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Blend of business & activism marks Ward 27 candidate Kristyn Wong-Tam

Blend of business & activism marks Ward 27 candidate Kristyn Wong-Tam

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Plus: Xtra sits down with ward's four queer candidates
The evening’s white-haired hosts, Morley Chalmers and Connie Langille, give earnest introductions. After a round of thank-yous, they cede the floor to an energetic American ex-pat who alternates between governance advice and development horror stories.

On the whole, it is a gentle debutante ball for the Church-Wellesley Neighbourhood Association: a polite, unscripted meeting in a school gymnasium.

If you aren’t looking for her, you might not notice Kristyn Wong-Tam, watching from the rightmost hard- plastic chair in the front row. She is quiet for most of the evening, arms folded across her chest.

At an earlier meeting — before the group had a name — Wong-Tam took notes with a marker and flip-chart. She was not introduced and barely spoke.

“I didn’t want it to look like The Kristyn Show,” she tells me later over coffee.

After the September meeting, she stays to clean up the gymnasium — after all, the mic and amp are hers. Like most nights out, she chats after the event, tearing herself away from her friends and supporters — and those merely curious about the opinions of the diminutive 39-year-old lesbian activist turned politician — at about 10pm.

She packs the equipment into her car and cuts through the drizzle to her nearby home. There, she answers emails on her BlackBerry and revises to-be-released campaign material.

She drops into bed after midnight and sleeps for four or five hours.

I see her again the next morning, in front of the Jack Astor’s near the Yonge and Bloor subway entrance. She has been flyering since about 7:30am. Things aren’t going well.

The drizzle has turned into driving rain, and commuters — many with a coffee cup in one hand and an umbrella in the other — are not taking the campaign material. She is helped by two volunteers, a strapping babyfaced volunteer named Jon (pronounced “yon”) and a woman named Deb.

They bravely soldier on — partly, I gather, because a journalist is present — but Wong-Tam later tells me that on rainy days, she often knocks off early and takes the team out for breakfast.

After it becomes obvious that canvassing in the rain isn’t working, we slip into a Starbucks. As a former owner of a Timothy’s franchise, she says she holds no grudge against the green behemoth. She orders a tea and drops a loonie and a penny into the tip jar.

With less than a month to go, there is a major crack in Wong-Tam’s campaign. A legion of volunteers, endorsements and high-end merch (buttons, cycling tees, 50,000 flyers) suggest she’s a frontrunner. As such, she’s frequently the subject of her opponents’ criticism.

In the face of that, Kristyn Wong-Tam has not spent a lot of time talking about Kristyn Wong-Tam. And that has allowed her opponents — especially Liberal Romulus-and-Remus rivals Simon Wookey and Ken Chan — to define her.

She’s a leftist radical, an anti-development NIMBY, a wealthy one-note political neophyte.

Well, maybe.

Wong-Tam first arrived in the Village in the late 1980s, a couch-surfing, tomboy teen who grew up in Regent Park before her parents moved to the suburbs. Around that time, she started a lesbian youth group and was the subject of the documentary Out, released in 1994, which told the stories of gay and lesbian youth across the country.

One story has it that she spent a night in a men’s bathhouse, using her boyish looks to gain a cheap place to sleep.

While a student at York University, she had T-shirts printed that said “Q&A” (Queer and Asian) and convinced a Church St merchant to sell them on consignment for her.

Shortly after, she became a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker. People she works with — including Coldwell kingpin Andrew Zsolt — say they knew early on that the feisty young woman with an entrepreneurial spirit would be a good fit. She was.

Zsolt quickly gave her more responsibility, including as manager of Coldwell’s downtown office (a job he says some other agents wouldn’t have wanted because of the increased workload).

Wong-Tam, still a real estate agent, opened the Timothy’s at the corner of Church and Maitland streets in 2000, just shy of her 30th birthday.

Within months, she decided that Church-Wellesley needed a Business Improvement Area (BIA) to pay for street furniture and solidify the neighbourhood’s gay brand.

Dennis O’Connor, who later became the BIA’s first president, points out that it was a tall order — essentially, Wong-Tam and a handful of others convinced business owners to levy a tax on themselves. That money went to branding the street: paying for benches, flowerpots, light standards and, eventually, the statue of Alexander Wood at the corner of Church and Wood streets.

“Councillor Kyle Rae told me not to bother, because he said there had been two failed attempts — nobody cares,” says Wong-Tam. “I said, ‘Well, I care.’”

So Wong-Tam traipsed up and down Church St, flyers in hand, convincing businesses of the benefits of a BIA and telling them to share their newfound enthusiasm for the project with their landlords. It paid off: they secured the necessary number of votes, and in 2002 the Church-Wellesley BIA was formed.

