Critical gains for women could be lost if Doug Ford wins election in Ontario

The column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on June 3, 2018

In a few short days, Ontario voters will head to the polls to elect our next government.

This has been an election for the history books, and there is a great deal at stake.

In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, all across the province we’ve seen an influx of young women entering the political arena. These women have bravely put their names on ballots, knocked on thousands of doors, and brought fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to the political discourse.

I’ve met many extraordinary women on the campaign trail, dedicating their time and energy to impacting the outcome of the upcoming election — many of them for the first time. Feminists who care deeply for our communities, working tirelessly together to ensure the next government continues to build on and protect the gains seen under the leadership of Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Wynne proactively planned, prioritized and moved the dial on issues uniquely impacting women.

She partnered with researchers and front-line workers providing supports for victims of gender-based violence in a sincere effort to ensure the government was providing sufficient support.

Her focus resulted in much-needed increases to sexual assault crisis centre budgets as they struggle to meet local demands for services, more safe beds for women and families in need of transitional housing as they take the necessary steps to rebuild their lives following abuse, and improvements to supports in rural communities while addressing a need for culturally appropriate and safe services.

She met with student leaders to support their work on campuses across the province, creating funded sexual violence prevention and support strategies. While there is no way to measure the exact impact of her #WhoWillYouHelp and #ItsNeverOk campaigns, we can be certain that they contributed to sparking much-needed conversations across industries about the role we each play in shifting a toxic culture and providing better supports to victims of gender-based violence.

She empowered her caucus and cabinet to identify how each of their portfolios and initiatives could contribute to her women’s economic empowerment and gender-based violence prevention agenda. Stemming from this, her team piloted and expanded free legal advice for survivors of sexual assault, made great strides toward addressing the ever-persistent gender pay gap with legislation that came into effect this past April, and set mandatory targets to ensure more women have a seat at the table through provincial board and agency appointments.

Her record on measures put in place to combat a culture of harassment and violence against women is unprecedented. These are all important steps forward, and there is much more work ahead.

We don’t know exactly what Doug Ford intends to do if elected as premier, as he’s chosen not to produce a fully costed platform. However, from the commitments made on his website we can see that he intends to take the province backward on many of these gains.

We know he has promised to turn back the clock on the modernized sexual education curriculum, which includes a critical focus on consent and healthy relationships. He has further committed to rolling back legislation passed with the aim to ensure women are able to access abortion services without facing harassment.

I’m extraordinarily proud of the work accomplished under Wynne’s leadership. She has led with a refusal to settle for the status quo with a transparent, visionary and activist government. We can’t afford to go backward.

We often get caught up searching for “the real thing” in politics. We want the Jed Bartlet of political leaders — authentic, charismatic, principled, brilliant and witty.

The truth is, there is no perfect candidate. Political leaders are regular people, like you and me, striving for better in both themselves and their communities.

I place political leaders into two categories — those who believe themselves to be dignitaries wielding power, and those who prove themselves as functionaries for progressive change.

Wynne has proven herself to be a true functionary in Canadian politics.

Despite her best efforts, Ontarians have made it clear that they want change.

Come Thursday, I hope Ontario will elect a government committed to building on her legacy rather than looking for ways to repeal her hard-fought work in support of the women of this great province.

Humility, empathy are key to Ontario Liberals’ rebuild

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on June 17, 2018

The results of the provincial election delivered a devastating blow to the Ontario Liberal Party. This week, the remaining members of caucus met and unanimously endorsed John Fraser as interim leader as the party embarks on its rebuilding process.

After 15 years spent sensibly building the province of Ontario, the Ontario Liberal Party now enters a chapter of deep self-reflection in preparation for the way forward.

This is a process I hope the party takes its time with, carefully and inclusively.

While Premier Doug Ford goes about dismantling some of the proudest accomplishments of our previous governments, the Liberal caucus will have to work alongside its progressive colleagues in the legislature to hold Ford accountable to the needs of every Ontarian.

It will be important to cut through the distractions, observe carefully and remain critical of each decision made by this new government.

