mayor the first time in 2014. The housing market is actively hostile to anyone who didn’t buy their home a decade or more ago, and the rising cost of shelter is pushing more people towards the margins — and, often, beyond them. The transit system suffers from chronically low ridership, which is a function of both post-COVID work patterns and growing safety concerns spurred by a series of random violent encounters. Crucial new infrastructure projects like the Eglinton LRT line seem to drag on forever, while traffic and congestion just keep going from bad to worse.

She’ll also have to find ways to fill a $1-billion hole in Toronto’s budget and the Ford government isn’t about to help her with that any time soon. Despite promising not to get involved in the mayoral election, Premier Doug Ford ended the campaign by endorsing former police chief Mark Saunders and lashing out against Chow. “If you want my opinion, if Olivia Chow gets in, it’ll be an unmitigated disaster,” he said. “Businesses are going to be fleeing Toronto as far as I'm concerned.”

Ford — or, at least, Ford’s social media team — issued a more conciliatory statement after Chow’s win on Monday, suggesting he was willing to “work with anyone ready to work with our government... Together, let’s focus on building a strong Toronto for generations to come.” But given their differing perspectives on what actually constitutes a “strong Toronto,” you can bet that conflict between Chow and Ford will be one of the hallmarks of the next three years. The fate and future of Ontario Place, and the Ford government’s plans for a large luxury spa there, promises to be the first of many battles.

Like almost every elected official in Canada’s cities right now, Chow’s biggest challenge will be getting a handle on the housing market. Her plans include the creation of 25,000 new rental homes on city-owned land, raising the city’s Vacant Homes Tax from one per cent to three per cent, and increasing the Municipal Land Transfer Tax on luxury homes worth more than $3 million. All the funding generated by these tax increases will go towards affordable housing measures.

Chow has also said she’ll raise property taxes, although she’s yet to indicate exactly how much that will be. This is an unpopular but entirely necessary measure, one that even finds backing (however reluctant) in the pages of the National Post. As Kelly McParland noted, “Since amalgamation created today’s Toronto 25 years ago, a series of mayors has refused to ask homeowners to pay the full cost of the services they demand. Ontario’s biggest and priciest city also has its lowest property taxes. All those multimillion-dollar downtown homes get off cheaper than any of the neighbouring suburbs, or towns and cities beyond.”

Indeed, according to a 2022 Toronto Star feature, Toronto’s average residential property taxes were lower than Ottawa’s and only slightly higher than in Timmins, despite the city’s far more comprehensive services (and needs). “Across the GTA,” the Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro wrote, “only Brock and Milton had lower average property tax rates.”

Expect that to change. This will mark a clear break with the last 14 years, where conservative mayors and councils slowly deprived the city of its financial oxygen, whether through artificially low property tax rates or other forms of economic stricture. Services have been cut or allowed to deteriorate in quality, infrastructure was allowed to crumble (hello, Gardiner Expressway), and the primacy of car culture went mostly unchallenged, despite all the furor from the right around the city’s small number of bike lanes.

Olivia Chow's political comeback has landed her in the mayor's chair in Toronto. Now, can she help engineer a similar comeback for the city itself — or will Doug Ford get in the way of it? @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver

Chow can’t fix this in three years. Nobody could. The opposition coming from Queen’s Park alone will make any meaningful changes more difficult than they need to be, and that’s before Ford potentially revokes the “strong mayor” powers he invested in John Tory in order to do an end-run around city council to get major housing and infrastructure projects built.

But after years of watching their mayors lower expectations and then fail to meet them, Torontonians decided it’s time for someone who will try to raise the bar. A power structure that caters more deliberately to its less-fortunate citizens, and asks everyone else to do a little more for the common good, may be exactly what the city needs to pull out of its recent nosedive. And maybe, just maybe, this is the moment that Chow has been building towards all along.

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I deeply wish Olivia Chow the best with this large City and the issues around it. Especially since Doug Fords
only interest is control over Toronto and surrounding Cities. Ford should stay out of City business. He cant run a Province except to benefit himself and developers. Stay out Ford

Quote: [Ford — or, at least, Ford’s social media team — issued a more conciliatory statement after Chow’s win on Monday, suggesting he was willing to “work with anyone ready to work with our government... Together, let’s focus on building a strong Toronto for generations to come.”]