Although she’s since sold the Timothy’s franchise, she’s still a real estate agent — she recently took a five-month leave of absence — and is now a gallery owner in a trendy neighbourhood in the west end. As O’Connor puts it, she’s “comfortable,” code for the kind of affluence that frees her to own two properties, two cars and live off her savings during the campaign.

In some ways, her financial situation has changed her activism; in other ways, not so much. She sits on the board of several lefty NGOs with stuffy-sounding titles, including the Toronto Women’s City Alliance and the Toronto Workforce Innovation Group. She’s an advisor to the Triangle Program, Canada’s only gay and trans classroom, and she’s a member of Queer Ontario’s media committee. She’s fundraising for the AGO for Arts Toronto.

After the death of Will Munro earlier this year, Wong-Tam established the Will Munro Award through the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans Youthline. She’s committed to donating a $10,000 prize for the award in perpetuity.

“Our community is primarily powered by volunteerism, whether it’s the early days of The Body Politic, to the different rights groups that we’ve seen come and go, to the University of Toronto Homophile Association — nobody made money and everyone gave their time freely,” she says. “Will personified a kind of new youth activism that I really admire. He was young, smart, engaged, very sex- positive and he was an artist.”

Obviously, the Munro donation wouldn’t have been possible without a “comfortable” bank account. But her financial security hasn’t stopped her from taking a more direct-action tack from time to time. In 2006, she attended a die-in in front of Councillor Rob Ford’s office to protest his “orientals” comment.

This fall, in the face of a bylaw crackdown on patios, Wong-Tam sat herself down on the O’Grady’s patio at 11:30pm one night and waited for bylaw officers to arrive. She wanted to have a chat with them — and got her wish.

Of course, the night in the school gymnasium, Wong-Tam isn’t the only Ward 27 candidate in attendance. Energetic trans activist Susan Gapka sits at the back, murmuring to herself. A polished-looking Enza Anderson sits on the middle aisle. At least three straight candidates brave part of the meeting.

Hanging in the air that night is the spectre of Ken Chan, a gay former police officer who has the endorsement of both outgoing Ward 27 Councillor Kyle Rae and mayoral candidate George Smitherman.

So far, Wong-Tam’s gotten the cold shoulder from Smitherman, who told her early that he had his own horse in the Ward 27 race. And after public spats with Ford, Wong-Tam has effectively alienated herself from both mayoral frontrunners — a situation that could come back to haunt her.

If there’s another crack in the Wong-Tam campaign, it’s that she’s wearing herself thin. When I run into Wong-Tam and her partner, Renée, on Church St later in the week, Renée says she’s worried about Wong-Tam’s head cold and twisted ankle.

Her team would like to see her do less.

“One thing that’s driving my team absolutely bonkers is that I’m still so committed to community endeavours, and they want me to stop going to functions and start being a candidate,” admits Wong-Tam. “It’s really hard to shift from being a community activist to becoming a candidate. Part of me feels like, that’s how I identify first and foremost, as a community activist.”

There’s that “I” creeping in. Perhaps Wong-Tam is learning.

Toronto goes to the polls on Oct 25.

