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Toronto through the eyes of Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam

Posted by Tomasz Bugajski / February 7, 2011

Kristyn Wong TamWith her election in October, Kristyn Wong-Tam replaced long-time Councillor Kyle Rae in Ward 27, one of Toronto's most diverse districts, which includes Rosedale, the Village, and much of downtown Yonge Street.

Wong-Tam was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Regent Park. She has worked in real estate, owned a Timothy's franchise, and done advocacy work for LGBT groups and Toronto's Asian community.

During the 2010 campaign, Wong-Tam was involved in controversies over her involvement with Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA), unions, and the NDP. Towards the end of the campaign she was also accused by her Ward 27 rival, Simon Wookey, of exceeding campaign spending limits. Her team has, however, consistently denied any wrongdoing.

Wong-Tam narrowly managed to beat her rival Ken Chan, who was endorsed by both outgoing councillor Kyle Rae and mayoral candidate George Smitherman, by 458 ballots, taking 28.2 percent of the vote.

I live in Ward 27 and first met Wong-Tam over half a year ago at a council debate called "So you think you can council?" Although Chan always struck me as a serious contender, I always knew Wong-Tam would pose a challenge to his campaign. Her organization, familiarity with the neighbourhood, and competence stood out from the get-go.

In the second installment of our interviews with Toronto's new city councillors, I sat down for a chat with Wong-Tam at her office earlier this week. Here's what we talked about.

You've been a city councillor for two months now. What's an average day like for you?

[In a week, I'm here] anywhere from five to six days--and during a few weeks it's seven. It has everything to do with the volume of paper and the reports that are being generated. I get here around 8:30am, get up every morning around 6:30, and I will often times stay here until nine or later...so the days are long, without a doubt. And even if I finish my days here at nine, if I don't finish my readings here, I take them home (people are going to think I have no life!).

Don Cherry's speech to City Council was very partisan. Is council as divided as that speech made it sound?

[At the time], I didn't think so, especially when I had nothing to gauge it with. As a new councillor you're just walking in and ready to work and cooperate with everyone. And I think every new councillor you speak to truly wants to cooperate, regardless of where you may sit politically...I know [council's polarization] gets talked about often in the media, and there are times where I feel, perhaps, the dogma has taken on a greater role of importance...

Kristyn Wong-TamWhen people refer to you as part of a left-wing faction how do you feel?

I think for labelling and short strokes to sort of 'brand' someone quickly it might be a convenience factor because people want quick identifications...I've had some people say "Kristyn is the raging capitalist" and at the same time "Kristyn is a left-wing councillor."

I totally understand that for people who don't have the time to really analyze policy and sit down and think about how we're going to build a city proactively, short strokes and immediate identification might work, but for long term fostering of discussion, dialogue, and good policy it won't get you very far.

How has Rob Ford handled the 2011 budget process so far?

I haven't seen much of Ford during the budget process, which to me was rather surprising because this was his opportunity to really display his leadership...I'm kind of surprised I haven't seen him stand up and defend why the budget is framed the way it is, such as how the bus route cuts will affect local communities, what will happen when we dismantle the policies for disenfranchised neighbourhoods. So I'm a little bit surprised because this is the most important document that the city will produce...

I [also] disagreed vehemently with the expedited budget process. I thought that...we need to go through a proper public vetting. We need to also recognize the fact that there are many new councillors who don't just need to familiarize themselves with the budget, they need to understand the workings of the corporation, with the many different departments, the layers, and how the different departments intersect with one another to deliver city services. [The budget process] is a bit backwards...The city budget is now set but all the new councillors are getting their briefing from the departments now.

So do you see many disadvantages to being a new councillor (versus one with more experience)?

Ironically enough, I actually see the disadvantages as advantages. On one hand you may not know the bureaucracy as well as you should...[and] I don't have the same personal relationships [with city staff] that an older councillor has...Those could be seen as a disadvantages. But for me, I see it as an opportunity to learn and to really study the different departments, and get a sense of the different staff and how they intersect with one another.

Kristyn Wong-TamIt's been about half a year since the Jarvis bike lanes were installed. How do you think they've worked out?

I'm not sure they've made everyone happy. I think car drivers might have become accustomed to the extra waiting time. We know in the summer months there are more cyclists using the lanes and right now there aren't that many [cyclists]. As I walk through the neighbourhood and I see cars waiting, I can sense that when they look at those bike lanes and they're completely empty there's an overall sense of frustration.

The roll out of [the bike lanes] was completely mismanaged in my opinion because we didn't have proper public consultations and we didn't look at the impact of the removal of parking for the businesses on Jarvis.

[Some say] Jarvis is supposed to be a traffic corridor, someone else says it's a cultural corridor because of the old mansions, or it could be a business corridor because of the wide open sidewalks...None of those conversations took place. There was a Jarvis Streetscape Improvement Plan that...talked about the beautification of Jarvis and making it greener by planting trees. [In the end], not a single tree was planted and we got $65,000 worth of bike lanes.