In Kathleen Wynne’s emotional and captivating speech on election night, one line stood out as she spoke of the party’s leadership transition: “There is another generation and I am passing the torch to that generation.”

That generation has waited patiently for the torch. Premier Dalton McGuinty would consistently remind young liberals that they carried an important function in the party — of rocking the boat without tipping it over.

Well, we capsized. And today the youthful voice of the Ontario Liberal Party has an opportunity to share an equal part in modernizing the ship.

There is no need to rush into the formal leadership process. There are intergenerational and regional dialogues that should take place first, in order to connect, share and align a variety of visions as we embark on this new chapter.

Who are Liberals? Builders. Forward thinkers. Fairness seekers. A family of political organizers and supporters who believe better is always possible and who set out to improve our province through the system.

There is a quote by Les Giblin I’ve used to guide my approach to political organization that says: “You can’t make the other fellow feel important in your presence if secretly you feel they are a nobody.”

With that in mind, I hope those who enter the permanent leadership race bring a key quality to the table: humility, with an ability to empathize with Ontarians from all walks of life.

We have a great many relationships to heal and cultivate. Each Liberal ambassador, and the leader especially, will need to undertake this process humbly to earn back the trust of the electorate.

I remember the first time I voted Liberal. At 18 years old, my mother reminded me it was a secret ballot and refused to share her decision so I could independently come to my own.

She encouraged me to look at the values of each party and the track record for delivering on their promises. She made sure I researched the local candidates and understood the role they played in advocating for our community’s needs.

Over the years, and especially during this most recent election, there have been moments when I disagreed with decisions and directions being set by the Liberal party. But that is the beauty of political discourse — the avenues in place to fight for our beliefs while shaping the way forward.

Our leaders can’t be afraid to innovate, while cultivating a culture of inclusivity and respect for the ideas brought forward by our wide range of supporters. Further, they must work diligently to address the issues facing us today with a steady eye on the challenges of the future.

Ontario has elected a government aiming to turn back the clock on climate change initiatives while offering no plans to address the local economic impacts brought by automation and rapidly changing technologies.

In four years’ time, more than ever, Ontario will require a government willing to tackle our biggest challenges with balanced, creative and cutting-edge approaches.

With his grassroots organizing experience, Fraser is an excellent choice for a difficult role, and it’s a difficult task that lies ahead of him as interim leader. But he doesn’t stand alone.

In the coming months and years, over the course of the rebuild, the voice and future of the Ontario Liberal Party will be heard and felt from all corners of the province.

Oprah should trump Donald for the Nobel Peace Prize

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on May 13, 2018

Donald Trump is putting in much effort to appear to play it coy in response to supporters championing to see him win a Nobel Peace Prize during his presidency.

When asked whether he thought he deserved the award, the U.S. president said, “Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it.”

Donald Trump Jr. encouraged the growing chatter while tempering expectations with a recent tweet stating “The globalist elite would never give him that win.”

If selected, Trump would be the fifth American President to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, joining Barack Obama, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter (who received the honour after leaving office).

The Nobel Peace Prize is an honour that I hope forever eludes Donald Trump.

There are thousands of people and organizations that deserve the award ahead of a man using his position to stoke racially motivated fear and hatred among Americans, while personally promoting violence against women.

To be eligible to nominate someone for the award, an individual must be a member of a national assembly of a sovereign state, or the head of state. Also eligible to nominate are members of the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the Permanent Court of Arbitration of The Hague, Members of Institut de Droit International, university professors and professors emeriti and associate professors of history, social sciences, law, philosophy, theology, and religion; university directors, and directors of peace institutes and foreign policy institutes.

Former Nobel Peace Prize winners are also able to nominate, as well as members of boards of directors of organizations who have received the award. Current and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee as well as former advisers to the Norwegian Nobel Committee are eligible to nominate.

As a part of the decision-making process, information surrounding nominations is kept secret for 50 years. Nominators who choose to make their own nominations public often inform speculation for potential prizewinners.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 98 times to 131 laureates, among these are 104 individuals and 27 organizations. Only 16 women have been awarded the prize.

