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We Belong! Women of Colour in Politics

February 20th, 2015     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments

Illustration: Erin McPhee

The “We Belong! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Toronto’s Municipal Election” panel featured Munira Abukar (former Ward 2 Toronto City Councillor candidate), Olivia Chow (former Toronto mayoral candidate), Kristyn Wong-Tam(current Ward 27 Toronto City Councillor), and Ausma Malik (who is a TDSB trustee of the Trinity-Spadina area in Toronto and unfortunately, was unable to make the panel due to an emergency TDSB meeting. The panel was on the evening of January 19, at the Koffler House on University of Toronto’s St. George campus. The event was organized with the intention of giving these women a platform to talk about the hostile and hateful climate seen in Toronto regarding racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia.

The room was packed, the energy was palatable, and it was the kind of informal setting that really fostered honesty, critical thinking, and many good jokes.

It isn’t often that women have a platform to talk about their experiences without commentary from people who have no idea what they’ve been through. It was so heart-warming to see the speakers pat each other on the back and hug. That kindness is something that is at times missing in politics, because as mentioned by Kristyn, politicians are people with feelings, too.

The panel talked about a variety of great things from 3 very different voices though still with some common ground. The three women on the panel were different ages, at different points in their life, with different goals and dreams but with some common experiences. They were all women of colour (WOC) who participated or are currently participating in various levels of politics. They are smart, talented, experienced, and hopeful for a better future: unashamed idealists.

The topic of “youth” was brought up a few times throughout the panel. What do we do with our youth? The idea that youth are a homogenous group was quickly addressed, but the capacity and possibilities for youth were enthusiastically encouraged. The speakers all encouraged youth to not let people tell them they can’t participate in politics because they can. We, as a culture, need to challenge how we define experience. “Experience” is often associated with being middle aged, white, able-bodied, straight, and upper middle class if we’re looking at the predominant make up of Toronto’s City Council. This kind of experience, which is supposed to represent Toronto, is not at all reflective of how fun and diverse Toronto is in reality.

Speaking of people commenting on things they have no idea about: whiteness and white privilege was brought up regarding Toronto’s current mayor, John Tory. Whiteness and white privilege isn’t unique to Toronto; it is a Canadian, North American, Eurocentric system that we all live in. It is unacceptable to have people in power that won’t acknowledge other people’s realities such individuals as Munira, Olivia, and Kristyn are being crystal clear about what their experiences have been.

All three of the panellists spoke about the effect people in power have - specifically how the Ford dynasty in Toronto opened the door and as Kristyn said, gave a “license to hate” to the “closeted bigots” in Toronto with a tangible shift since 2010. The horrifying things that happened to the panellists include but are not limited to: racist, sexist, homophobic slurs being thrown at them in person, online and in the media. For example, Kristyn received death threats, and vandalism of Munira’s campaign materials took place.

Munira aptly and hilariously said in response to the disbelief many people had about these kinds of incidents happening in Toronto: “A lot of people want to say, ‘Well, this isn’t my Toronto. This doesn’t happen downtown. Starbucks is right around the corner, and I see my one black friend every day’”.

Ally-ship and building community was also brought up, as well as a discussion of how to do both of these things effectively and meaningfully. Munira said, “Being an ally isn’t something you do every 4 years for elections, it’s something you have to do everyday”. Olivia also said that in order to have strong cohesive communities - which can feel hard in a fragmented city like Toronto - that people need physical space to gather, engage and meet each other.

Another topic that was brought up was challenging the idea that it was entirely the suburbs’ fault for electing the various members of the Ford family into office.

Munira, who has lived in North Etobicoke her whole life, explained it beautifully, especially in regards to the blame put on racialized communities. She explained it as the fact that people of colour (POC) are severely underrepresented and under considered in politics, so the belief can often be that “I’m going vote for someone who actually did something for me, I’ve seen him at meetings, I’ve seen him fix things, I’m going to turn a blind eye to other behaviours/politics”.

Munira also very rightfully called out how suburbs, especially low-income suburbs, are blamed for voting for people like the Fords. This blame is felt heavily on low-income communities, despite the fact that rich people all over Toronto voted for the Fords.

Throughout all of their campaigns, all 3 of these incredible women had their experiences invalidated, if even recognized at all. They all spoke about the lack of support they felt they received, from individuals, groups, and especially mainstream media. This night was an opportunity to give them space to talk about these experiences frankly, in solidarity with each other, and to be critical of what went wrong and what went well.

The great thing about this panel was that there is space to be angry and frustrated about the hateful things people think and say about other’s humanity, but there is also space to be hopeful and proud about the things that Toronto has accomplished and how we still have so many opportunities to make our communities better if we can reach out to others and do the work.

Tags: art, politics, youth

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