Bob Hepburn: A farewell to city-builder Gordon Chong
They lowered the flags in Nathan Phillips Square last weekend to honour one of Toronto’s true city-builders.
This occurred as a memorial service was being held at the Toronto Central YMCA for Gordon Chong, a political trailblazer and popular civic booster who died on July 13 at age 74, after a long battle with congestive heart failure.
Some 300 people attended the service, including his family, long-time workout buddies, friends from the Chinese and Black communities, volunteers and organizers from charitable organizations, and politicians of all stripes, including Mayor John Tory and former mayor David Crombie.
They came to remember Chong, who spent decades striving to make Toronto a better place for everyone.
We can all learn lessons by studying Gord’s life, examining how he overcame a difficult early childhood and rose to become an influential, yet understated, community leader, who led by quiet example, not by the angry “anti-elite” attitudes espoused today by some of today’s younger activists.
Born to a mother of British ancestry and a father of Chinese ethnicity, Gord was fiercely proud of his heritage, and he became one of the pioneers in electoral politics for the Chinese Canadian community.
In the 1940s, his obituary read, “very few children looked like him, so he had to learn how to be resilient, tough and tenacious in a world that was not always so accommodating. He bootstrapped his way out of his conditions on the back of a strong work ethic and the support of family.”
He became a dentist and in 1979 got the urge to enter politics and first won election as a city council in the downtown ward where he grew up. He was defeated in 1982, but later held seats on the old Metro Council and on the amalgamated Toronto City Council.
He later became chairman of GO Transit, chair of the YMCA and served on countless civic and volunteer boards. He actively encouraged others to become involved, not just sit on the sidelines and complain.
Although he was a Conservative, Gord worked well with politicians from all party affiliations. He became a mentor for dozens of political hopefuls from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Many of them were at the memorial service.
Gord was my friend. He would call me frequently and he would take me for lunch at the Pearl restaurant at Harbourfront where we talked at length about politics, the city, sports and life. I miss those talks.
Gord loved newspapers, the print editions filled with political coverage and sports. He bought all four paid daily papers every day. He never read the news online, says Shirley Hoy, his wife.
When I was editorial page editor of the Star, Gord would often submit thoughtful columns on topics ranging from transportation to public housing to the state of civil discourse in politics these days. He also wrote columns for the Toronto Sun.
The last time Gord was in the Toronto Star building was last year when he came in to take part in a video presentation we preparing to run on July 1, the 150th anniversary of Canada. We wanted to ask 10 people about what being Canadian meant to them.
Gord was dressed smartly, as always. He walked slowly and was accompanied by his daughter, Wendy. And he brought the gavel that he proudly treasured from his days when he served a Canadian citizenship judge.
Standing alone in front of a white background, Gord looked into the camera and talked with deep passion of his love for this country.
“What it means to be a Canadian, I think, is to be totally all in,” he said. “You are unhyphenated, unconditional. People who are first-generation immigrants may have trouble with that initially, but they … have to leave some of their past behind and think of themselves as Canadians first.
“The sooner we stop asking people where you’re from and you say ‘Well, I’m from Canada,’ but you say, ‘But where are you really from?’ If we can get past that, then it would be great.”
Gord is smiling widely in the final frame. He was so proud, so happy. That’s how I remember him.
Bob Hepburn is a politics columnist and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @BobHepburn
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