Each year the nominations close on the first of February, with the winner being selected in October and the award presented to the recipient in December.

In the running for the 2018 prize, there are currently 330 candidates, including 114 organizations.

If I were eligible to submit a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, I would nominate Oprah Winfrey.

In part because of the joy it would bring me to see Trump denied the honour to a Black woman who clearly intimidates him, but mostly, because over the course of her astonishing career, she’s earned it.

If selected, she would be the fourth Black woman to receive the honour. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee shared the award in 2011, and Wangari Muta Maathai accepted it in 2004.

While some may dismiss her career in entertainment as trivial, one cannot dismiss the powerful global impact created by the forum she created comprised of 4,561 television episodes for women to share their most intimate stories while promoting growth and healing.

Gloria Steinem noted that Oprah’s “ … daily presence on every continent and in 150 countries for a quarter century […] became a real and rare example of a spontaneous democracy in which people from every walk of life were invited to talk honestly and were listened to with empathy and respect.”

Aside from her impressive personal philanthropy, she’s devoted much of her career to helping people find their own truth and stand in it while seeking to be their best selves. Among her impacts on the world, this, I believe stands as her most powerful.

Well into her retirement, she continues to investigate and share truth, even when it is not what we want to see. Her most recent 60 Minutes special on the legacy of American public lynching, while jarring in it’s visual representation of Black death, was necessary to confronting its impacts.

Oprah may have decided against running for president against Trump, but if their impacts on promoting peace and making the world a better place are compared, her legacy is far more positive and wide reaching than his will ever be.

Feel the thrill of being involved in a campaign

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on May 6, 2018

I imagined the struggle placed on new candidates now restricted from being in the room at their own fundraisers to thank donors. Donor appreciation is a large part of fundraising. When an individual decides to direct their generosity to supporting your political vision and your ability to execute it, it only feels natural to have an opportunity to look them in the eye and thank them.

The legislation also drastically reduced (by nearly 90 per cent) the total amount of money individuals could donate to campaigns. It further banned corporations, unions and other groups not affiliated with political parties from making political donations.

It was a game changer.

Campaigns are in need of volunteers and individual donations now more than ever.

This isn’t an election to sit out, press mute, or wait for an outcome. This is an election to be engaged, informed and critical of the vision being offered by each party, and contribute in whatever way you are able.

Begin by making sure you are registered to vote. Elections Ontario launched a new online tool last year to make this more convenient. It only takes a few minutes.

Next, get to know the candidates. It has brought me immeasurable joy to see a new generation of women self-select and run successful nominations across the province.

It’s difficult for so many of us leading just-in-time lives, but I hope you’ll find a couple of hours to find a candidate you support, walk into their campaign office and ask how you can help.

Let the bug catch you. Step into the excitement of the movement. Offer your time and energy. Canvass, deliver literature, make phone calls, fundraise, or help organize an event.

If party politics aren’t for you, consider contributing to an issue-based campaign.

#OntarioThrive was launched this week by a powerful coalition of non-partisan organizations aiming to ensure measurable commitments on gender equity are at the forefront of the discourse throughout the campaign.

They are organizing events and asking candidates for their positions on a range of issues, including health and education, campus sexual violence, gender-based violence, child care, housing, minimum wage, ending violence against Indigenous girls and women, and anti-racism.

The best gift that comes with volunteering on campaigns, no matter the outcome, is the family built along the way. Lifelong true friends connected by a passion to make impossible things happen, forever tied as you grow one another into your best selves, better prepared to impact the world around you.

Each time I get involved in a campaign it is with a sense of responsibility to my own ancestors who were not always afforded the ability to contribute to shaping political outcomes. Black women who had to fight for the right to vote, participate in political discourse, and run for office.

I contribute because I believe it is my job to help shape the world I hope to bring children into. I look forward to one day teaching my daughter, by example, the same appreciation for this civic duty.

