Growing Black Political Participation in Canada

2020 proved to be a challenging year on many fronts. First, we were hit with a devastating pandemic that disproportionately affected the Black community at an alarming rate. Almost simultaneously and under the guise of justice, the world witnessed the horrific murder of a Black man at the hands of police. These two events have catapulted the cause for change as it relates to racism, systemic racism, and anti-Black racism in particular. Never before has North America, not to mention the world, seen more desire for political, legal, and social change regarding anti-Black racism.

But despite these circumstances, not all was lost in 2020. In the United States, Kamala Harris was elected as the first Black, South Asian woman Vice President. Here in Canada, Leslyn Lewis entered the race for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada and surprised many with the strength and reach of her campaign. A few months later, Annamie Paul won the leadership race for the federal Green Party of Canada, becoming the first Black leader of a national party.

There is now a global movement of citizens from all racial backgrounds calling for immediate change to the status quo regarding anti-Black racism. Since 2004, Operation Black Vote Canada (OBVC) has supported the election of more Black individuals to public office at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. The Black community across North America has proven to have an abundance of learned, experienced, and talented people who would add value to political parties of every stripe and persuasion.

Black political participation is not new in this country. Black political trailblazers— from Lincoln Alexander, who was Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister to Rosemary Brown who became the first Black women elected to a Canadian provincial legislature— opened the door that subsequent elected officials walked through. These brave pioneers stepped up and made a difference in the communities they served. Although we have since witnessed political gains in Canada, there is still an under-representation of Black people elected to office and at senior decision-making tables in government.

The problem lies within the political parties’ disinclination toward a strategic plan to engage individuals, develop members, and mentor potential candidates within the Black community. Greater political participation among Black Canadians can occur once the community is empowered with the information, tools, and resources that are accessible and tailored specifically to the Black community. This involves organizing training events, summits, and information sessions about the political process to promote civic engagement. OBVC seeks to bridge the gap through various initiatives and by offering regular sessions to help aspiring Black leaders understand political processes like nominations and fundraising, and by providing resources to support a successful political campaign.

We understand the importance of having youth at the table and amplifying their voices when it comes to developing better public policy outcomes on issues they care about. In the spring of 2020, OBVC introduced the 1834 Fellowship, named to honour the year slavery was abolished in Canada.

The first cohort of the 1834 Fellowship included 40 high-achieving Black youth (ages 18 to 25) for an intensive ninemonth civic leadership and public policy training program. The aim was to give Fellows hands-on, practical experience and build knowledge around the key issues that policy analysts, policy makers, and advocacy practitioners face in influencing, developing, and implementing policy. Providing this training for the Fellows not only prepares them for civic leadership roles and supports them in their career development, but it also gives them the inspiration and confidence to take their place in politics and government and influence the policies and legislation that affect our daily lives as Black Canadians.

Building on lessons learned from the 1834 Fellowship, OBVC organized the inaugural 1834 Fellowship Conference in January 2021 that provided opportunities for Black youth to increase their knowledge of civic leadership roles and different career options within public administration. The conference provided non-partisan discussions with Senators, Members of Parliament, and senior bureaucrats in the federal public service along with opportunities to network with other Black youth from across Canada. The second cohort of the 1834 Fellowship will start in the spring of 2021 and will be exclusively for fellows residing in Quebec and Alberta.

As we look ahead in 2021 to greater representation of the Black community in political spaces, stakeholders and decision- makers in these spaces all have a part to play in taking deliberate action to encourage and support Black political participation in Canada. The promise and full potential of Canada can never be fully realized until every community has the access and opportunity to change today and shape tomorrow.

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  • Operation Black Vote Canada is a non-profit and multi-partisan organization that supports the election of Black people to public office. This article was prepared by the Board of Directors.

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