My Journey: A Memoir, was, for me, the most inspiring non-fiction work that I have read in many months. It is not that I demand inspiration from my reading but, when it comes as part of the package, it is a rare gift. This book provided that many times over. It is way beyond “political”: it addresses grief, philosophy, relational wisdom, immigration issues, community, effective government, poverty etc. etc. etc.
For Canadians, as stated in the Prologue, it poses the question: “how can we come together to form a government that reflects our values? How can we persuade government to invest in children and public transit and to help generate good jobs so that no one is left behind?”
Because the book is a memoir, it includes Olivia Chow’s meeting, marriage and political partnership with Jack Layton and it includes his death and the devastating effect it had upon this woman whose life was so entwined with that of her soul mate. It is a thoughtful and reflective memoir in this regard and provides much hope and help for anyone open to hearing its message.
The Prologue closes with the following: “My first language is Cantonese, and in Chinese languages there is no past or future tense, just a sort of infinite tense. Jack (Layton) is now part of that infinite tense. But I live in the present tense, and the stories in this book are my stories. Stories from the journey that has brought me here today. My journey, so far.”
In the first chapter one learns about Olivia’s childhood: her first home was in” Hong Kong, on Blue Pool Road in the community of Happy Valley” which name she likens to something magical out of a children’s book. Her father was a highly respected school superintendent and her mother was an elementary school teacher. They lived comfortably and had a live-in housekeeper. Olivia’s mother’s history is particularly interesting and would fill a book itself. Families are always much more complicated than they appear on the surface.Olivia says she was “naughty, spoiled, rebellious and lazy…a terrible student. I actually managed to fail Grade 3.” It was then that she was sent to Convent School in the community she then lived in but her troubles continued there and she became “the hellion of the school.” Upheavals and bombings in Hong Kong in 1967 resulted in an exodus from Hong Kong and the Chow family came to Canada at that time.
They arrived in 1970 when Olivia was 13. They chose to come to Canada and Toronto because of the large numbers of Chinese located there. They lived first in the Annex on the third floor of a converted Victorian home. Not too long after the family moved to St. James Town south of Rosedale where nineteen high-rise apartment buildings had been constructed on 32 acres. Both of Olivia’s parents “suffered a perilous decline in both income and status.” Her mother became a seamstress and then a maid and a laundry worker in a hotel near city hall. Her mother’s experience taught Olivia the importance of a good pension in later years. Her father never did find fulfilling work, doing stints of delivery and taxi driving and manual labour.
Olivia is forthright about the details of her schooling and her family life which was sometimes painful. She explains her acceptance of her experiences this way: “It took me that long (until she was in her late thirties early forties) to forgive him (her father). It took me that long to discover what state of grace is – it’s achieving the peace and freedom of living in the moment, and not allowing past wrongs to colour the present.”
When she was sixteen, she went north as a junior forest ranger. She journeyed eleven hours by bus to Wawa at the end of Lake Superior and then inland to a wilderness camp. She says this experience was a turning point in her life and it saddened her that the forest ranger program started in 1944 was closed down in 2013. She attended other camps in later summers and these experiences provided an enduring connection “with the divine” and gave her “a sense of Canada – of being a Canadian.” There is more about her high school experiences and much about her reading background which I particularly enjoyed and more about her university experiences as well. Then her sculpting Honours BA from the University of Guelph.
This is an inspirational memoir which reads more like a shared conversation with a friend one hasn’t seen in a long time and who is filling you in on what has happened to her and for her. And I haven’t even touched on her political life. If you have an interest in survivors who have accomplished impressive things and done it very quietly and co-operatively, you will find this well worth your time.
I have been watching some of the current “debates” between the mayoral candidates in the city of Toronto this fall(2014). You may know that Olivia Chow is one of those candidates. Her resume is most impressive! Having read it and listened to what several of the other candidates have had to say, I would have no trouble deciding which candidate would be best for that city and for Torontonians. I do hope some of them have looked into this excellent resource.
If you live in the Toronto area and/or have access to the Toronto Star newspaper, you might want to check the Wednesday, October 8th edition for the article on page A17 by author and feminist activist, Judy Rebick. The article is titled “John Tory not an option for feminist voters”. I would wish it might have been put on the front page. The article closes as follows: “Olivia Chow has a platform and a track record on fighting inequality. She keeps her word and knows how to work with people and to make decisions.
Why would we settle for less? Don’t vote cynically (reference to voting for Tory because he is not Doug Ford), vote passionately.” Judy Rebick is the author of Imagining Democracy and Transforming Power and other titles.
Another book which I have just become aware of is Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt who points out that after “twenty years covering federal politics in Canada” she had “run out of ways to tell readers how political life resembled the world outside the Ottawa “bubble”.” She had begun to “recognize the creep of shopping language into the political marketplace” and wanted to “see what price we were paying for mixing consumerism with democracy.”
Do you understand what is motivating you as a voter? Are you able to separate the consumer life style from your responsibilities as a citizen? Are you a Tim Hortons voter? Delacourt lists some “sobering statistics” that support the claim that “over the past fifty years or so, Canadians have checked out of the political process.”
And last, but not least, speaking of Canadian women who are speaking out and who deserve your time and attention as readers and as citizens, I have just begun to delve into Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. This book will inform you about what you need to know to be a responsible citizen at a very challenging time in our history and in the history of the world/planet. Highly recommended but not for sissies!