6 min

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

Plus: Xtra sits down with ward's four queer candidates

Kristyn Wong-Tam talks to passersby at the corner of Church and Wellesley streets. Credit: Marcus McCann

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.