In the years that I’ve been a journalist, I’ve met 13 per cent of the current Black politicians in this country. I’m not trying to flex my political muscle by stating that, in truth, I’m disappointed.
Across all three levels of government, and all the provinces and territories, there are currently only 30 Black elected officials in this country, according to Operation Vote Black Canada. The 13 per cent that I’ve spoken to adds up to a grand total of four people. For context, each municipal government has roughly 10-20 city councillors plus the mayor. The lack of political representation of Black people is particularly troubling considering that Canada’s Black population is roughly 1.2 million. Among those four people is one woman who was elected to the House of Commons less than a month ago.
Award-winning journalist and former CTV broadcaster, Marci Ien, won the federal Toronto-Centre by-election on Oct. 26. With the victories of Ien and Ya’ara Saks, who won the York-Centre by-election, there are now a record 100 female MPs on Parliament Hill out of the total 338 seats. And while this is an important milestone to acknowledge and celebrate, there is clearly more work that needs to be done in order to diversify the political landscape.
Identities Matter in Politics
One of the other candidates in the Toronto-Centre by-election was Annamie Paul. Paul, like Ien, is a second-generation immigrant whose parents came from the Caribbean. And like Ien, Paul is also a Black woman. Despite not becoming an MP, Paul was still riding a victory wave after being voted as the new leader of the Green Party of Canada on Oct. 3. With Paul’s appointment, she became the first Black person to lead a major political party and only the second Jewish person to have that distinction. The cultural significance of her appointment is not lost on Paul, but the fact that her win was so historic came as somewhat of a disappointment.
“One person should not embody so many firsts in Canadian politics, especially because we have such terrific diversity in this country. Especially because we pride ourselves on being an inclusive society,” Paul said in an interview on the CBC podcast, Front Burner.
Had things gone differently, Paul could’ve been the second Black female to lead a major political party. Earlier this year Toronto-based lawyer, Leslyn Lewis, ran to lead the Conservative Party of Canada. Lewis, an immigrant originally from Jamaica, was the first visible minority woman vying for the party’s leadership position. Ultimately, Lewis lost to Erin O’Toole but her candidacy was significant nonetheless.
Lewis finished a strong third, which is not something you can usually say about a four-horse race. She did remarkably well for someone who’d only once before run for office, and many saw Lewis’ leadership campaign as a much-welcomed breath of fresh air.
A Diversity of Perspectives
One of the defining features of Lewis’ leadership bid was her unabashed stance on socially conservative issues like abortions and gay rights. Critics have said that because of Lewis’ position on a number of issues, she doesn’t reflect the position of other Black Canadians. Others argued that as a Black woman, she shouldn’t have conservative beliefs at all. That kind of thinking is exactly the problem.
It’s reductive and insulting to insinuate that as a Black woman, Lewis isn’t entitled to her own opinion. The Black community is not a monolith. A diversity of opinions should be welcomed as it is the whole point of politics; you take people with diverse opinions, differing needs, and they work together to come up with the best solutions. So, while I don’t agree with many of Lewis’ beliefs, I support her right to have them.
The more Black people involved in politics, the more diverse opinions we’re bound to see. Those unique perspectives inform how politicians do their jobs. For example, Ien explained that being a Black woman, a Black mother, and the fears and challenges associated with her experiences motivated her to run for office.
“I thought, it’s one thing to talk about these issues and raise awareness to life experiences, and it’s another to have the capability to put some action to the words,” she said.
Symbols are Important
In some ways, it’s unfortunate that Ien and Paul were pitted against each other in the Toronto-Centre by-election. Two strong, confident and competent Black women competing for the same seat at an exclusive table. When I asked Ien to reflect on the by-election and Paul as a politician, she responded “the more of us, the better.” Paul echoed the remark, saying seeing people who look like you reflected in politics and in the media gives marginalized people confidence.
“Symbols are important. A lot of research tells us that when people do not see themselves reflected in their politicians, they disassociate themselves, they can’t envision themselves in those roles. And so having more Black politicians will actually breed more Black politicians,” Paul said.
Paul mentioned that it’s important for people to note that “Black people are just as electable as anybody else,” we just need the right opportunities.
According to Ien, part of her new role is setting a good example and opening doors to help more Black get involved with politics in the future.
“The key I think is doing an excellent job once you get there. We carry as Black people, when we’re blazing trails, we’re carrying the community and you’re representing more than just yourself. So it’s knowing that and doing your best at all times, and breaking more ground. It’s also mentoring, and I always have an eye on who’s next. So here I am now as MP-elect but it’s about who can I mentor to get here? It’s encouraging people to run, it’s encouraging people of color to think about politics and for them to see it as viable. That’s important too.”
A Look to the Future
After Lewis’ campaign began to pick up steam earlier this year, pundits and media figures wondered if Lewis was a blip or the beginning of a trend of having more Black people run for office. It’s still early but if Ien and Paul’s election victories are any indication, it looks like we’re headed in the right direction. Lewis already signalled her intention to run in the next election.
But it’s important to not get complacent and to continue to push for change and inclusion. Ultimately, it makes society better for everyone. Paul said, “If we want a healthy democracy, particularly in a country as demographically diverse as Canada, then our representation at the highest levels has got to reflect that diversity. Otherwise, people will continue to disengage.”
While the levels of representation needed in the political arena aren’t where they need to be yet, one note of encouragement to take away from Paul, Ien and Lewis is that what once seemed impossible now feels doable thanks to how they’ve performed.