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City councillor Cynthia Lai dies just days before Toronto election


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City councillor Cynthia Lai dies just days before Toronto election

Toronto city councillor Cynthia Lai died Friday, news that shocked council colleagues and city staff three days before she was expected to be re-elected in Ward 23 Scarborough North.

In a statement, Lai’s re-election campaign announced “with profound sadness” that the councillor and businesswoman died Friday afternoon “surrounded by family at the hospital.” She had two grown sons.

Lai was elected to council in 2018 “representing one of the most diverse multicultural wards in the city,” her campaign staff said, adding: “She championed the causes of her constituents and delivered services to residents that reflected the demographic make-up of the ward.”

Her family has asked for privacy.

Colleagues said they would remember her as a passionate, dedicated councillor who was “fierce” in her advocacy for constituents.

The city announced that, in Lai’s honour, flags at City Hall, Metro Hall and Toronto civic centres are being lowered to half-mast. Lai was a recipient of the Duke of Edinburgh Silver medal and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.

In a statement, Mayor John Tory said he knew Lai for more than 20 years. He was impressed by her strength and professionalism “whether in politics or as the first Chinese-Canadian woman elected to the position of President of the Toronto Real Estate Board,” he said.

“She was a good person who was a cheerful optimist while at the same time being professional, respectful and good at whatever she did.

“I am proud to have had the opportunity to serve with her.”

Coun. Jennifer McKelvie of neighbouring Ward 25 Scarborough-Rouge Park, said in addition to being deeply committed to her community, Lai was a lot of fun to be around. She remembers her taking the stage and singing and dancing at the AsialiciousTO food festival, which she was a strong supporter of.

“I even leaned over to a friend and said, you know, there’s nothing this woman can’t do. And she’s gonna outlast us all in this business. So of course I’m just absolutely devastated that that statement didn’t hold true and we’ve lost a dear, dear friend today,” McKelvie said.

She said she’d treasure the memory of celebrating Chinese New Year with Lai, where she gave McKelvie her first moon cake.

“Whether it was championing the local restaurants, especially during the pandemic when they were hit with hardships or whether it was advocating for Scarborough transit, she put her residents at the heart of everything that she did,” McKelvie said.

Coun. Brad Bradford, Ward 19 Beaches-East York, said: “She was such an amazing representative for her community. She knew everybody and she represented them in a really genuine and authentic way.”

The Star reported Thursday that Lai was campaigning from a hospital bed. Her campaign said then she had campaigned hard since registering for re-election in May, then “recently” fell ill but remained “fully committed to serving the residents of Ward 23, Scarborough North.”

Late Friday, the city issued a statement that said the election will proceed and Ward 23 voters will be publicly advised that Lai is ineligible, although her name will be on the ballot because they have already been printed and can’t be changed before Monday.

Whichever of the other three council candidates in that race — Phillip Francis, Virginia Jones and Jamaal Myers — gets the most votes will be declared the new Ward 23 councillor.

People who already voted through mail-in ballot or advance voting will not be able to change their vote.

Lai was one of four new faces elected in 2018 after many years as a successful realtor. She was born in Hong Kong, leaving in 1972 to join her sister in Toronto.

In an interview with the Star when she was elected, Lai said that when she first came to Canada, she lived in a downtown rooming house, populated by rats and cockroaches, gradually working her way to ownership of Global Link Realty Group, a firm with 30 realtors.

She was the first Chinese-Canadian woman to serve as president of the Toronto Real Estate Board. It was as a realtor that she got to know the ward and its residents.

But councillor life wasn’t always easy. In September, for a story about an increase in threats and abuse against public officials, Lai revealed that she had recently hung up on a constituent who made a slur against her Asian heritage.

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“This is an ongoing problem,” Lai said of the rise in harassment. “There is a lot of verbal abuse and discrimination” aimed at her and her office staff.

Dundas Kwok, the founder of Global Link Realty Group and a former colleague of Lai, said he knew Lai was dealing with health challenges but was “shocked” to hear of her death. He said she just celebrated her birthday a few days ago.

Kwok described her as a “strong lady” who was deeply committed in her former job as a realtor and also passionate about helping local businesses and community groups grow.

“She never gave up,” Kwok said. “If she was focused on one thing, she would put her heart into the project.”

He added that she was very popular in the community and had a lot of connections in the world of real estate.

Kwok also said he was confident Lai had the support of constituents in her election campaign but is unsure how the community will react now.

“On Monday, I was sure 100% who would be elected. But I don’t know what to say now,” he said.

Inderpreet Singh, a community member at Gursikh Sabha Canada, a gurdwara in Scarborough, remembered Lai from community events and said she was always eager to participate.

“She was very good. She had a very helpful nature participating in all the community work and getting together with the people here. Whenever we would invite her, she would come here,” he said.

Incumbent councillor Gary Crawford from the Scarborough Southwest district two wards south of Lai’s, said her city hall office was next to his, and he helped her find her feet in her early days as a rookie councillor.

“She worked hard. She really wanted to learn about city hall, about her ward,” said Crawford.

He chairs the city budget committee, to which Lai was appointed in Nov. 2021. He recalled her asking frequent questions about city finances.

“She just wanted to soak up as much information as she could to be a better city councillor,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong tweeted: “I will miss @cynthiaToronto. She was a good friend and a strong representative of her community and the Chinese community.”

Councillor Ana Bailão tweeted that she was “shocked by this tragic news” while another councillor, Paula Fletcher, posted: “How tragic. And so sad. Deepest condolences to family of @cynthiaToronto.”

As news of her death spread, dignitaries from across the GTA offered their condolences.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie called Lai a “dedicated public servant who fiercely advocated for her community at City Hall” and said she would be dearly missed.

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said he was saddened by the news and called Lai an “amazing woman and a trailblazer who loved the people of Scarborough.”

In a statement Friday, Jamaal Myers, who registered to run against Lai in Scarborough North, extended his condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues. He said he was pausing his campaign for the remainder of the day out of respect for their loss.

“While we were opponents in politics, I respected her achievements in life,” he said of Lai.

“Councillor Lai leaves behind a family, a legacy of dedicated public service, and a successful business career. This is truly a legacy worth celebrating.”

With files from David Rider, Omar Mosleh and Ben Spurr

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

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