OTTAWA — A Toronto-based activist is calling on Canada’s political parties to nominate more black candidates in winnable ridings in this fall’s federal election in order to enhance the chances the community is better represented in the next Parliament.
Fewer than 20 black Canadians have been nominated so far, including a handful of Liberal MPs who are seeking re-election, said Velma Morgan, the chair of Operation Black Vote Canada, a not-for-profit, multi-partisan organization that aims to get more black people elected at all levels of government.
There are currently just seven black MPs in the House of Commons — three each in Quebec and Ontario, and one in British Columbia.
“Six MPs belonging to one political party and one Independent is clearly not enough to represent our voice adequately,” Morgan said. “We do need to be able to elect more black Canadians, (that’s why) we need more black Canadians nominated.”
The number of black people living in Canada doubled between 1996 and 2016, with 1.2 million, or 3.5 per cent, identifying as black in the 2016 census, Statistics Canada says. More than 627,000 live in Ontario, followed by Quebec with 319,000 and Alberta with 130,000.
When it comes to increasing the number of black and other ethnic Canadians on Parliament Hill, the main challenge is getting them to run for public office in the first place, said Greg Fergus, a Liberal MP from Quebec and the head of Parliament’s cross-partisan black caucus.
The colour or gender of the candidates don’t play into their chances of success — “the real issue is getting through the nomination process,” Fergus said in an interview.
Oftentimes, he said, the misguided perception that a candidate of colour is somehow unelectable is what prevents them from winning the nomination — or even seeking it in the first place.
“If you don’t have history of it — of having diversity in your candidates — some people might assume that person couldn’t win,” Fergus said. “My argument will be: No, present yourself. People are more generous if you give them a chance. Don’t self-censor.”
Challenges, however, remain.
In February, Speaker Geoff Regan apologized on behalf of the House of Commons after an apparent case of racial profiling at a lobbying event aimed at using Black History Month to encourage more black voices in politics. The Federation of Black Canadians said several participants were referred to as “dark-skinned people” and asked to leave a parliamentary cafeteria.
The Parliamentary Protective Service apologized and promised a full investigation, adding it has zero tolerance for any type of discrimination.
Just days earlier, Fergus had told a national summit on the issue that despite a recent call to action from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he feared that the effort to attract more black voices to politics and confront systemic issues facing the community were at risk of stalling.
Prior to this year’s federal budget, the Liberals promised $19 million over five years for mental health and youth programs for black communities, and $23 million more over two years that included money for a broader anti-racism strategy.
Morgan, meanwhile, is working with her colleagues to encourage more black people to participate in Canadian politics.
One of the most significant barriers is a lack of access to information on how to participate, she said: “They don’t know that they can be part of a riding association, they can volunteer in a campaign.”
Her organization hosts community events, workshops and training to provide the community with information about politics and elections and to highlight the black candidates.
“Some people think, ‘I can’t leave the house,’ but Elections Canada will come to your house to do a ballot.”
Black Vote Canada’s board of directors comprises members from across Canada’s political spectrum, she added. “We don’t tell our community who to vote for…. we want to have representation of each of the political parties.”
Their efforts are meant to challenge the stereotypes about black people, so the young people of the community can see them in the government. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Fergus said those efforts are starting to show dividends.
He’s beginning to notice more black people getting involved in Canadian politics at all levels, citing a “very successful” fundraiser recently that focused on the black community for the Laurier Club, the Liberal party’s top donor tier.
“There’s a real awareness that we have (got to) take our place,” he said. “The first party to understand that will really have a head start, and I believe that party is the Liberal party.”
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press