Toronto city councillor Cynthia Lai, who was running for re-election in Monday’s municipal vote, has died. She was 68.
Her campaign manager, Hratch Aynedjian, confirmed the death of the Ward 23 Scarborough North councillor on Friday afternoon.
Lai died in hospital and was surrounded by family, Aynedjian said in a statement.
“She championed the causes of her constituents and delivered services to residents that reflected the demographic make-up of the ward,” he said.
“The family has asked for privacy and no further comment will be provided.”
Aynedjian told CP24 that Lai had been battling an illness throughout the year. Despite that, the councillor decided to run for re-election in the spring when her condition improved. Aynedjian does not know the specifics of her illness, saying Lai was very private.
Lai’s chief of staff, Jim Murphy, remembered the councillor as a tremendous contributor to the community and someone who wanted to continue serving Ward 23 residents.
“She leaves a wonderful legacy,” Murphy said in an interview with CP24. “Her biggest success, I would say, was representing them in terms of their language, in terms of their culture, their religion. It was very important for her to have the demographics of the ward reflected.”
For example, he said Lai made sure that planning applications in the ward were available in multiple languages to ensure everyone in the community knew what was happening. Murphy added that Lai was also a massive part in making Asialicious, an annual Asian food festival in Scarborough, a success.
“She was someone who worked very hard for her community and never forgot her roots in terms of her beginning,” Murphy said.
Lai was first elected as the councillor of the newly formed Ward 23 Scarborough North in 2018. She was a member of the city’s budget committee, economic and community development committee and the Toronto Transit Commission board.
Lai, who celebrated her birthday on Oct. 19, immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Before entering politics, she was a successful realtor and became the first Chinese-Canadian president of the Toronto Real Estate Board.
Mayor John Tory, who has endorsed Lai for re-election, remembered Lai as a good person “who was a cheerful optimist while at the same time being professional, respectful and good at whatever she did.”
“For the last four years, Cynthia represented the people of Ward 23 Scarborough North with such elegance and distinction. She was such a friendly and warm presence at City Hall and I know I speak for her City Council colleagues when I say she will be deeply missed,” Tory said in a statement.
“I know she was always so proud of her heritage, of her family, her achievements in business and her tremendous work for the community as a volunteer for many charitable causes and in politics.”
Her fellow councillors also paid tribute to Lai. Speaking to CP24, Ward 25 Scarborough Rogue Park Coun. Jennifer McKelvie said she was saddened by Lai’s death.
“My heart is broken. All of our hearts are broken,” said McKelvie, who remembered her neighbouring councillor as a staunch and fierce advocate for Scarborough who started wonderful initiatives for her community.
“We’re all going to miss her very much.”
Beaches-East York Coun. Brad Bradford said he is saddened about the passing of his friend, who will be missed.
“Having visited her in Scarborough North, it was clear she was beloved by her constituents and represented them in a genuine and authentic way. Condolences to her family,” he said.
Don Valley West Coun. Jaye Robinson tweeted that she was devastated to learn of Lai’s passing.
“Cynthia and I developed a strong bond over the last four years – it was an honour to have worked with her,” Robinson said.
Several politicians from other levels of government also offered their condolences to Lai’s family. Ontario Premier Doug Ford tweeted: “I’m so saddened to learn about Councillor Cynthia Lai’s passing. My thoughts are with her friends, family and the constituents she served.”
The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board (TRREB) also released a statement on the passing of its former president, saying Lai is being remembered for her dedication to the industry and her passionate engagement with members using her cheerful and optimistic demeanour.
“Cynthia was a trailblazer and helped open the doors for other women. She will be remembered as an accomplished realtor, a fierce advocate for her community and a champion of increasing women’s participation in municipal government,” TRREB President Kevin Crigger said in a statement.
Lai is survived by her husband and two sons.
Flags at several city buildings, including at City Hall and Scarborough Civic Centre, have been lowered to half-mast in honour of the councillor. The Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square was also dimmed on Friday.
Condolence books will be placed in the City Hall rotunda and the Scarborough Civic Centre as of Sunday for anyone who wants to sign in. Condolences can also be emailed to email@example.com.
The city confirmed on Friday evening that the election for councillor in Ward 23 will still be held on Oct 24. Under the Municipal Elections Act, if a candidate dies before voting day and there are at least two other candidates running, the election will proceed as if that candidate had not been nominated. Three other candidates are vying to represent Scarborough North.
The city said as ballots with Lai’s name have already been printed and cannot be changed in time for Monday, a notice of Lai’s death will be made available in all 35 voting places in Ward 23.
“Any votes cast for the candidate on election day, as well as those already cast during the advance vote and through mail-in voting, will not be counted,” the city said.
It noted that voters who have already voted for Lai through mail-in ballots or at advanced polls will not be allowed to change their choice.
– with files from Cristina Tenaglia