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February 28, 2023

Politicking While Black

  
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On February 28, 2023, the Samara Centre for Democracy and Operation Black Vote co-presented a webinar exploring the experiences of Black Canadians in politics. The purpose of this event was to draw from the lived experiences of  Black politicians to identify ways to improve representation and participation in our democracy. 

The panelists, listed below, represented different orders of government and shared insights about how they navigated race and public office. What barriers did they face? What supports made a big difference? And how can the culture of politics change to enhance representation of Black Canadians in our democracy? 

  • Frank Baylis, Former Member of Parliament 
  • Suzy Hansen, MLA for Nova Scotia
  • Stephen Wright, Former City Councilor
  • Denise Siele, Moderator
Dr. Erin Tolley: “Politics is not a neutral space for Canadians, it is a racialized space.”

Dr. Erin Tolley, Canada Research Chair in Gender, Race, and Inclusive Politics at Carleton University opened the webinar with a presentation about her current study with Operation Black Vote: Black Canadians in Electoral Politics. This initiative is aimed at filling a critical gap in race data by examining the experiences of Black Canadian candidates and legislators in elected office in Canada. 

Dr. Tolley discussed how exclusion based on race is so deeply entrenched in our political culture that the removal of explicit restrictions on democratic participation based on race have had limited effect. Over Canada’s history, there have been only 19 Black Members of Parliament in total, less than 1% of all MPs

“White men remain the norm,” said Dr. Tolley. 

Those who are underrepresented in our democracy also receive a high volume of toxicity online. In the Samara Centre’s SAMbot project we measured toxic tweets received by a selection of candidates in the 2021 federal election and found that identity attacks were the most common form of toxicity received by Annamie Paul and Jagmeet Singh, party leaders from racialized communities.  

Our panelists had important insights to share about running for office, toxicity in politics and ways to evolve the culture of politics in Canada. A selection of key takeaways is provided below and have been edited for clarity. The entire webinar can be viewed here.

On running for office 

Each panelist stressed the importance of their community in their path to politics. When it comes to running for a public office at the local, provincial, or federal level, advocating for their community was at the core of their campaign:  

Stephen Wright: “I would say one of the first steps is knowing the community that you're in and clearly understanding the community's challenge. Again, finding that inside purpose, you know. Do you want to take that battle on? And what can you bring to the table to solve that problem?”
Frank Baylis: You have to get out, knock on doors, meet your constituents, whatever level you're running at, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of investment. And if you think you can do it by just putting a pamphlet out or do it on social media, or whatever it will not work in my estimation, you have to put a lot of legwork, footwork, knock on people's doors, and I'll tell you, it has a huge impact.
Suzy Hansen: “Being in a role like this is not for the faint-hearted. It's a lot of work, but it's good in the sense that you're helping folks and you’re making impact. Secondly, know that you have a network of people around you, so you’re not doing this by yourself. There’s support people in place whether it’s through your party, whether it’s through your office, whether it’s through your community, that will help you continue to be successful.”

Running for office as a person of colour can come with unique challenges — particularly around tokenism. Our panelists shared how this can be a barrier for potential candidates, and what can be done to address it. 

Frank Baylis: “You have that right to run, and you should not run to be a token, you should run to be whoever you are. I ran to be Frank Baylis with my background, my heritage, whatever I brought to the table but there is a lot of tokenism - unfortunately I saw a lot of tokenism in federal politics. I completely disagree with it, because I don't believe in barriers.”

Panelists also highlighted the importance of sticking to their core values and beliefs from campaigning to making an impact in office. Although compromising can be necessary to make change, staying true to these values is essential. 

Frank Baylis: “When you go into it, know what your core beliefs are. Know who you are, your core beliefs, your background, and don’t be willing to change on that.”

On toxicity in politics 

How can we create  safe spaces – both physical and digital – for political discussion? Each panelist reflected on the discrimination they faced during their campaign and in office. 

Stephen Wright: “I recall one individual opening the door and saying, “well, you know Peterborough is not ready for somebody like you.” You laugh it off, but deep inside, you're hurt.”
Suzy Hansen: “Even though we are politicians, we’re not excluded from the microaggressions and from the racial connotations that come – and even more so because we are visible, it’s a lot harder to dodge those jabs.”

Online spaces have become particularly toxic for politicians, especially when they are racialized. Panelists noted the deterioration of online discourse, more specifically on social media. 

Stephen Wright: I think the social media spaces [have] become so toxic. In the last [municipal] election last year I ran for Mayor of Peterborough. And, you know, between the toxicity on social media and some of the blatant, endorsed, one-sided journalistic articles that supported another candidate, it almost seems like there was some dog whistling. Last night I attended the council meeting and gave a delegation on diversity and inclusion, and immediately this fellow decided to troll me on social media. Not on my own social media account, but on our local media, The Peterborough Examiner's account – comments like ‘people like you don't need to be in the city,’ ‘we don’t need people like you,’ ‘why don’t you get lost’.”