We focus solely on the bike lane and the traffic of vehicles, but what's missing from that overall discussion, to be quite honest, is planning...At this point the bike lanes are here to stay - even if ad hoc planning brought us the bike lanes it would be ad hoc planning to just remove them without a permanent solution...

You're on the Board of Directors for Yonge and Dundas Square. What's your vision for its future?

I'm a new member to the board and they have a strategy that evokes the feeling of "bright lights, big city." I have my own personal opinions with respect to billboard proliferation and light pollution. I know these might contradict the goals and overall mission of Yonge and Dundas Square.

I'm interested in finding out whether or not there's a balance that can be met. At this point I'm not going to barge into an existing board of management and tell them what to do. I'm much more interested in finding out what led them to the decisions that they made. There's no doubt in my mind that Yonge Street is a very commercialized area, and so it should be. It's the main shopping, commercial, and main street of Ontario. But I'm wondering if there's room--and I think there should be--to green the space, improve it, and learn to animate the space without large events.

I know there is the business case model for large events because it's one-off and it's much easier to rent to one big cultural or event producer than to manage a number of small little merchants. But I'm wondering whether there's a way to strike that balance...

Why did the Empress Hotel become so neglected? How can we protect other heritage buildings from the same fate?

On one hand the general public wants to blame the property owner, but I think that's too simplistic...there were a number of missed opportunities. [I support] incentives that help [property owners] preserve their buildings...It's very expensive to maintain an old property because the structures are different and the technical components are different.

The city needs to start looking at heritage buildings as a cultural asset. The onus is not just on the individual property owner, we all have a collective responsibility because we reap a collective benefit if that cultural asset is maintained and preserved.

I've been thinking: where within the building code does it address heritage preservation? So when a property owner applies for a building permit to...do interior modifications, how does that address the exterior components of the building? According to the Ontario building code there's no reference regarding heritage property...The Ontario building code and the heritage act need to come together...

What do you think is Toronto's greatest shortcoming?

I want us to have a global attitude. I want us to think about building a city that is going to be an economic player and not just from a regional perspective. I'm not just interested in competing with New York; I want us taking on London and Shanghai as a global city. I'd like us to think in that way.

Right now we kind of flirt with the idea, we might talk about it amongst ourselves, but then we say things like "we can't afford to be a global player."



