Olivia Chow: Discover the Canadian Wilderness

On Thursday, May 9th, 10 of Canada’s most influential individuals graced the stage of the iconic Winter Garden Theatre for the Top Ten Event, hosted by Stewart Knight and in support of autism Ontario. The idea is simple: each speaker had approximately 10 minutes to offer words of advice on the “one thing you should know before you die,” based on their area of expertise. Here’s what Olivia Chow had to say…

In opening, Olivia Chow, politician and, of course, widow of the late Jack Layton, revealed that she fell in love at the age of 16. Chow explained her family’s struggle in immigrating to Canada when she was just 13. An educated man, her father couldn’t find a teaching job and quickly grew disgruntled when he was left to work “every job under the sun,” from driving taxis to delivering Chinese food. Similarly, her mother went from “having a maid to being hotel maid in Canada.”

In plain and honest terms, Chow explained how the hard times proved to be too much, resulting in a nervous breakdown for her father. He routinely took out his anger on her mother, resorting to violence and abuse. She described her home life as “loud and angry.” Perhaps to escape, while at Jarvis Collegiate she became a Junior Forest Ranger. It was then that she fell in love – and it was with the Canadian wilderness. It started at a wilderness camp in Wawa that summer and would continue for her entire life.

The young Chow was taken with the Canadian wilderness; “the stars were not like St. Jamestown. I loved the Canadian Shield, the Northern Lights, even mosquitoes were lovely.” Chow said she “discovered the meaning of the ‘true, north, strong and free’’” through the “pure and powerful” lakes and rivers, which offered a “pristine force bigger than family problems.”

Chow went on to describe her life-long love affair with the wilderness – things like the intrigue of a crazy storm, with its mesmerizing power. She marveled at size of herself compared to force of nature and a storm – and how it somehow “put her problems into perspective and love in focus.” She described how, years later, she was able to share this love affair with Jack – from paddling down rivers and through rapids to kayaking with killer whales in the Pacific.

Chow said she often wished that more Canadians could know and experience wilderness and the power of nature. She warns, however, that Junior Ranger Programs are closing down and so are summer camps. She describes how she spent Jack’s 65th birthday in the Arctic, riding the “orange wave” with him the following year – then the cancer diagnosis. She describes the weeks and months after Jack died “unbearable,” but last summer she went back to wilderness, to the Arctic River. It was a place “where the river, sunset and stars were mesmerizing” and where Chow could ponder life. She said that there was something about the unknown, and that nature is so “pure, beautiful, good and powerful.” Chow ended the talk by encouraging fellow Canadians to explore the vastness and richness around us – and to take the time to savour and share stories.

“I encourage all to feel power of the true north strong and free,” said Chow.