Olivia Chow is our featured Green Hero this month because she is running to be Mayor of Toronto. She’s a Green Hero who might just make a good leader of a great city in this time of climate crisis. Why? Because she’s done almost everything she can to reduce her own ecological footprint and is therefore an unusual politician because she actually leads by example. Instead of just talking about what other people should do, she quietly does those very things herself. In other words, she gets her own house in order. She practices what she preaches.
While we know her as politician, she was an artist and teacher before her election as a city councilor in 1991. She had her own sculpture studio in the years before her political career and created art pieces for clients. Anybody who works in the arts knows how hard it is gain the trust of clients, make sales and commissions and run a small business all at the same time. She also taught at George Brown College – meaning she had to deal with the challenge of inspiring students. Listening to them and realizing that in order to be a teacher you have to listen and try and give feedback to your audience. But you also have to walk the walk not just talk the talk.
Beginning as a school trustee in 1985, and as Toronto a city councilor and then Member of Parliament, Olivia’s politics have addressed homelessness, public transit, and many other urban issues. She was also an early advocate of people changing their lifestyles to better suit the planet. What was so impressive was that although so many folks talked about change and dreamed about what could be done, Olivia had this practical side that was just about getting the job done.
She and her late husband Jack Layton turned their downtown Toronto home into a showpiece of environmental stewardship. She even made a little video to demonstrate how the green home improvements worked. I was so inspired by this video that I used it when I first pitched Green Heroes in 2006 to a large but skeptical audience at a media conference. I used a clip of the tour Olivia gave to illustrate how stories about people active in environmental change could motivate others to share them via the Web and inspire further action in their own homes and communities.
So Olivia was one of the first “Green Heroes” not because of anything too remarkable – she put her money where her mouth was. She fixed her home so that it wasn’t part of the problem, but part of the solution – all at her own expense. I wish more people would be like her. When people asked how she could afford the renovations, she said she had the income to support that sort of thing. Even though it did mean some investment and sacrifice, there was a payoff in lower costs down the road. She just recommended that people with similar middle class incomes do the same.
She has also, on principle, been skeptical about too much expansion at Toronto Island Airport. Recognizing that the natural wonder of the Toronto islands is for all Canadians to enjoy and experience the natural world. That it is senseless to have this treasure be overrun, as it would be, by a busy commercial airport. Now there is even talk of exposing the island paradise to jet traffic. Olivia also always went to work – rain or shine, sleet or snow, on her trademark bicycle, decorated with flowers and bright colours, Then in, 2006, she won the Trinity—Spadina seat for the NDP. In the federal election her house remained a monument to a sustainable future. A reflection of how we can make our homes and our urban centres sustainable, and beat the climate change crisis down with our own efforts. Even though we need political leadership, we also need people to start practicing a sustainable, affordable lifestyle, at home, just like Olivia. If she wins the leadership of Toronto it will be interesting to see if the city will become a place where the world can see people leading by example on climate change.