Jack Layton and Olivia Chow: A force field of two

For Layton and Chow, a singular political partnership, it was love at first sight
NDP Leader Jack Layton hugs his wife Olivia Chow on the steps of his campaign bus as he addresses supporters in Toronto on Sunday, May 1, 2011. The federal election will be held on Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
A force field of two
Andrew Vaughan/CP

In 1987, Jack Layton and Olivia Chow attended a fundraiser for Toronto’s St. Stephen’s Community Centre at a Chinatown restaurant. By then they were already “Jack and Olivia”—NDP star couple, he a rabble-rousing city councillor, she an activist Toronto School Board trustee. After dinner, Layton took the stage as energetic auctioneer, a role he played for social causes. Afterwards, I watched the couple hit the dance floor, a force field of two you couldn’t look away from.

Lorraine Segato, a long-time friend of Chow’s and Layton’s who performed at the politician’s state funeral, carries a similar mental snapshot of them from her 2009 wedding to Ilana Landsberg-Lewis. “I scanned the room of 350 happy people dancing to great music, and Jack and Olivia were in the middle,” she says. “Later I saw Jack holding [his granddaughter] Beatrice up. It was an unbelievable moment of pure joy in the family unit.”

It wasn’t surprising that Karl Bélanger, Layton’s long-time press secretary, cited the couple’s 26-year union at Layton’s funeral as emblematic of the NDP leader’s “collective ambition” and “team effort”; the “partnership of romance and politics with Olivia the greatest proof,” he said.

It is a uniquely Canadian, multicultural, inclusive love story. Layton and Chow weren’t the first married couple to sit in the House of Commons (that was Nina and Gurmant Grewal), but they blazed a unique trail exemplifying social equality, says Segato, who still sometimes slips into the present tense when she’s referring to them: “What you see is a couple engaged in each other’s best good. The level of respect is so profound. They didn’t agree on every issue, but they had the discussion. They were the embodiment of the equal, feminist relationship. It’s not some political ideal. They’re living it.”

Chow and Layton both arrived in Toronto in 1971—she from Hong Kong at age 13, Layton from Montreal at age 21, newly married and about to earn his Ph.D. in history. Their paths crossed in the late 1970s when Layton was a professor and social activist and Chow worked for Toronto councillor Dan Leckie. They like to tell the story of falling hard for one another at a Toronto hospital auction in 1985. Layton, then 34 and divorced with two children, was the auctioneer; the 27-year-old Chow, about to run for the Toronto District School Board, provided translation to the largely Cantonese-speaking crowd. “It was definitely a love at first sight situation,” a still-smitten Layton told the Toronto Star in 1999, gushing that his first impression of Chow was of an “absolutely stunning, drop-dead gorgeous, amazing woman.” The two campaigned together, he said, often “smooching in the hallways of downtown Toronto apartment buildings.”

“In Olivia, Jack saw someone complementary,” says a political insider, who observes they were the classic case of opposites attracting: “He was impatient; she was patient. He was loud and rambunctious; she was quiet and deliberate. He was socially exuberant; she presents herself far more carefully.” Over time, they “absorbed the other’s traits, becoming more alike.” Layton even learned to speak passable Cantonese.

Their June 1988 wedding on Toronto’s Algonquin Island was a fusion of the personal and political, bringing disparate groups—gay rights activists, artists, and the Chinese community—together. Two United Church ministers officiated, the Toronto skyline as backdrop. The bride wore white, as did the groom. Chow described the cultural mash-up later to the Toronto Star: “the more Western churchy thing, the Chinese bow to heaven and earth thing, and then the tea.” Guests still marvel at the fun had at the reception for some 1,000 at St. Lawrence Market filled with music and performances. It’s who they are, says Bob Gallagher, a close family friend who worked as Chow’s executive assistant in Toronto and later as Layton’s Ottawa chief of staff: “They were truly urban modern people who believed you don’t just tolerate difference, you celebrate it.” Guests were asked to donate to specified charities; the couple’s gift to one another was a bicycle built for two.

In 1990, they bought a big old house in Toronto’s Chinatown, where they lived with Chow’s mother, Ho Sze Chow, and hosted countless parties and events. “A total community centre,” Gallagher calls it. Chow’s election to Toronto city council in 1991 established their political MO. They’d never sit together, preferring to stake new ground. They worked in tandem, says Gallagher: “I’d ask Olivia if she was going to go to something. And she’d say, ‘If Jack’s going, I don’t need to. He’s got it covered.’ ”

They did check in with one another by phone multiple times a day, a pattern that continued in Ottawa, “much to my annoyance,” Gallagher jokes, because it slowed down the schedule: “Working with Olivia, any number of times we’d be interrupted by Jack calling. Then when I moved to Ottawa I can’t tell you how many times Olivia would be brought in on speakerphone to be part of the decision. And it wasn’t just rubber-stamping, it was truly input.”

Another insider notes Chow’s patience rubbed off on Layton politically. “Olivia would say, ‘That’s a good idea but it’s not the right time,’ which isn’t a common discipline in political life. By the time Layton was federal leader [in 2003], he was a transformed political figure who thought strategically.”

In 2004, both mounted federal campaigns. Layton won; Chow didn’t. Being separated physically was “devastating” for them, says Gallagher. The next year, Chow was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which she confronted with her usual energy, receiving surgery on a Thursday and returning to city council the next Monday. Chow’s 2006 victory in Toronto’s Trinity-Spadina riding brought her to Ottawa. “There was absolutely no sense ever that she rode on his coattails,” says a political insider. “She did not have an easy ride against Liberal [incumbent] Tony Ianno.” Never was there any sense that one carried the other, he says: “If there’s a checklist of who contributed what to whom, it’s a very even list of check marks.”

As a freshman MP, Chow was seated in the back. After the 2008 election, she was moved across from Layton, to his delight: “Now, I can see Olivia,” he told Maclean’s.

Chow rejected the traditional ceremonial “wife” role, says Gallagher: “Olivia wanted no part of that; but both were there for the other publicly when required.” In public, they expressed unabashed affection, reflected in Layton’s 2005 proclamation: “Olivia is fundamental to my life. She is woven into every minute, every second, of my existence.”

Even in the face of partisan smears, their front was unified, says a friend: “They could vigorously disagree, yet they were very careful to be publicly supportive.” They also treasured time alone, escaping annually for high-octane holidays snorkelling, canoeing the Nahanni River, whitewater rafting, cycling. As Layton’s health worsened, Chow became his public proxy. In his last days, she fed the visitors filling their home and helped craft her husband’s letter to the nation. In Ottawa, she stood by his casket for hours, comforting friends, and walked alone behind the car carrying her husband’s body in Toronto, other family members behind her. “It’s heartbreaking,” says Segato. “I can’t imagine the next piece of it. I don’t know what that looks like. But Olivia is so strong.” Gallagher is amazed by Chow’s stoicism: “This is testing her strength beyond all imagining.” Chow insisted on thanking the crowds outside Toronto City Hall, he says: “She really needed to go out there because Jack would have wanted it. And she returned with so much energy.” She continues their shared political project alone, Gallagher says: “Jack’s playing a different role all of a sudden but the mission continues. Olivia will see it through because of her own beliefs. But she’s doing it for Jack.”