Q&A: Zanana Akande on why Black women voters matter this Ontario election

"The question women need to ask politicians this Ontario election is, 'What’s in it for us?' This is a legitimate question and there is no shame in asking it."

Zanana Akande is the first Black woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and serve as cabinet minister in Canada. On May 24, she will receive the 2018 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Award. In an interview with YWCA Toronto, she reflects on her career in politics and why Black women voters matter more than ever this Ontario election.

You recently attended the Ontario leaders election debate on Black community issues. What question would you have asked the party leaders if you could?

Carding is an issue that affects everyone in our community, but particularly women. When I say that, men are surprised because it is primarily men who are carded. But the reality is we are mothers. We are wives. We are siblings. We understand the disruption and harm that happens in the home due to the criminalization of Black men.

Even long before it was called carding, I remember my mother and father would give “the talk” to my brother: “Do not be in this place do not go there if a policeman stops you, respond in such a manner avoid doing this etc….” Hearing this growing up, I never expected that in 2018 I would be saying the same thing to my son or to my grandson, who has just turned 14. 

What type of action do you think the provincial government should take in terms of prioritizing women?

When I was in government, we passed employment equity legislation. Many women moved into better positions because more were able to access higher education. They moved out of office work and into other areas out of nursing uniforms and into doctor uniforms – not that there is anything wrong with nursing uniforms. And they moved into the trades, too.

Many Black women also moved into the public service but they have been passed over for promotion. There have been many reports of harassment of Black women in the civil service for many years but they have not been taken seriously.

Are we making any progress on race and gender issues?

The reality is that default power in our society is still very white and male. Black women speak but they are often not heard. I say this to young people: “Decide that you are going to defend your space for the rest of your life and that your kids must be prepared to do the same.”

Would you encourage women to run for office today?

Absolutely, yes. Run, but be prepared to fight because you will be held to a different standard.

When I was in office they would talk about my manicured nails, comment on my fashion or the kind of car my husband drove. The criticism was incessant and cruel. But you need to find allies and advocate for the initiatives you feel passionate about.

Why do women voters, especially Black women voters, matter this provincial election?

Women need to ask politicians, “What’s in it for us?” This is a legitimate question and there is no shame in asking it. We have so many issues – carding, sexual assault, racism, pay equity, poverty, public schools failing Black children – our votes matter for all of those reasons. Our livelihoods depend on it. There are many gains that can be rolled back if we are not vigilant.     

This interview has been edited and condensed. Jasmine Ramze Rezaee is a senior marketing and advocacy officer at YWCA Toronto.

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