Black individuals continue to be underrepresented in Canadian politics. Even worse is the significantly low number of Black women in all levels of government.
The Black community accounts for roughly 3.5 per cent of Canada’s total population and make up 15.6 per cent of the population defined as a visible minority, according to Statistics Canada.
In Ontario, Black people represent roughly five per cent of the province’s population. Meanwhile, nine per cent of Toronto’s population identifies as Black.
When looking at the breakdown of Black people in Canadian politics, there are currently nine out of the 335 members of parliament in Ottawa, and six Black members out of the 124 seats in Ontario’s provincial parliament. In Toronto, four councillors are Black out of the 25 members of council.
With Black people and individuals of colour still facing ongoing systemic issues, including within housing, education, healthcare and the criminal justice system, Black and racialized representation is imperative for the improved livelihoods of BIPOC communities.
And that is one of the many goals of these three Black Canadian female politicians: Federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth Marci Ien, Member of Provincial Parliament for Kitchener Centre Laura Mae Lindo, and Toronto City Councillor for Etobicoke-Lakeshore Amber Morley.
Now Toronto spoke to these politicians during Black History Month about their journey in Canadian politics and why it’s crucial for other Black individuals to join the ring.
‘IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO JUST GET US INTO THESE PLACES’
Lindo has been in office since 2018 and previously worked as the Director of Diversity and Equity at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo before jumping into politics.
Even though politics runs in her family – her uncle was Alvin Curling, the first Black elected speaker in the Ontario legislature – Lindo did not aspire to go into politics until another MPP in Waterloo, Catherine Fife, convinced her to run.
“I remember her saying to me that right now my playground to do anti-racist work was my campus and given what she had seen with the e(RACE)r Summit, it was also sort of the factor. But what would happen if my playground to do that work was actually the entire province,” Lindo told Now Toronto.
Lindo ran in 2018 and won the race on her first try. She then won a second term in the province’s last election in June 2022.
When asked why she thinks residents of Kitchener Centre voted for her, she said many folks have complimented her leadership style.
“…They often say that there’s an approach that I take to speaking about things that most people would rather leave unsaid.”
Lindo admits it was a huge adjustment going to Queen’s Park in Toronto at first, and that she encountered racist incidents and had to figure out how to respond to them.
“It’s the belly of the beast and the most colonial space I had ever worked in, in my life. And I’ve had many, many jobs. But this is the space that makes decisions about literally every aspect of your life, and often didn’t see people like me, people that were poor, people that were queer, people that are Indigenous, they didn’t see any of those folks as actually mattering,” Lindo said.
She also described one incident when she first became an MPP about her interactions with security at Queen’s Park.
“So, I was told that the security at Queen’s Park, one of their responsibilities is to memorize all of our faces. And so when you’re an elected official, you walk around and everybody’s like ‘Hello Miss Lindo,’” she said.
“And yet every time there was a protest, and there were so many protests in my first session at Queen’s Park, they seemed to forget who I was. And so I would walk into the chamber from the outside of the protest…and I would come back in and I would have security guards that in the morning had said good morning and used my name ask me where I was trying to go,” she continued.
“And I would have to say to them, I’m actually the member for Kitchener Centre, and then they would be wholly embarrassed,” she added.
Instead of getting angry about the situation, Lindo said she brought attention to it and mustered the courage to speak out.
“It’s a sign of what the system is like, they’re not accustomed to seeing somebody that looks like me walking around in the chamber,” she said.
Although Lindo has made big moves and waves in the house, she has decided to resign in June to pursue a position at the University of Waterloo.
In January, Lindo released a statement saying she was leaving due to “a number of systemic factors.”
One of the biggest reasons Lindo decided to leave her job is the childcare costs she would accrue if she stayed in the role. Lindo is a single mother to two children.
“I was told that the latest arrangement for childcare was a taxable benefit on my personal income tax. So I would owe somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000 every year, was the only childcare option that they were going to provide. And so my only other choices were to stay in the job and work from home. Then I wouldn’t accrue the childcare costs for when I’m at Queen’s Park, or I guess figure it out myself, pay the money.”
