Archive for January, 2014

Olivia Chow’s ‘My Journey’ an exhausting attempt at legacy-building
Christie Blatchford January 17, 2014 6:47 PM ET

“For all of my adult life, I have worked hard to stop schoolyard bullies, political bullies, corporate bullies or anyone who uses power or wealth to lord over people who possess neither,” Olivia Chow says of herself in “My Journey.”
Olivia Chow is a good, decent and always well-intentioned person. Her late husband Jack Layton, who took their beloved party, the federal New Democrats, to Official Opposition status for the first time, was equally good, decent and well-intentioned. As a couple, they did good and important work to give voice to the voiceless, but, hey, there was always time for fun.
And friends, did they have friends — wise and gentle friends, of course, good and decent people every one, mentors.
One such was the late Dan Leckie, former chair of the Toronto Board of Education (as it was then called), city councillor and Mr. Layton’s executive assistant.
As Ms. Chow writes in her new book, the myopic biopic called My Journey, Mr. Leckie “once said, ‘Politicians come and go and so do political initiatives, but once you engage citizens and empower them to make a difference and embed the policy structurally into the administration, the changes will last and stand for a long time because they are rooted in the community.’ I never forgot that.”
Are you freaking kidding me? Who talks like that? And if someone actually does, who can stay awake long enough to remember it such that years later she can quote it verbatim?
Well, probably not even Olivia Chow can or does.
In the acknowledgements section at the back of her book, there’s mention of one Lawrence Scanlan, a writer from Kingston, who “waded through mountains of material” on Ms. Chow’s behalf, poor bugger, and my cynical hunch is that Mr. Scanlan found in some manifesto or another the turgid Leckie quote which Ms. Chow claims to have so stamped in her memory.
Now, it should be noted that I am not a good, decent and well-intentioned person, and my friends, like me, may veer into goodness and decency now and then, but they are also sometimes a pain in the arse, as I am to them, and none of us goes about uttering complete paragraphs, let alone on the merits of community action.
So that is my real-life experience, and it is so contrary to Ms. Chow’s that I can’t help but find something about her book fundamentally untrue.
The Leckie anecdote (I hesitate to call it that because the word carries a hint of levity which I find completely absent in the story) sums up what’s wrong with My Journey: It just doesn’t ring right.
Certainly, the book is less about Ms. Chow’s journey from Hong Kong to downtown Toronto and now Parliament Hill, which is actually interesting, and more about legacy-building, both on behalf of her late husband and for what is widely assumed may be her forthcoming run for the Toronto mayoralty.
Who says of herself such things as: “The politics I practise is the politics of inclusion, and that’s also how I live my life,” or “For all of my adult life, I have worked hard to stop schoolyard bullies, political bullies, corporate bullies or anyone who uses power or wealth to lord over people who possess neither,” or “In a way, I am always sculpting, as both artist and politician”?
Who tells the sort of story Ms. Chow tells of Michele Landsberg, a former Toronto Star columnist and spouse of Stephen Lewis, with whom she once sat on an after-dinner panel that was a fundraiser for an environmental group.
They were talking about activism and how to get people engaged, of course; no lightweight discussions for this lot, ever.
Someone asked, Ms. Chow writes, “’What’s the hardest thing to do in the world of advocacy?’
“Michele Landsberg said, ‘Galvanizing people so they believe they can work together. We have forgotten the thrill of working together. We have all forgotten that. It’s deeply rewarding. Now it’s each for himself, herself. Our municipal culture is so ugly.’
“Michele paused and looked at me.
“’You, Olivia, were such a genius at getting things through all party lines — on women and kids. I’d like to see it happen again.’”
And nope, there isn’t a hint of a self-deprecating note, not even an attempt to say, “Oh pshaw, that crazy Michele!” Ms. Chow quotes someone describing her flat out as a genius presumably because she wants the reader/voter to take it seriously.
It’s a bloody pity, because she may have a story in her, and the few hints at it in the book — she’s at her best writing about Mr. Layton’s two children, whom she loves — offer a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.
There’s no doubt Ms. Chow, now a federal MP, was an effective school trustee and Toronto city councillor, that she did much good work, and that she and Mr. Layton had an enviable, loving, and of course fully egalitarian relationship.
It’s a bloody pity, because she may have a story in her, and the few hints at it in the book offer a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been
They clearly adored one another, and apparently everyone who saw them together, recognized that for them, as the writer Trevor Cole once said (as with all of those in Ms. Chow’s book and life, he is described only in the highest superlatives, as “the much-lauded Canadian novelist and magazine writer”), “politics was less a job than a lifestyle.”
If only, once in a while, one of them, or one of their gentle friends, was just a little less earnest, the book would be less exhausting.
Mr. Layton, we are told, never tired of writing his wife romantic letters.
One, from their courting days in 1985, she reproduces in full.
I’ll quote just the beginning: “Dear Olivia: So many images have captured my mind that I wish I were a poet. I would weave the music of our love through the images that have made it real. I would speak of the great loves of history — for we are one of those. The world will know this in years to come.”
I am quite prepared to acknowledge that this may be one of my many failings (Ms. Chow admits to the one, saying, “As for my own flaws, I’m too impatient”), but if a man had ever written that to me, I would have thrown up on my shoes. Who has the vanity to imagine their love is one of the world’s greats? And who thinks it’s an endearing story to tell?
The one question bad and indecent people may have wanted answered — when did Mr. Layton know or suspect he was sick again? — Ms. Chow skips over.
Diagnosed with and treated for prostate cancer in 2010, Mr. Layton, famously campaigning on a cane because of a recent hip fracture, took the NDP to Opposition in the May 2, 2011, federal election.
By that July, less than three months later, his doctors in Toronto told him “a second and more aggressive cancer was discovered, and this time the prognosis was grim.”
It was on July 25 he stepped aside as leader, and by Aug. 22, he was dead. “Jack chose not to disclose the type of cancer…,” Ms. Chow writes, because he feared “it would be deeply distressing to others fighting the same disease if he didn’t win his battle. They might lose hope.” Golly, wouldn’t they have figured out by now that Mr. Layton’s illness was terminal?
“I have supported and respected his decision in this,” she says, “and I will always honour it.”
But of course she will, in that same verbose, ideological, curiously self-aggrandizing manner she brings to living the good and decent life: She is utterly relentless, and I am weakened by her book, and must take to my bed.
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