By Kathleen McGouran and Ian Vandaelle
When Kristyn Wong-Tam defeated Kyle Chan in the hotly-contested 2010 race for Ward 27, she inherited the seat of the deeply beloved yet controversial Kyle Rae, who had held the ward for 19 years. In doing so, she took the reins of one of the most diverse areas in of Toronto – a ward that included Ryerson University. Wong-Tam has made a name for herself beyond the clamshell walls of city hall: she spearheaded a number of community initiatives, including several efforts to improve and expand urban green spaces as well as to increase the availability of affordable, quality housing in the area.
In her efforts to support her ward, Wong Tam has not forgotten Ryerson and its students, and has thrown her clout behind university initiatives. From closing Gould Street to vehicular traffic, to Ryerson’s acquisition and renovation of Maple Leaf Gardens, Wong-Tam has become a staunch supporter of university advancement and remains a valuable voice for students in city hall.
“I know how important it is to, number one, support our institutions,” Wong-Tam says. “And every city around the world will probably be able to attest to the fact that universities are tremendous economic incubators.” Wong-Tam has compiled an impressive resume for a first-term councillor, as she balances butting heads with working alongside the right-wing factions of city hall. Her record of collaboration should come as no surprise to political watchers.
She spent much of her time prior to running for public office working in both the arts and real estate, two industries that err towards opposite ends of the economic yardstick. While making a living in the real-estate sector, the Hong Kong-born Wong Tam also curated a number of Nuit Blanche exhibits and worked as an active member of the vibrant Toronto art community.
In many ways, Wong-Tam embodies her ward; as an immigrant, a Buddhist and a lesbian, Wong-Tam represents several facets of minority life in Canadian culture. But these identifying factors, coupled with her voting record at city hall, have endeared her to students, other constituents and several members of Ryerson’s administration (Ryerson President Sheldon Levy and Julia Hanigsberg, vicepresident administration and finance among them).
“We really appreciate that she is the kind of person that wants to work constructively,” Hanigsberg says. “There is a very open line of communication [between Wong-Tam and Ryerson].”
It’s a relationship Wong-Tam takes seriously, and even cherishes. Much of her efforts in city hall reflect dedication empowering residents and encouraging education as a means towards that empowerment.
“When we have healthy and vibrant universities, they’re really a part of the city fabric,” says Wong-Tam. “I see us as having a close working relationship.”
It’s not just Wong-Tam that values a close working relationship; Ryerson President Sheldon Levy said the university has benefitted immeasurably from its collaborations with city councillors and Wong-Tam in particular, even when progress has been slow when it comes to municipal action.
“Having a supportive councillor is really important to a university and she has been supportive,” Levy says. “Not everything we have been able to succeed at and there’s work in progress like the renaming of the Dundas station to be Dundas-Ryerson … but these are things that take a lot longer.”
It’s Wong-Tam’s dedication to these shortterm and long-term projects that strengthen her bond with Ryerson. She led the initiative to make Ryerson the first Canadian host of the Urban Umbrella, a new type of scafolding, and has a vested interest in exploring the potential of the pedestrianized Gould Street space. These conversations and collaborations are cornerstones to Wong-Tam’s relationship with the Ryerson community. They have also helped to highlight Ryerson as an agent of influence and change in the city of Toronto.
“I’m looking forward to supporting Ryerson,” she says. “I’m very keen to make sure that we have beautiful streets in Toronto.”
Rodney Diverlus, president of the Ryerson Students’ Union agrees that Wong-Tam has had a number of positive influences on a ward that has a number of “questionable” leaders.
“It’s refreshing sometimes to see someone that’s more real and more genuine and more down to earth and community driven,” he says. “It’s really refreshing to see someone coming to a lot of events and walking around.”
When the university’s mission to revitalize the former Maple Leaf Gardens wrought noise complaints from the building’s neighbours, Wong-Tam served as a mediator to smooth out the tension. As much as she is a representative of her community’s well-being, Wong-Tam holds the belief that Ryerson’s expansion is vital to its success.
“It’s always been part of the plan [for] Ryerson to succeed for Toronto downtown to succeed. If Ryerson fails then I think downtown Toronto is in for some trouble,” she admits.
And just as her support helps the university in its quest to advance into the core of Toronto, Wong-Tam said the university pumps valuable energy right back into the city that supports it.
“I want the city of Toronto to replicate that energy and that type of enthusiasm,” she says.”It’s a two-way street; it’s about collaboration.”
With files from Sean Wetselaar