“This idea that I should just find $6,000 to $8,000 and pay to be an elected member ran completely counter to the ways in which other elected members, my white female colleagues, had told me they were treated because they were members,” she added.
Lindo says the fact that government officials didn’t want to fix this problem contributed to her decision to leave too.
“The reason it (childcare) wasn’t considered (an eligible expense) is because eligible expenses for members are outlined in the Legislative Assembly. And so I kept saying, ‘I live far enough. I live far away from Queen’s Park, so I’m eligible for housing allowance,’” she said.
“The allowance of me being able to just work from the riding meant that it was fixed for me but not the system. And so the system wasn’t fixed.”
“We speak a lot about representation and why it’s important. But it’s not enough to just get us into these places. Because one of the things that we know about anti-Black racism in particular, is that the rules of the game change around you,” she added.
Lindo says she’s unsure if she’ll ever hop back into politics again.
“For a time, the universe needed me to be at Queen’s Park, and now I’m back in community so I don’t know what the future will hold. I won’t say yes, I won’t say no. But I’m open.”
‘IT’S GOING TO TAKE COURAGE’
Minister Ien had a similar transition into federal politics.
The former journalist and broadcaster, who was previously a co-host on The Social, received a call from the Prime Minister’s office asking if she would consider running back in 2020.
“My response was ‘Running where? What are you talking about?’ Because this was nothing, this was nothing that I ever saw for myself,” Ien told Now Toronto.
With her two kids’ blessing, Ien threw her hat into the ring and won the MP position for Toronto Centre in an Oct. 2020 by-election. Since then, she was re-elected in the general election in Sept. 2021 and given her current portfolio.
From day one, Ien said she encountered “macroaggressions” due to her race.
“I was standing up in the house, and I was thanking my community for trusting me and for electing me and thanking all the volunteers and team and all of those things. And as soon as I started to speak on that day, people were screaming ‘token’ at me.”
“What I realized was, that was immediately saying, ‘You don’t belong here, lady. If you think you belong, we’re just letting you know that you don’t,’” she added.
But now, she tries not to let comments like that affect her.
“I just don’t allow it. I just speak out, I won’t allow it. And maybe part of it is because I’m almost 54 years old,” she said.
Although there are difficulties and she encounters racism inside and outside Parliament, part of the reason Ien took the job was to show the Black community it is achievable.
“I want people to see this as possible. That this is possible and it’s not perfect. It’s going to take great courage to jump in. But this is possible.”
As for if Ien will make a run for prime minister one day, she couldn’t say.
“I would have told you two years ago ‘Are you kidding?’ I would have said ‘No, no, no no, I’ll be making documentaries somewhere or writing something or hosting something.’ But here I am.”
‘THIS IS NECESSARY WORK’
‘Amber Morley just got elected into Toronto’s city council last October, but has years of experience working in advocacy groups and in city hall supporting other councillors before deciding to run herself.
Morley first ran in 2017 and came in a close second place. She then decided to give it another go and won in the last municipal election in Oct. 2022.
Morley acknowledges that council has much more work to do to get more diverse representation and gender parity, but is proud of the progress that this new council represents.
“Historically, we’ve had one Black council member, which is obviously a challenge, right, especially when we consider our city has more than half racialized, visible minorities. So I’m proud and privileged to be part of a group that’s getting closer to equitable representation for our city. And we have the most number of women than we ever have had on council,” Morley told Now Toronto.
Morley says change needs to continue starting at the grassroots level in order to get more racialized individuals into politics.
“People need places to go, they need to feel supported and included. You know, we need to make sure that our local government is accessible to people.”
“We need to know that this is necessary work, but it’s not easy work. Like I could never accomplish this on my own,” she added while acknowledging the abundance of support she receives.
Morley said she’s not considering running for mayor anytime soon but optimistically stated “the sky’s the limit.”