There was a portion of Barack Obama’s farewell address in Chicago on Jan. 10, 2017 that particularly moved me: “Because of all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. […] Show up, Dive in. Stay at it.”

I’m committed to volunteering as much of my time as possible to supporting #womenforwynne. I look forward to the new friendships forged along the campaign trail in the coming weeks.

The title track on my campaign playlist is “Without a Fight” by Janelle Monae.

I want to look back at this election after June 7 and know I did everything I could do. Whatever that is for you, I hope you will be moved to do it too.

Mediocre men walk their way through political campaigns. It is time to end the double standard facing women on the campaign trail

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on April 22, 2018

When Donald Trump entered the political arena, he broke all the rules. And his election in 2016 exemplified a frustrating double standard between men and women on the campaign trail.

While men are encouraged to innovate and break the political mould, women are expected to learn the rules as they exist and follow them closely or face heightened scrutiny.

Premier Kathleen Wynne has a difficult road ahead. Canada has never re-elected a woman as premier in any province. She is tasked with defending her record while presenting a detailed plan for her proposed way forward.

Her record and resume are impressive. She’s spent decades in the political trenches, in work specifically aimed at improving the lives of the most vulnerable in society. She’s been clear about her values and has been a compassionate and thoughtful leader for the province.

Doug Ford bested three women opponents last month in a speedy leadership campaign, convincing Ontario PC party membership that he was the best candidate to lead their party through the election. Ontarians will decide over the next six weeks if he is qualified to steer the ship of the entire province.

As the campaign kicks off, Ford has confidently thrown conventional provincial campaign wisdom out the window.

While local media outlets across the province struggle with cut, his campaign has made a calculated decision not to have a media bus follow the leader for the duration of the campaign.

Rather than presenting a fully costed platform to communicate his plans to voters, Ford continues to present oversimplified solutions to complex policy issues on the go.

Ford seems to believe he can wing this campaign. Voters deserve better.

Voters deserve independent media access to party leaders. Voters deserve to know how a particular campaign promise is going to be achieved. Voters deserve to see a document that outlines a vision for the province and a blueprint to achieve success.

A platform is the medium through which a party’s vision for the province, and plan to achieve it, are communicated. Parties spend months connecting with local communities to prioritize issues and policy experts to identify innovative solutions in the development of these documents.

Premier Wynne quoted Michelle Obama this week in a description of what we can expect from her over the course of the campaign:

“Michelle Obama, whom I admire greatly, recommended when they go low, we should go high. I loved that idea when she said it until we ended up with Donald Trump in the White House. So, I’m sorry, but not again. Not here, not in Ontario. I’m not going to go high. I’m not going to go low. I’m going to call that bullying behaviour out for what it is.”

Obama delivered those inspiring words at the 2016 Democratic Convention in support of Hillary Clinton. In the same speech she spoke candidly about responsible leadership.

“I want someone who understands that the issues the president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters,” she said. “When you have the nuclear codes at your fingertips and the military at your command, you can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out.”

If the tables were turned in that election — and in this one — a woman candidate exhibiting this type of behaviour would have been labelled an emotional, political novice who is unfit to lead.

Why is it that men are so freely awarded the benefit of the doubt while women are constantly challenged to prove themselves in politics?

I hope that in the coming weeks, Ontario will defy the odds.

I hope that the fierce women running and bringing their talents to provincial campaigns will courageously change the political game.

During her performance at Coachella last weekend, Beyoncé took a moment to address the women in the crowd, “Ladies — Are we smart? Are we strong? Have we had enough?”

I’ve had enough of mediocre men talking their way through political campaigns as brilliant and well-studied women are overlooked while they put in the hard work.

An inspiring push for social justice in Ontario’s North

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on April 8, 2018

In 2017, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities launched a project to identify and remove barriers that keep underrepresented groups — particularly urban Indigenous, racialized, and new Canadian women — out of municipal politics.