When it comes to online hate and harassment, our panelists stressed the importance of drawing a line and not engaging with abusive and insulting comments to protect themselves and their staff. 

Frank Baylis: “The first thing was, to me and to my staff, you don't need to take any abuse. People can be upset. People can be really mad. But there's a line. So if they write a letter – and I get loud letters – and it crosses that line, don't even show it to me. Put it in a shredder, it's done, and you don’t take any abuse. People have a right to be mad. If they're really concerned, they're really upset about something, and they can express that by not crossing the line, you listen to them. I think all public figures should take that position.”

On changing the culture of politics 

How can we change the culture of politics to encourage more diversity in those who run for office? Panelists emphasized the need to create a safer, more inclusive environment for Black Canadians to get involved in politics. Many reflected on the identity attacks and hate comments they would receive and how that impacted their time in office. 

Frank Baylis: “The job is taking the barrier down for the next generation”.

They emphasized the importance of helping the next generation to overcome barriers by speaking up about the discriminations they are facing. 

Frank Baylis: “Take the barrier down.That’s the job we have, to take the barrier down.”
Suzy Hansen: “What I would say for anyone who wants to be a candidate. That, you know, is of brown skin, is of newcomers, immigrant, step up and step forward because you have a voice, not because you feel like you're gonna be attacked. I think once we step up, a lot more change will happen. I mean, it's a slow process right now, but change will happen by us speaking up about it, by reminding them – and this means even legislation, this means, you know, media, all of these pieces that take our snips, takes our voices – reminding them that this is real, we will not stand for it, and it is unacceptable. It's not acceptable for our counterparts, it's not acceptable for us.

If you are a Black Canadian and you have run for office at any level of government please consider participating in the Black Canadians in Electoral Politics study. Visit the website for more information or email blackcanadianpolitics@cunet.carleton.ca for details. 

If you’re interested in running for office, check out Elections Canada’s step-by-step resources for running in a federal election. This helpful guide covers your path to politics, how to become a candidate, and shares useful resources and tools. 

Panelists:

Frank Baylis is presently the executive chairman of Baylis Medical Technologies. From October 2015 to October 2019 he was Liberal Member of Parliament for the federal riding of Pierrefonds-Dollard. Frank sat on the Industry Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Ethics & Privacy Committee. He was the chair of the Canada-UK Parliamentary Association and a founding member of the Black Caucus.

Suzy Hansen is the  MLA for Halifax Needham. Born and raised in Halifax’s North End, Suzy is a grassroots organizer, community leader and mother of seven beautiful children. She is the NDP spokesperson for Housing, Immigration, Early childhood and Education, Status of women, Justice and a few other portfolios. In addition she sits on several committees of the house as the voice for the NDP. 

Stephen Wright was first elected to the Peterborough City Council in 2018. During his tenure, he served as the Vice Chair for Economic development; Vice Chair for the Peterborough Airport Strategic Advisory Committee; Water Commissioner for the City of Peterborough; and a member of the board for the Committee of Management for Fairhaven Long Term Care facility.

Denise Siele brings a deep understanding of politics, public policy, media outreach and stakeholder engagement. A seasoned public affairs professional, she works with leaders and stakeholders across national, provincial and local governments, industry and non-profits. Her career experience includes Press Secretary to the Official Leader of the Opposition, Senior Communications Manager, National Gallery of Canada and Director of Stakeholder Relations, Equal Voice.

Speakers: 

Velma Morgan is the Chair of Operation Black Vote Canada. She is the architect of the first ever-Black Community provincial leaders’ debate, Black Women’s Political Summit and Next Generation Political Summit. She also co-created the 1834 Fellowship. As an advocate for gender,  cultural representation and inclusion in government, community and all levels of government regularly solicit Velma to deliver results in the area of policy, community and social development. Velma is currently working with Dr.Tolley and Carleton University on a study of Black Canadians’ experiences in politics.

Erin Tolley is the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Race, and Inclusive Politics and Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is an expert on race, gender and representation in Canadian political institutions and the author of the award-winning book, Framed: Media and the Coverage of Race in Canadian Politics. Dr. Tolley is currently working with Operation Black Vote Canada on a study of Black Canadians’ experiences in politics. 

Sabreena Delhon is the Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy. She frequently provides commentary about political participation in media outlets such as the Globe & Mail, CBC and the Toronto Star. Prior to joining the Samara Centre, Sabreena consulted with public sector organizations on stakeholder engagement strategies and managed access to justice research at the Law Society of Ontario. She is a Fellow with Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and Massey College. Sabreena holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Alberta and an M.A. in Sociology from Dalhousie University.