Pedal power in parliament: Olivia Chow

Pedal power in parliament: Olivia Chow

Driving change from the Hill

Photos by Rebecca Baran

Story by Tammy Thorne

This story is from our Summer 2012 youth and employment issue of dandyhorse. Order it here.


Youth apathy towards our political status quo is at an all-time high.

Sixty-five per cent of 18 to 25-year-old Canadians didn’t vote in the last federal election.

Enter Olivia Chow. Chow is one of the most visible social advocates and politicians in Canada. And she’s fed up with the status quo.

In her current role as the NDP Transport and Infrastructure Critic, Chow is fighting for the mobility and safety of all Canadians across all modes of transportation. She recently tabled a private member’s bill, which calls on the federal government to take a leadership role through the introduction of a National Public Transit Strategy. Coordination and dedicated funding for transit on a federal level is something both experts and cities across the country are calling for — and that Canada alone lacks among its G8 peers. Chow is deeply rooted in her downtown riding of Trinity-Spadina in Toronto— she bikes or takes the ttc everywhere from her home in Chinatown — so she knows how bike lanes, safe roads and accessible and affordable transit make our communities liveable and vibrant. Trinity-Spadina is home to the University of Toronto and numerous other elementary and high schools.

Since her election to federal government in 2006, Chow has pushed for a variety of high profile initiatives, including a universal national child care program and immigration reform.
She’s a veteran city councillor with decades of experience, having learned from cycling advocate and councillor Dan Leckie.

Married in 1988, Olivia Chow and Jack Layton (or “Olivia and Jack” as they were known) both worked tirelessly to make Canada a better place: first as city councillors in Toronto and then in parliament. Jack’s death last year made Olivia the touchstone for all the emotion that goes with fighting for a better country — and she is, without any doubt, determined to carry on the work he started as Leader of the Official Opposition.

Layton said last year; “Cities like Toronto are grappling with how to balance an effective public transit system at the same time as keeping the property tax reasonable.” (Municipalities have much more limited sources of revenue than provincial and federal governments, since the bulk of funding for the city comes mainly from property taxes.)

Chow’s Bill C-305 went through first reading on September 30, 2011. Her recommendations to the House Committee on Transport note that Canada is the only G8 country without a national transit strategy.

The goals of the bill are to provide fast, affordable and accessible public transit; increase access and use; reduce commute times and congestion; enhance quality of life; reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. It states that to achieve these laudable and much needed results, coordination is needed between all levels of government to maintain and expand public transit.

Sounds dandy. So, we asked Chow: What’s the hold up with the national transit strategy? “Harper only knows how to look backwards,” says Chow. “He doesn’t understand what moving Canada forward is all about; it’s old thinking... it’s the status quo. Harper just doesn’t want to take any leadership role, or have any kind of real partnership with municipalities or transit authorities.” Chow continues, “Congestion is costing up to 6 billion per year in the GTA alone, so we know it’s a fiscally conservative move to support transit.

Chow in her Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina on U of T campus downtown. Photo by Rebecca Baran.

Now that the NDP is in the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, will the party be able to force transit on to the federal agenda? “The first study that we did at the House Committee on Transport is a transit strategy, so that shows they understand it’s important — it’s just a question of what they are going to do about it.” Chow says the Conservatives want to control every detail, yet lack leadership when it comes to moving the country forward. “They don’t want to give more money to municipalities [for transit] but they want to do all the ribbon cutting,” she says. She suggests more funds could be found in the gas tax.

Cycling is not without its politics, either. During her years at City Hall, Chow was chair of the cycling committee. Now, in her federal role, she has called for a national cycling strategy. In 2011, she said: “The federal government should take a leadership role to promote cycling by dedicating infrastructure investments to create bicycle lanes, paths and secured parking. Transport infrastructure projects should incorporate the needs of cyclists in their design. Side guards on trucks should be installed to reduce cycling fatalities. Bike racks should be available on buses and financial incentives should be offered to Canadians buying new bikes. After all, 82 per cent of Canadians support federal government spending to encourage safe cycling and a healthy lifestyle.”

Youth are arguably the demographic with the most to gain from progressive policies like these. Young people rely on transit and bikes, especially those saddled with student debt, pounding the pavement in search of decent jobs. Riding a bike is great way to keep personal costs low, while contributing to the local economy — or even just to get to that first job interview on time.


This story is from our Summer 2012 youth and employment issue of dandyhorse. Order it here.

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