Halifax, Montreal, Edmonton, London and Sioux Lookout piloted the project, called “Diverse Voices for Change.” Following research and community engagement in these areas, a national toolkit will be prepared in the coming months to assist more municipalities with strategies to address the identified barriers to access, while cultivating a richer culture of inclusion in Canadian municipal politics.

I joined women from the Sioux Lookout community last week in discussions surrounding the results of the project thus far, and the bold initiatives to follow.

It was a moving experience.

Indigenous elders and community leaders shared personal stories of intergenerational trauma, and the slow healing process that’s come through reconciliation efforts. There were discussions about needs for more local mental health supports and better supports for survivors of sexual violence.

Tana Troniak, executive director of First Step Women’s Shelter, and Joyce Timpson, long-time city councillor, shared powerful stories behind the decades-long battle to provide the necessary wrap-around supports for women and families taking the first steps to breaking the cycle of domestic violence. Troniak spoke passionately of her own personal experience and shared her fierce vision to expand services for sexual violence survivors in the region.

As Ontario rolls out the $242-million strategy to combat sexual and domestic violence, I hope the unique challenges faced by northern communities providing these supports regionally will be carefully considered in the funding distribution.

What struck me most on this visit was the compassion and understanding shown by local community members who open their hearts and homes to those from fly-in communities north of the hub.

Yolaine Kirlew, councillor and deputy mayor for the municipality of Sioux Lookout, served as the host for the Diverse Voices for Change symposium. Alongside her husband and three young daughters, she houses and supports between 6 and 13 students per year from fly-in communities in need of local accommodations to attend high school. Kirlew has spent over 10 years in Sioux Lookout advocating for the changes necessary to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of her community.

Most recently, she advocated for and won local transportation funding for federally funded Indigenous students. Previously, the funding formula did not factor transportation beyond flying them from their communities to Sioux Lookout.

“It was a big change, a victory in levelling the playing field. Now access is there and choices can be made.”

Her husband, Dr. Mike Kirlew delivered an impassioned tour of the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Centre. The hospital, while beautiful in structure, tells a devastating story of the inequities within our health-care system, demonstrated by those falling through gaps left by overlapping services between provincial and federal jurisdictions.

In an interview with the CBC last month, Dr. Kirlew spoke of his continued advocacy for improvements to health-care delivery to northern communities through the hub of Sioux Lookout, “The system isn’t broken, the system is doing what it was originally designed to do . . . It was never meant to provide care. It was meant to deny care.”

The local commitment to improving public institutions in Sioux Lookout, and addressing systemic racism, whether in health care, education or housing, is inspiring. But reinforcements are needed.

The tightly knit communities within Sioux Lookout exemplify the spirit of what it means to be Canadian. To support each other and care for one another through the unique challenges we each face, while advocating for transformational improvements to systems that are failing some of us.

If you haven’t had an opportunity to see this beautiful corner of our province, it’s worth a visit. And if you’re a young professional looking for opportunities — or you know someone who is — this is a community where you can maximize your impact.

After a mere 24 hours in Sioux Lookout, I fell in love with the passion of the local leaders to touch and improve as many lives as possible. I think you will too.

Bold plans needed to end racial discrimination

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on March 25, 2018

Canadians joined the international community this past week in recognition of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We observe this day in remembrance of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, where police in the South African township of Sharpeville opened fire on peaceful demonstrators protesting apartheid.

The theme declared by the UN for this year is “Promoting tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combating racial discrimination.”

The Canadian federal 2018 budget set aside $23 million over two years aimed to form a new national anti-racism plan informed by disaggregated data collection and cross-Canada consultations on the way forward to combat systemic racism.

This is a monumental moment for Canada and this is a reckoning of our institutions — one where we take an honest look at how they were built, and in what ways they were designed to negatively impact some of our citizens.

There will be attention seekers who look to hijack this discussion; my interest will be in those who are constructive and respectful within this important conversation. Denial that steps need to be taken only hinders our ability to move forward.

There is no right way to fight systemic racism. But, the only wrong approach is to go on pretending it doesn’t exist so we don’t have to hear about it. There are too many Canadians living it to ignore that these experiences are valid.

