City councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam is leaving city hall to run for the Ontario NDP in Toronto Centre in the June 2 election, the Star has learned.
The riding’s incumbent, NDP MPP Suze Morrison, announced earlier this week she would not seek re-election. Toronto Centre is thought to be one of a few Toronto seats at risk in the provincial election.
“Doug Ford and the province has shown no interest in Toronto or the neighbourhoods in Toronto Centre or anywhere else, to be quite honest,” Wong-Tam said in an interview. “They have been very deeply committed to cutting, to downloading and weakening local democracies and local government. We don’t have an active partner at Queen’s Park, and we desperately need one.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is expected to announce Wong-Tam’s candidacy on Friday morning.
Though the timing of the two elections allows candidates to run municipally if they lose their provincial race, Wong-Tam said she has no plans to seek her council seat and will resign when the provincial writ drops.
“It’s important to allow new people, new energy, new voices, new vision to come in,” said Wong-Tam in an interview. “I think with MPP Morrison’s retirement from political life right now, it opened a new door that I had not been looking for.”
Wong-Tam’s departure from council, where she represents the same area, leaves a second downtown ward vacant for the municipal election this October. Coun. Joe Cressy has announced he is stepping down in Spadina—Fort York.
Wong-Tam, born in Hong Kong and raised in Regent Park, became a community organizer at a young age, creating space for other LGBTQ youth. She honed her entrepreneurial skills as a business owner, including an art gallery, and was first elected to council in 2010 as the first openly lesbian councillor — one of several rookies who earned their political stripes under the Rob Ford administration that ended in scandal.
Wong-Tam said she was first courted for provincial office in 2018, in back-to-back dinner meetings with two party leaders — Kathleen Wynne and Andrea Horwath — in the same restaurant at the Marriott Hotel on Bay Street across from city hall, a day apart.
Both women were looking for a candidate for Toronto Centre and Wong-Tam had the same questions for both of them, though she had no plans then to leave council.
“It was Andrea Horwath that really understood the needs of Toronto and in particular she really understood the needs of the core of the city,” Wong-Tam said, adding they bonded over both being downtown councillors, Horwath previously in Hamilton.
Horwath said she is “overjoyed that Kristyn is joining the NDP team.”
“Kristyn has a passion for human rights and advancing equity, for promoting entrepreneurship, and supporting the arts,” she said.
She said Wong-Tam’s work as a city councillor has put her on the front lines “seeing every day how people are impacted by chronic underinvestment. Kristyn has a drive to make homes more affordable for middle class and working families, and is a committed advocate for fixing health care and home care, and helping seniors age in their own homes.”
Wong-Tam has been firmly a member of council’s unofficial left, though there are no official parties, but has been mixed about her party support elsewhere. She said she’s donated to Liberal and Green campaigns, but the last time she was a card-carrying member anywhere was when Peter Tabuns lost to Horwath for the NDP leadership in 2009.
Today, the 50-year-old is the only openly non-binary member on council. She married gender justice advocate Farrah Khan and together they are raising their nearly three-year-old son in the downtown core.
As one of the only racialized members of council, she has focused on issues like affordable housing, accessibility and gender equity, along with the recovery of Main Streets post-pandemic and mental health addictions — work she said would only be amplified at Queen’s Park.
“So much of what I’ve been working on at city council, actually there’s a bigger forum for systemic legislative change at the province,” Wong-Tam said.
As a councillor for an area that includes St. James Town, the Church-Wellesley community, Regent Park and Cabbagetown, Wong-Tam has juggled wealthy homeowners’ concerns with encroaching development, highrise applications on Bloor Street, deep affordability issues, homelessness deaths and violence in the downtown east.
She’s proud to see her work on equity issues has led to staff applying a lens on those concerns on all city staff reports, with a more complete gender equity strategy forthcoming. A push for open streets in 2014 and efforts to remake downtown Yonge Street have shown up in the ActiveTO plan that opened roadways to cyclists and pedestrians during the pandemic and the yongeTOmorrow review of the street’s design.
Wong-Tam came under scrutiny last year after sharing misleading vaccine information in a Toronto Sun opinion piece about the divisiveness over those who remained unvaccinated, and later issued an apology encouraging everyone who could to get vaccinated.
Wong-Tam said she hopes allies she’s made on council as well as hard-working city staff know she will continue to support them. She said she’d likely return to council as a private citizen or as an MPP to speak in support of projects like gender equity and the ongoing revitalization of Regent Park.
Wong-Tam will be vying for the Toronto Centre seat against Liberal candidate David Morris, a former chair of the 519 Community Centre for the LGBTQ community; the Progressive Conservatives’ Jess Goddard; and Green Party candidate Nicki Ward, who worked to advocate in the early green movement in Europe.
With files from Kris Rushowy
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags