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Passion and politics

MP's memoir, including life with Layton, lovingly told

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Very few political memoirs could be subtitled A Love Story.

Olivia Chow, NDP MP for Trinity-Spadina and widow of Jack Layton, has packed a tear-jerking true-life romance inside what is otherwise a manual for peaceful, effective social change.

It is Chow's first book, but the former Toronto school trustee, city councillor and children's advocate has got the chops.

As part of falling in love with her new country, Chow put up with all the bugs on a wilderness canoe trip. "Though bitten, I was smitten." Well-written.

Chow's account of her experience as an immigrant from Hong Kong will resonate with many Canadians.

As she gained experience and power, Chow gave back to her community, helping to get an official apology for Canada's racist head tax on Chinese workers who helped build the railway.

She also got her mother to work undercover with veteran journalist Victor Malarek, then at the Globe and Mail, to expose and press for regulation of the immigration-consultant business.

But Chow's political passions run far beyond her own demographic.

Seeing her mission as "giving voice to the voiceless," Chow worked with others in the community to move forward on student power, housing the homeless and gay rights.

Unlike many Canadian politicians, Chow never hides behind the pitiful excuse that a social ill is the responsibility of some other level of government.

Within a year of being elected as a trustee, spurred on by the vicious beating death of a Toronto gay man by five high school students, Chow proposed and passed the first anti-homophobia school curriculum in North America.

The key to overcoming public antipathy was getting gay and lesbian students who had been abused and bullied by their peers to come forward and tell their stories to teachers, principals and trustees, putting a human face on the issue.

Particularly notable is Chow's disclosure that she witnessed and tried to intervene on the many occasions that her father beat her mother and brother, but not her.

Chow also discloses she was abused by some partners before Layton. The experience of family violence led to Chow volunteering for a suicide-prevention line in her teens.

Ever since, she's been looking for new ways to include and empower those who are marginalized. Jack Layton was a political partner and personal soulmate in that quest.

They had met before, but when Layton worked with Chow at a charity auction, it took him "four nanoseconds" to fall in love with her.

She took two weeks, finally handing over her heart after a romantic dinner featuring a vigorous debate on the merits of Kierkegaard, her favourite political philosopher, versus his fave, Hegel.

Layton's romance with Chow included wooing her suspicious mother by learning Cantonese. "Thanks for the great sex!" he once exclaimed, thinking he was thanking her for the meal.

Chow is very generous in sharing details of their love together, including reprinting a love letter from Layton.

Her memories of the state funeral and the outpouring of affection from Canadians for Layton, dead just months after becoming leader of the Opposition, include the chalk messages, the bronze tandem bicycle and the iconic Canadian songs sung by iconic Canadian musicians who were also friends of the couple.

But nothing is more poignant than Chow's description of her mother in the halls of Parliament, as Layton lay in state, poking his photo and admonishing him in Cantonese: "You should have drunk all my soup."

Since Layton's death, Chow has battled grief and two serious illnesses with hard work as an MP and trips to the wilderness.

This book is an opportunity for every thoughtful Canadian to reflect on how much an individual or couple can do to make this country even better.

 

Donald Benham is director of hunger and poverty awareness at Winnipeg Harvest.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 G7

History

Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 8:20 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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