Ontario and Nova Scotian provincial leaders have been steadfast in their commitment to innovative solutions to combating racism, and specifically anti-Black racism in their provinces and public institutions.

As municipalities, provincial governments and federal representatives move forward, I hope that best practices will be shared.

Keeping in mind that the experiences will be different in every local community, we will benefit from this national sharing of best practices. There won’t be any one-size-fits-all solution, but the dialogue will help those newer to the conversation navigate the complex issues at hand.

As we embark on this national discussion we must also actively address those timely systematic challenges that require immediate attention.

All eyes were on the Senate — Canada’s chamber for sober second thought — this week as Bill-C45 was debated, putting cannabis legalization at risk.

Academics, advocates, and legal experts have provided excellent research and thoughtful commentary on the need for amnesty to be proactively pursued alongside legalization.

The disproportionality of the communities criminalized by simple possession of cannabis is a powerful reminder of the work ahead in reforming our policing and justice systems.

Retired officers who argued for heavier sentences now reap financial benefits within an industry currently closed to those they criminalized. The numbers tell a social justice and economic story that is a stain on our democracy. We should be aggressively seeking a proactive pardoning system to wipe these slates clean.

This is emotionally exhausting and draining work. I have an immense amount of respect for the organizations and individuals who have been in this work deeply for many years. It seems speaking out on these issues can make one a lightening rod for more hatred steeped in racism.

In his statement marking the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Prime Minister Trudeau said:

“We will work harder to emphasize the stories and contributions of all Canadians, through initiatives recognizing the International Decade for People of African Descent. And we will always stand up to racism, xenophobia, and hate in all its forms.

Despite the progress we have made, the fight against racial discrimination is far from over. We cannot be complacent. It’s up to each of us to make sure Canada lives up to its promise — for everyone.”

There are no political points earned here, mostly criticism by way of disagreement on the words and approaches chosen and the money spent.

It takes backbone to lead through issues as complex and emotionally charged as these. I hope our political leaders will continue to press forward consulting, planning and acting on these challenges.

This isn’t a conversation about whether or not there is racism in Canada and Canadian institutions. This is a debate about how we can be the boldest in addressing it.

And the result, if we do it well, is a better Canada.

A palpable energy during celebration of women

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on March 11, 2018

This past week, as women across Canada and around the world celebrated International Women’s Day, something felt different.

There was a palpable energy, a feeling that as we honour civil rights leader Viola Desmond as the first Canadian woman to grace our currency, we are entering a game-changing chapter in the story of the advancement of Canadian women.

In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne has continued to make unflinching progress in support of the success of women. This week, the province announced the introduction of legislation aimed at closing the pay gap that continues to persist between women and men carrying out the same work — a gap that is even wider for women of colour.

The measures include requiring that job postings publicly advertise salary rates or ranges — removing the practice of asking job candidates about past compensation — and requiring larger employers to track and report compensation gaps based on gender.

This month the Wynne government also announced unprecedented investments in improving sexual violence prevention strategies including a much-needed 35 per cent increase in base funding to sexual assault centres.

The federal Liberals earmarked significant investments in the 2018 budget focused on supporting women entrepreneurs, heard the call for attention to a nationally standardized approach to addressing gender-based violence on college and university campuses, and made a commitment to introducing pay equity legislation beginning with federally regulated sectors.

This is the kind of action that comes only when there is a critical mass of women who refuse to accept the status quo at the cabinet table. This work is strengthened when more fearless young women bring their talents to the political sphere.

For the first time in Canadian history, the government house leaders of all three major parties federally are women. As I write this, the Ontario PC party is in the process of selecting their leader, a decision that could result in three women leading their parties into the province’s election this spring.

Equal Voice honoured Lisa MacLeod, MPP for the riding of Nepean-Carleton, with the EVE award this past Thursday. MacLeod accepted the award by delivering a fiery speech recalling her experiences championing changes necessary to making Queen’s Park more welcoming for parents of young children, and especially mothers.