Comments

Responding to Brendan
Hi Brendan, Thanks for the questions. Here are some brief answers: The police do need to take a more active role in combating the drug trade by being more present on our streets; initiatives like walking and bike patrols are my priority. Drug use is also a health issue and I will advocate for more harm reduction programs. Paying for the city’s infrastructure needs will require community engagement in a multi-year budget, ensuring that City Hall runs as effectively as possible, and making Toronto more attractive for investment. Small businesses and tourism will thrive in the village when we have clean streets and invest in projects like better sidewalks and more greenery. More affordable housing will solve much of the homelessness problem and I advocate for affordable units in new developments. Please visit www.kristynwongtam.ca for more information about my policies. Kristyn
Chan has integrity and intelligence
I got to know Ken Chan when I was working for United Way Toronto about 10 years ago. Ken was a volunteer on one of our community allocation panels. I was so impressed by his very rational, careful consideration of community issues - especially on issues facing the most marginalized in our communities. When he decided to come back to Toronto to run for Council I was very excited and happy to see a person of his integrity and intelligence run for Council and so I volunteered on his campaign. I think he'll make a great councillor and I hope people vote for him on October 25th.
Still Undecided - Candidates please comment
I am still undecided at this point who would be best for Ward 27. I would propose that if any candidates or thier campaign offices read this site, that they answer some basic questions for the LGBT to consider voting for them on Oct 25 (me anyway): What do you intend to do about the drug dealing, and other illegal activity, on our residential streets (the police wont do anything); How do you see paying for replacing/maintaining the deteriorating infrastructure (roads, sewer, water); How will you increase tourism and attract business/invertment to toronto & in particular encouraging business into the gay village: How do you intend to deal with the ever growing homeless issues in Ward 27 and accross the city..... please help me decide (I want to hear from all candidates - gay and straight)
Ken Chan's credentials exaggerated?
I have a problem voting for any candidate that deliberately exaggerates important aspects of their experience or who allows flattering errors about their experience to be perpetuated. If a candidate is willing to publicly misrepresent important credentials they cannot be trusted in other matters, too. So far as I've been able to discover, Chan was never an advisor to the Mayor of London. He was, apparently, only an advisor to one of the five deputy mayors, which is quite different. Chan's experience in London can easily be verified on-line; here's just one link: http://legacy.london.gov.uk/mayor/publications/2009/docs/local-government/improving-police-accountability.pdf Perhaps Mr. Chan can clarify this apparent distortion in his résumé?
Joel Dick
I am firmly in Joel Dick's corner. Xtra would have been well-served to chat with him about some of his insights on 'issues' that matter. While I found the coverage rather unbalanced (in favour of Kristyn), she remains in my eyes a woman of action. However, Joel's interests and background clearly position him as a man of action as well-particularly on a range of not just progressive---but bridge building activities. He can work with anyone on Council. My vote is going for Joel
Why I am voting for Kristyn!
BTW--FYI: After much thought I have decided to vote for and support Kristyn Wong Tam for city council seat being vacated by longtime Councillor Kyle Rae. Though there are several other excellent candidates (especially articulate & personable "Green" Chris Tindal, ex policeman & Smitherman aide Ken Chan, bright NDP lawyer Joel Dick and the indefatiguably productive trans activist Susan Gapka, I think it is Kristyn Wong Tam who has , overall, earned the support and vote of progressive and fair-minded people in Ward 27.? She is a very smart longtime accomplished Church Wellesley area entrepeneur & community activist. Wong Tam is also is very progressive and decisive, strongly supporting more bike lanes (not less as some candidates propose) and freedom of speech in community events (where some leading candidates fudge or avoid the Pride Toronto censorship issue of 2010, KWT confronted it head on & has come down firmly against censorship in Pride now and in the future celebrations. And overall KMT has been the most community engage--and very effective at it-- of all the candidates. (I still believe that xtra as a community newspaper, should have given the positions and views of the other main candidates running in their KMT cover issue & not just focus on KMT unless they were endorsing her (and even then give us the names and views of the main candidates who are very gay friendly not just the LGBT candidates--and even then only briefly cf the KMT cover story).
Let's talk about sexuality politically
Kristyn makes a point about Gay Pride being political and being about sexuality. She is also a strong supporter of QUAIA. Does she realize the difference between being gay in Israel and being gay in Palestine and the other Arab/Muslim countries? I agree Gay Pride should be political, and about sexuality, so in that case why doesn't Kristyn promote a float about gay sexuality in Middle Eastern countries? It is a known fact that in the Middle East the freedom to be gay exists only in Israel where there is also a Gay Pride parade annually. We know only too well what happens to gay people in the other countries on that continent and in other as well. I would think that issue is much more relevant to a Gay Pride parade.
then it is George for Mayor as he is gay?????
And following xtra's logic on Council choices (coverage only of KMT and 3 other LGBT candidates) , then of course George Smitherman is the only person to vote for as Mayor as he is the only openly LGBT person running. right? He would be the first openly gay Mayor for Toronto which should count for something by xtra's recent council coverage standards.
not a single
candidate represents me. Not a single one. Of course being able to run and actually have a hope in hell of winning wasn't an option for me as it isn't for so so many, I'm not one of the chosen, you know white, gay , male, educated, Canadian born and driven by that first world upbringing. Oh well, here we go again...same ole same ole...
More balance and honesty in election reporting?
I agree with Gilles that Kristyn Wong Tam brings a lot of assets to the table She is a fine candidate with considerable business & community experience. She is progressive and has a very good LGBT community activist track record. All assets for sure, & I have been certainly seriously considering voting for her. But journalistically I think it unfair to profile one of the candidates in a well researched & written glowing cover story two weeks before the election without giving the others equal space (and photos). In fact most of the 14/15 candidates are not even mentioned by name at all (from the articulate "Green" Chris Tindal to feisty NDP lawyer Joel Dick) because they are not LGBT-just LGBT freindly. (And the "LGBT candidate" box for Enza and Susan Gapka reduces them to almost fringe candidates-- they should have been more seriously considered by xtra on their platforms & merits even if their chances of winning seem remote to most. After all the first trans city councillor would be quite the story... ) Chan of course needs no more ink-he is the establishment choice--endorsed by Smitherman and Kyle and backed by Liberal money and their formidable machine. And with so many people running it looks like Chan has the edge even with xtra's breathless presentation of KMT. But it might have been more honest (and fair) of xtra simply to present the candidates as fully as possible (pluses and minuses) and then endorse KMT for the job if that is who the editorial board favour as seems pretty obvious though not ever stated.

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