Their family histories and beginnings tie them to countries plagued by conflict and upheaval, but in Canada they are making history: the first-ever MPs of Afghan, Somali and Iranian heritage.
Those firsts come on the back of a jump in visible-minority representation in the incoming 42nd Parliament – a measure of growing integration and participation among minority communities. At least 46 visible-minority MPs were elected on Monday, the vast majority of them being Liberal. That figure is 13.6 per cent of the total of 338 seats.
That is a record for visible-minority representation, according to data going back to 1993. Research by now-retired McGill University political scientist Jerome Black showed that the 2011 election was what he called the high watermark – when 28 visible-minority MPs were elected, representing 9.1 per cent of the total number. But 2015 has surpassed that total.
“Having visible minorities in Parliament, whether first- or second-generation, helps ensure their perspective is part of [the] discussion and debate,” said Andrew Griffith, a former federal Canadian civil servant who worked on issues of multiculturalism and citizenship.
“It also facilitates greater identification with Canadian political institutions among visible minorities as they can see themselves reflected in these same institutions,” he added.
Some experts argue that the visible minority representation in the incoming parliament still falls short of the 19 per cent that make up Canada’s total visible minority population.
But for some communities, the breakthroughs are historic.
In Peterborough-Kawartha, Liberal candidate Maryam Monsef, 30, was elected in a riding that the Conservatives have held since 2006.
Her mother, a widow at the age of 23 in Afghanistan, decided to leave a country increasingly under the grip of the Taliban and moved to Canada in 1996 with her three girls. At the time, Maryam was 11 years old.
In her victory speech on Monday night, the Trent University graduate and long-time Peterborough community worker paid tribute to her mother and her courage. “It is not easy raising three girls – three very strong-minded girls – as a single mother,” she said, according to The Peterborough Examiner. “But she did it. And she did it in a country like Canada, where someone like me – 20 years later – can step up here.”
Ms. Monsef, one of the younger members of the Liberal parliamentary caucus, has continued supporting initiatives in her native Afghanistan, co-founding the Red Pashmina Campaign, which has raised $150,000 for the education of women and girls and for maternal health.
Canada’s Somali community also witnessed a first on Monday night with the election of Ahmed Hussen in northwest Toronto’s York South-Weston, a long-time Liberal seat that the NDP grabbed in 2011. His victory was celebrated on social media by the Somali diaspora and noted by international media.
Mr. Hussen, a Somali-Canadian lawyer and community activist, arrived in Canada in 1993 while Somalia was in the midst of a civil war that sent thousands of Somalis seeking refuge to countries such as Canada, Britain and the United States.
The international community grappled with how to respond to the Somali crisis, and Canadian soldiers served with forces led by the United Nations and the United States to help restore peace – an effort that was mired in controversy and widely seen as a failure.
Mr. Hussen settled in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, a series of low-rise buildings built in the postwar period, designated for social housing and later seen as a poorly planned project with high levels of deprivation.
He co-founded the Regent Park Community Council, which represented the voices of the neighbourhood’s 15,000 residents. He lobbied for hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in the local community as part of the $1-billion Regent Park revitalization project that has seen the low-rise blocks demolished and replaced with glass condominium towers, galleries and new recreation facilities.
Mr. Hussen, a father of two who graduated from the University of Ottawa law school in 2011 and was called to the Ontario bar in 2012, also has a long-time connection with the Liberal Party in Ontario, working as a special assistant to former premier Dalton McGuinty.
He also has deep roots in the Somali-Canadian community, serving as president of the Canadian Somali Congress and speaking out on issues including the violent deaths of Somali youth in Alberta.
Canadians of Iranian heritage were also celebrating on Monday night and in the early hours of Tuesday as two Iranian Canadians were elected in the Toronto area.
Liberal candidate Ali Ehsassi beat the Conservative incumbent in the north Toronto riding of Willowdale – a moment captured by a supporter in a Facebook video as Mr. Ehsassi is surrounded by supporters and responds in Persian when asked how he feels: “Very, very good.”
Mr. Ehsassi has law degrees from York University’s Osgoode Hall and Georgetown University Law Center in the United States. He has held positions in the Ontario and federal civil service and practised law in Toronto and Washington, D.C., with a focus on international trade.
The son of an Iranian diplomat who left revolutionary Iran – much like thousands of Iranians who fled persecution and retribution after 1979 – Mr. Ehsassi arrived in Canada when he was 15 years old. Born in Geneva and raised for a time in New York City, the young Ehsassi would come to see Canada as home.
“My parents came here with a couple of suitcases. They had experienced a lot of hardship after the revolution,” he told the iPolitics.ca website in August.
“My focus when we came here was to never to look to the past. It was always to look to the future,” he added.
His victory – and the election of another Iranian Canadian – was widely celebrated by the Iranian diaspora, including the community in Canada.
For the first time, An Iranian-Canadians elected to federal parliament. A second one also in close race. pic.twitter.com/XUFmtwXTDG— Bahman Kalbasi (@BahmanKalbasi) October 20, 2015
The Iranian in me is happy for Ali Ehsassi and Majid Jowhari and I hope more Iranians in Canada and around the world can have their success.— Captain Simon Pirooz (@SimonTheCaptain) October 20, 2015
Majid Jowhari, a married father of two and businessman, had a tougher election night than some others, narrowly beating his Conservative rival in the suburban riding of Richmond Hill that forms part of the 905 belt that the Tories dominated in the 2011 election and lost badly on Monday night.
“I’m forever grateful to all our volunteers who came together to make this possible, you’re all family to me and this is your victory!” he tweeted on Tuesday morning.
Mr. Jowhari was born in Iran and moved to Canada in the pivotal year of 1979, when the country’s monarchy was overthrown and the clergy would eventually emerge as the country’s new ruling elite.
He studied industrial engineering at Ryerson University and graduated from York University with an MBA. He has worked in senior manager and program manager roles with Deloitte, Direct Energy and BlackBerry.
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