“As we become more accepting of mothers as MPPs, of young millennial women as political leaders, and of politicians who have confronted mental illness, we will be stronger in our political institutions and stronger as Canadians,” she said.

It shouldn’t require pregnant politicians or young mothers to forcibly change each municipality or provincial legislature one at a time. I look forward to proactive transformations toward parental leave, breastfeeding accommodations, proxy voting, and child care options for women in politics at all levels.

These are very real barriers that prevent young women who are looking to grow their families from bringing their talents to politics.

As difficult and uncomfortable as it is, it is also imperative that we continue to champion and support those actively working to create safer spaces for women in politics.

In an interview with Julia Lipscombe this week for The Kit, former prime minister Kim Campbell commented on the momentum of the #MeToo movement in politics. “I’m glad to see it happening … For much of human history there has been a condition where women’s bodies were the prizes for men who had power, or having power meant that you got access to women’s bodies.”

I’ll never forget the powerful message shared by Arezoo Najibzadeh of the Young Women’s Leadership Network when she left her seat empty last year at the Equal Voice Daughter’s of the Vote event. As 337 young women took their seats in the House of Commons, her empty chair served as a reminder that we have a lot of work ahead to support the young women silenced by sexual harassment and assault in Canadian politics.

I hope we can collectively continue to boldly dismantle the barriers keeping women out of political spheres and limiting their advancement, because the results have shown that having more women and women from diverse backgrounds in positions of leadership is better for all Canadians.

Howard McCurdy blazed a brilliant trail, but his work is not done

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on February 25, 2018

We lost a great Canadian political trailblazer and civil rights activist last week.

It is difficult to find the words to honour the powerful legacy left by Howard McCurdy following his passing at the age of 85. The mark he made on Canadian politics is impossible to measure.

McCurdy served two terms as the second Black Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, he is also the last Black politician to pursue leadership of a federal party when he put his name forward for NDP leader in 1989.

Born in London, Ont., McCurdy spent his formative years in Amherstburg, Ont. His political action began early as a teenager, organizing alongside civil rights activists in the pursuit of a more just society and a better future for his family and his community.

He was elected as an alderman in Windsor in 1979 and served two terms before his time representing the federal ridings of Windsor-Walkerville and later Windsor-Lake St. Clair. His contributions during each period of his political career garnered respect from political colleagues, media that covered the issues he advocated for, and local community members alike. His accolades for this work include both the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.

McCurdy was an academic before the start of his political career. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts from Western University, later a Bachelor of Science from Assumption University in Windsor, and continued his studies toward a PhD in microbiology and chemistry from Michigan State University.

McCurdy was the first Black tenured faculty member at a Canadian university, serving 25 years as a professor at the University of Windsor.

During his time at Michigan State, McCurdy founded and served as president of the university’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The organization sought the elimination of race-based discrimination and the advancement of political, educational, social and economic equality of rights.

McCurdy traced his own ancestry back 150 years, arriving in Canada through the Underground Railroad, and instilled in his children and his community an appreciation and understanding of their history. His talented daughter Leslie McCurdy continues to bring the voices of our ancestors alive in beautiful live performances.

He continued in his pursuit for equality and fought against anti-Black racism with the founding of the Guardian Club in Windsor in 1962, and later the founding of the National Black Coalition of Canada in 1969. These organizations laid groundwork that Black Canadian organizers continue to build on today, both locally in Windsor and across the country.

We’ll never know every private conversation McCurdy had leveraging his political relationships in efforts to address issues that affected Black Canadians, but it’s clear from his public remarks he was committed to moving the needle forward. He set a fierce example of the importance of standing in your truth and bringing not only your own experience, but also the stories and lived experiences of community members to your work. I’m thankful for advocates across the country today, working both within and on the outside of institutions, who have been inspired by his tireless work.

While debating the government’s Employment and Equity Act on Oct. 21, 1985, McCurdy delivered a moving speech to remind his colleagues that though Hon. Lincoln Alexander, the first Black Canadian MP, stood as lieutenant-governor of Ontario, the battle still had not been won.

