Merely 34 days into her first term as a city councillor, Kristyn Wong-Tam found herself in an unenviable position: overseeing a small disaster in her ward.
On Jan 3, 2011, a six-alarm blaze — later revealed to be arson — destroyed the 123-year-old Empress Hotel and damaged several nearby buildings. Wong-Tam had to gather all the local stakeholders to figure out how to proceed.
But after the fire, she saw a chance to rebuild. “I asked the planning staff what the vision is for this area,” she says. “And the planning staff said, ‘Quite honestly, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we start working on that right away?’”
Bypassing the backlog in the city planning department, Wong-Tam was able to put together a proposal with help from the private sector. She’s now hoping environmental assessments for the Yonge Street Planning Framework can start as early as 2015.
She’s known as a politician who doesn’t focus on party lines, but rather on getting the job done. Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, who assisted in procuring the location for the mass same-sex wedding ceremony during WorldPride, credits her hard work on the event for turning it into an incredible day.
Some community members remain frustrated that she spearheaded the renaming of Cawthra Park to Barbara Hall Park, in honour of the LGBT ally and former mayor. But Wong-Tam makes no apologies for this, telling the audience at a Ward 27 debate Oct 8 that it is important to recognize the contributions of women and that the road to the east of the park, Cawthra Square, is still named after William Cawthra.
It was at the same debate that one rowdy audience member grabbed a mic and accused Wong-Tam of being one of the founders of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, a claim that haunted her election campaign in 2010 as well. At the time, Wong-Tam told the Toronto Sun that she loaned the founders her credit card. No other evidence, or comment, has emerged regarding her involvement with the group.
Another audience member questioned her claim that she was involved in advocating for the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Ontario Human Rights Code, since, at the time of the hearings, Wong-Tam was quite young. “I was not necessarily a lawyer that advocated for those changes, but I was certainly there as a youth activist,” she explained after the debate.
Facing questions is a part of the job, and Wong-Tam understands that. But she wishes she could properly convey to the public how complicated being a councillor is (Ward 27 boasts one of the largest populations of any of the 44 wards) and the large number of development applications she sees. Her office, she says, is one of the busiest.
Wong-Tam is also clear about the successes and challenges she has faced, having been one of the most vocal politicians decrying the racism and homophobia-tinged threats and accusations that have flown at both her and other candidates during this election cycle.
She’s listening closely to what people in the ward are telling her they care about; job creation and affordable housing are top priority for residents in this election. Wong-Tam wants to ensure that Ward 27 has a diversity of housing options, and she says that in 2015 they will be creating a new housing cooperative at the corner of Sherbourne and Bloor streets.
She is all too aware that the Church-Wellesley Village is evolving — but she thinks it’s for the better. “It’s more diverse than it’s ever been. There are more women on Church Street than there ever were, more people of colour and people of all ages and all genders.” She hopes it keeps evolving so the area doesn’t stagnate.
The only way is forward for Wong-Tam, who thinks about her ward in the broader scope of the city. She tells Xtra that she, along with Councillor Pam McConnell, hope to introduce a new vision for Yonge Street in 2015 that will make it a new cultural corridor.
“It’s going to transform the city.”