Translation, our failing premier Doug Ford is willing to work with OLiva Chow as long as she bends to his ways, by ignoring climate change, not hindering his corrupt developer buddies or challenging his anti-environmental efforts.

Good luck Oliva, you will need it to work with a failing premier like Doug Ford who is only here for his corrupt developer buddies.

All the best is wished for Olivia Chow. As she tackles the huge challenges in Toronto, I would suggest that as she tackles items that she keeps the public informed on each step of the way by setting goals along the way anc publically announce as each small goal is achieved so Joe Public can see the small changes as they add up. Don't wait until the next election to list achieved goals however small. This way pundits have less to criticize as positive changes take place. Olivia, don't be afraid to blow your own horn. Conservatives do it all the time even as they failed their city.

Fortunately we're starting to see more true-blue Thug Ford now on media clips; he's getting complacent.
What has helped him appear slightly more reasonable up to now is his overall "aw shucks" style coupled with his sing-song and diligent if struggling "school boy" voice that's most in evidence when he's awkwardly reading something.
It's very encouraging to see Olivia Chow in charge and even though she's severely limited, it indicates the tide turning.

It's a bit inaccurate to say Olivia "retired from politics." She's been campaigning under various hats for a decade. And clearly, it paid off.
Tory wasn't a reluctant centrist in his cosy dance with Ford. Tory's a Tory through and through ... he was actually the Ontario Conservative leader for 5 years ... and couldn't get elected premier. He didn't only close-dance with Ford, he bent over for him, backwards and forwards. After all, they have the same "friends."
*And* his office simply wasn't interested in hundreds of thousands of dollars of mis-spent efforts=dollars by city contracted construction outfits. I'd be happy to describe the shenanigans for anyone interested.

Good article.
Regarding Doug Ford’s comment, businesses will flee, the Premier is wrong.
Businesses are smart - and they will flee lawlessness, poverty, inequity eventually.
Businesses and rich people want to come to Canada because we are a relatively safe place .
Taking wealth, corporate or otherwise is logical - if they were still around, the Royal families of Russia and France would probably agree - they died because they would not change.

Whoops - in my comment, I meant to say taxing wealth, not taking.

Congrats to Olivia Chow! She was a councillor in a previous life, along with her husband, Jack Layton. Which means she understands cities. She is a lot smarter than Doug too. I would think Trudeau (or another Lib leader, should it come to that) could work with Chow and that she would know how to communicate and work with the feds in their own language and finds lots of common ground. If Ford objects to the feds working directly with TO, and kinda feels cut out and threatens to pull the Constitution out of the desk drawer again for another round of street fight assault, probably even trying to the Notwithstanding Clause again therein demeaning its purpose, then the feds could ask Doug a simple question: Do you like receiving federal money or not? Work with us on meaningful projects and we'll get along fine.

Olivia Chow is an NDPer and the federal party holds the balance of power, therein she may have some policy sway too. Offering city land for affordable housing will pull land costs out of the construction cost equation, thus starting down one of the correct paths to affordability. Break even, non-profit rental housing could be built with annual targets, followed by the more traditional subsidized public housing with humane urban design. Canadian cities have a pretty good portfolio of land parcels some of which could be devoted to the affordable housing cause in partnership with the feds, with or without provincial leaders sticking their noses in.

This is a confederation that just hit 40 million people last week, the majority of whom live in cities. Such an entity survives largely on negotiation, cooperation and consensus building. We have big city and national challenges that require immediate attention. The feds under freshly elected Trudeau struck a major chord with Metro Vancouver after fours years of embarrassing anti-urban policy under Christie Clark. She was defeated provincially (dissing the Metro cost her nine urban seats) and the feds teamed with the new BC NDP to fund major transit infrastructure and more to a level more in line with what senior governments syphon from the city in tax revenue. Moreover, both governments gave the city a modicum of respect for doing more than its share of the heavy lifting than its measly 8% of revenue left over after the province and feds drain the cup.

The GTA had an economy pretty equal in size to the entire province of Alberta (oil and all) before the pandemic, and is bouncing back again. Canada's six largest cities generate half of the nation's wealth, roughly a trillion bucks a year in GDP. Yet cities are bullied by provinces too much; premiers have had so much power devolved to them over the decades. The health of our cities where 85% of us live is married to the common good of the nation. Hopefully, Olivia Chow can help illustrate this clearly even with a small-minded premier doing his best to occlude just how important big cities are to the well being of his own province.