“My political career began when I was 13 years old … it began when I could not shoot pool in the pool hall in my town and I could not bowl in the bowling alley where I set pins.”

In a 2012 interview, McCurdy recalled how far we’ve come while acknowledging how far we still have to go to improve the lives of Black Canadians.

His legacy reminds us that while it is important to celebrate our success fighting anti-Black racism in Canadian communities and institutions, there is still more work to be done.

How to support celebrating Canada’s Black heritage and challenge racism

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star on February 11, 2018

At the end of January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the official Canadian recognition of the UN Decade for People of African Descent, which runs from 2015 to 2024.

The gesture was three years late and largely overlooked by traditional media, but for some, the very act of a sitting prime minister acknowledging anti-Black racism — and making a public commitment to dealing with it — was a moment of historical significance.

The fight against anti-Black racism in Canada is not new. Generations of Black community members have been tirelessly carrying out this work across the country with insufficient support from government. It’s worth reading through the #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus developed and updated by Anthony Morgan and Huda Hassan for Canadian context.

As a next step, strategies and plans should be developed that include milestones for cross-ministerial policy collaboration with budgeted allocation, public and private partnerships, and sincere, thoughtful regional community consultations to guide the process.

There are opportunities for the private sector, unions, academic institutions, community-based organizations, and individuals to participate in seeking to understand, celebrate, and most importantly, support the advancement of the challenging work ahead.

Some key targets for these plans should include national celebrations of emancipation alongside official apologies for the enslavement of Black people in Canada and the systemic, anti-Black racism that continues to permeate Canadian institutions.

Aug. 1 should be a national holiday celebrating emancipation in Canada. Perhaps as a part of the federal recognition of the decade, the Greatest Freedom Show on Earth in Windsor, Ont., could come alive once more.

On the heels of Canada 150, we have an opportunity to band together to preserve and celebrate Black Canadian history and cultural contributions, beyond the month of February alone. There are extraordinary institutions — specifically many churches, built as sanctuaries and celebrations of Black Canadian freedom — well past observing their sesquicentennials.

Churches like Salem Chapel BME, where Harriet Tubman herself worshipped and organized to emancipate hundreds of enslaved Black families through a courageous journey to reach Canadian soil.

While we study and celebrate Black history let’s take a closer look at both the present and the future we want to create. The federal government should follow provincial leadership and gather disaggregated data, so we can see with numbers how our policies are having a disproportionately negative impact on Black Canadians.

It’s also important to remember that the African diaspora in Canada is beautifully diverse. We have different experiences, and will have different definitions of what success looks like as the Canadian acknowledgement of the decade is carried out.

We must also consider that it is real intergenerational trauma we are exploring and seeking to rectify. In the process, Black Canadians live in different stages of grief that impact how individuals contribute to this mentally and emotionally exhausting dialogue and work.

The federal government has taken an important step forward, and I hope that an equity lens can be applied in the development of policy with consideration to unique barriers faced by Black women, persons with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Tangibly this means policy focus and investments in education, poverty reduction, health equity and especially mental health supports necessary for the success of Black Canadians.

This means acting on our responsibility to respond promptly to the issues facing Black communities at this very moment. This includes cannabis legalization, which should be rolled out with a proactive pardoning approach that ensures individuals with previous cannabis related convictions are not restricted from participating in the legal market.

It requires action to improve the experiences and outcomes of Black workers as they come forward with stories about the racism and micro-aggressions faced when training and working within their respective sectors. It further requires taking an honest look at public and private sector leadership positions and sponsoring a definition of diversity that goes beyond gender.

It means not turning a blind eye to the disproportionate impact of the global migrant crisis on Black families seeking refuge within our borders, and working to correct the systemic injustices, like the risk of deportation of children and youth in care that the case of Abdoul Abdi has shown us.

I challenge Canadians to aspire to global leadership, beginning by taking an honest look at our own shortcomings and contributing to the powerful role we can play as a country in creating better outcomes for people of African descent, both within and outside of our borders.