It’s slightly over 100 days since Olivia Chow took office as mayor of Toronto.
She went north to Richmond Hill for the first time as mayor and attended the 55th anniversary charity gala of Centre for Immigrant and Community Services (CICS) on Oct. 27, witnessing its story of community building that spans over half a century.
Chow delivered a keynote address under the theme “challenges and opportunities of Chinese immigrant communities through the decades.”
Chow won a byelection on June 26, becoming the first Chinese-Canadian mayor of Toronto. From a foreign immigrant to the spokesperson of Canada’s largest city, the journey has not been easy.
Chow was born in British Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada in 1970 when she was 13. Her father suffered from mental health illness and was physically abusive toward her mother.
“I didn’t know anyone; as an immigrant kid I had no idea where I could find help for my dad,” Chow said, explaining in 1970s, there were few organizations in Toronto like CICS that provided immigrant settlement, employment, language and mental support.
As a marginalized immigrant, having nowhere to turn left young Olivia feeling deeply helpless, which also made her determined to do something for immigrants in the community.
The settlement services are fundamental and life-saving, Chow says, and she keeps advocating and encouraging more generous donation to empower youth and families, support community health and wellness.
“While CICS receives funding from all three levels of government, certain services, including those for Hong Kong residents who arrived in Canada through the permanent residence pathway and international student, as well as the food program, are ineligible for direct government funding,” noted Alfred Lam, CICS executive director. “We have to rely on external support.”
In many ways, Chow’s immigrant story is CICS’s story. Her unique connection to CICS dates back to the 1980s when she started to serve as a board member of the Chinese Interpreter and Information Service and the Chinese Information and Community Services (now CICS).
During her tenure, she played a pivotal role in launching new services and expanding existing ones, to provide much-needed support to the rapidly growing newcomer populations in Toronto.
At the same time, she led an ultimately successful campaign to achieve a national apology and redress for the discriminatory “Chinese Head Tax.”
This year marks 100 years since the introduction of the Chinese Immigration Act. Chow understands the Chinese community has experienced vicissitudes of change over the past decades and that anything is possible, from no equal rights to fighting for rights to vote. She serves as an example of the country moving toward greater diversity and inclusion.
“One lesson about the 100 years anniversary is that it took a 23-year campaign to do the Chinese exclusion act redress; all of that are collective efforts by the Chinese community.”
Chow believes her election representing Torontonians sent a very clear message that everyone belongs, “no matter where we are from, who we are, what religion …”
In 1968, a number of enthusiastic Chinese students volunteered to provide information, interpretation and translation services in downtown Toronto. Fifty-five years later, the organization has blossomed into providing core settlement and integration services, including language training and employment, at eight locations across Toronto and York Region, serving more than 20,000 clients every year form early years children to seniors.
– Scarlett Liu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Markham Economist & Sun
The Local Journalism Initiative supports the creation of original civic journalism that is relevant to the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada, broadening availability and consumption of local and regional news on matters of civic governance. Launched by the Government of Canada in 2019, the Local Journalism Initiative provides news organizations with funding to hire reporters to cover underserved communities.