Trina MacAllan / February 7, 2011 at 10:04 am
Smart lady. I find it interesting though, that she noted that Ford has been a ghost durign the budget process... Does anyone else think that he's just a big fat facade?
steve / February 7, 2011 at 10:22 am
the next Heritage building that will be lost is 314 Jarvis street. It was well maintained up until it's current owners. People live on the front porch, said porch is about to collapse due lack of repairs and paint. Another Jarvis Street mansion is about to be lost.
Ms Wong has not responded to this potential loss. She has been very vocal with her brand of NIBYism
katata replying to a comment from Trina MacAllan / February 7, 2011 at 10:25 am
Yes, possibly for Doug Ford.
scottd / February 7, 2011 at 12:31 pm
"I haven't seen much of Ford during the budget process", just like the last 10 years.
Rick / February 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm
I didn't vote for her, but from what I've seen from her so far, I'm glad that she's my Councillor.
Greg / February 7, 2011 at 01:22 pm
K-Dub gettin' her steeze on. Tha's right, pop yo' colla'.
gtafunmuscle / February 7, 2011 at 02:13 pm
i hope she will find time to enjoy life.. people always love to brag about how many hours they put in at work..it's sad
Tenant 66 / February 7, 2011 at 02:16 pm
I enjoyed this interview with councillor Wong-Tam. I want to mention if you’re reading this Councillor, please help block the development at 66 Isabella Street. Ward 27 is being rapidly developed which is great, but Isabella Street particularly is already a very busy traffic and pedestrian corridor. It’s already heavily populated. I live in one of the apartments overlooking Isabella Street on the south side, and during rush hour the street is extremely busy with both pedestrians and vehicles. If anything you should stop developments and install speed bumps. There is very little park space, and it provides a breather from all the congestion and cement between Carlton and Bloor Street on Church. Isabella has only a small amount of parking space which is very busy in the summer months. There are already four new buildings in the immediate area and at least three we know which are going to be built. If you support the environment, urban animals and bird populations, surely you will defend this cause. The trees on this properly are heavily populated by birds and squirrels during the summer. I have been a resident of this area for a few years now, and voted for you. Councillor Wong-Tam please block this development. Kyle Rae definitely made some bad decisions near the end of his term. Including hundreds of thousands on a hideous park that his personal condo overlooks, and approving the re-zoning of the 66 Isabella. Please do not be corrupt and support corporations and over-development. This development does not support the area; it is already heavily populated and has many stores. The only purpose of this development is to line the pockets of the developers and their partners. We need to keep the little green space and trees we have downtown. The trees the city plants on streets in cement do not thrive and have short life spans, these mature trees play a vital role to the small animal populations in the area. We as a community, as I know many residents of Ward 27, do not want this development. Not everyone can make it to meetings, and the residents do not want this development to take place.
mycitytoo replying to a comment from Tenant 66 / February 7, 2011 at 03:27 pm
Typical NIMBY attitude. Do you know what a condo is? It is a home, a home were a lot of money is spent to acquire. Those that purchase these homes have a vested interest to make sure they get a good return. To get this return upkeep is important as is the neighbourhood they live in. Unlike renters, who are largely transient and are only interested in the area while they live three. Something goes wrong renters do not stick around or invest more money to fix things, they move. Look at St. James town!
Most of your arguments are lame. There is little in the neighbourhood, it is almost as void as Jarvis Street. This project brings in retail and creates jobs. Your worried about the grassy knoll on the corner, it is private property the public is not allowed, what a greedy use of space. A well designed project can have public spaces with tress flowers, art and seating. Why would traffic concern you? If you are engaged in the area as you say would you not walk or bike.
It is this kind of attitude that makes the OMB relevant why we get so much bad and mediocre buildings. Why would a developer talk to the residents when they know the first reaction to any proposal will be to stop it. The developer will build there and to the maximum density he is allowed. Stifle them and you get a cheap unattractive building, like 22 Wellesly.
The whole are between Bloor to College, Young to Jarvis has not changed in the 30 yrs I have been there. It just gets more and more irrelevant. You want something you need to leave the area.
Tenant 66 replying to a comment from mycitytoo / February 7, 2011 at 03:41 pm
Would would think you work for the company, or have some personal interest in the project. The area is already being built up, and Church Street is already a very bustling area, do you live anywhere close the property? Your entire comment is lame, and your only defence is the property is unattractive and your incorrect claim the area lacks culture or development and there is already a new condo being developed one block south of the property and one block north. As an actual resident of the area I don't think it lacks in appearance during the summer, the park is nice and busy with residents. Also retail businesses in the area already struggle, being friends with a few of them. Look at Zelda's old location, it's been empty for over six months and sits in a prime location. Your argument has no real base, and you sound like a plain hater looking for a confrontation, grow up. Your throwing jabs insteading of bring any real arguments... but your comment was entertaining..
Tenant 66 replying to a comment from mycitytoo / February 7, 2011 at 03:56 pm
BTW If you knew anything about the project, you would know only the top two floors are condos out of 32 floors, the rest are apartments. I can tell you know what your talking about...
Enrico Pallazzo / February 7, 2011 at 04:00 pm
If I recall correctly, 196 out of the of the 212 units in the 66 Isabella project are proposed to be rentals, not purchasable condos. There was a public meeting last week about this, just out of curiosity Tenant 66, did you attend?
Tenant 66 / February 7, 2011 at 04:41 pm
Yes - the orientation Q&A and the development plans at 519. I have also received numerous articles about the plans, distributed by residents and the city planner. It would be great if the City bought the land to maintain and upgrade it as a public park. Although, I am aware that would be expensive and unlikely, it would be great in an ideal world for me.
Anton / February 7, 2011 at 05:40 pm
Does Wong-Tam carry a wallet or a purse?
lonewolf / February 8, 2011 at 04:07 am
The term's just beginning,we'll see how the lefties work with the Ford administration. Union endorsed,NDP friendly,QUAIA,it is what it is,of record. Once the newbie councillors figure out most of City Hall's frame work,they'll have less "overtime" hours. Nice to see a refresh of councillors,finally. Purse,or wallet stereotype,really?!
iSkyscraper / February 8, 2011 at 09:25 am
Nice to finally read about someone new who was elected who actually has a brain. Some intelligent opinions there about some tricky problems, which can only bode well for the ward and the city.
Gary / May 24, 2011 at 12:14 am
Brain, questionable. No stomach for learning the truth, easily swayed by hearing the international cry "victim" too many times by these ever-whining losers - you bet. Her support in using our hard-earned tax dollars to provide a hate platform for Queers Against Israel is disgusting and criminal.

I think Wong-Tam should exceeding her campaign spending limits once again,but this time, visit Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Libya and Iran, then give us her intellectual opinion then as it pertains to: what real democracy is; who the real terrorists are; Israel - the one country that actually does promote real human rights; and, simply read a history book so you can brush up on real historical facts. Brain? Questionable.

Wong-Tam should wake up, put her political agenda and ego aside, finally see the real truth about these world-renowned "victim" terrorists - those who are and always have been out to commit genocide against a whole culture. Hitler loved the Palestinians and their on-going solution. These terrorists have been unwavering Jew haters for over two thousand years. It's in their "victim" DNA.

How dare you use my hard earned tax dollars to support hatred and untruth. Purse or wallet, I don't care. Promoting a hatred platform for racists - not on my dime.
moe / November 3, 2011 at 09:02 am
could she be the next mayor please?
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