Petros Kusmu is a co-founder of Black CAN (formerly Black Voters Matter Canada), an organization that engages, encourages and empowers more Black Canadians to be involved in all levels of government and politics.
This summer and fall, more than three-quarters of Canada’s eligible voters will be able to cast a ballot in a provincial or municipal election. This spring, political parties in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia will build their bench of candidates and develop their electoral strategies.
And with increased attention to social movements like Black Lives Matter, Canadians are demanding qualified candidates that more accurately represent the country’s full diversity. So, what lessons can be learned from last year’s elections?
For starters, more Black people are running for office. According to a preliminary analysis of the 2021 federal election by Black CAN, there were 63 Black candidates (with more than half identifying as women or non-binary) nominated from Canada’s five main political parties – a 53 per cent increase compared to the 2019 federal election. This increased the total count of Black Members of Parliament to a record-breaking eight.
Similarly, in Alberta’s municipal election last year, Black CAN identified at least 26 Black municipal candidates. Five won seats in Calgary, Fort McMurray, Spruce Grove and Brooks, with another candidate narrowly losing by 39 votes.
Montreal’s municipal election also saw a breakthrough for Black candidates – ranging from the creation of a new political party led by a Black mayoral candidate, to the election of numerous Black municipal candidates (including the city’s first Black borough mayor).
But despite these successes, Black Canadians and other racialized communities, more broadly, continue to be under-represented politically. This is true whether at the federal level or even in cities such as Metro Vancouver, where only one in 10 city councillors are racialized despite nearly half of residents being a visible minority.
Black candidates still face a steeper uphill climb to office than most. For instance, more than one in four non-Black candidates who ran for Canada’s main federal political parties in the last two federal elections won, whereas fewer than one in eight Black candidates who ran were elected. (Worse, it’s a one-in-eleven chance for Black women and non-binary candidates.)
While organizations like Black CAN, Operation Black Vote Canada and the Association of Black Conservatives work hard to encourage more Black Canadians to run for office, political parties need to ensure that they actually stand a chance to win.
For Ontario and Quebec’s provincial parties, and British Columbia’s municipal political parties, there are three ways to do this.
First, provincial parties should give Black and equity-seeking candidates a shot by enabling them to run in winnable ridings. So often is the case that talented and diverse candidates are slotted in unwinnable ridings – ridings that are a historical stronghold by a rival party or feature rival candidates with significantly higher public profiles.
By electoral district associations (EDAs) actively identifying and inviting Black and equity-seeking candidates to run for a nomination, particularly in “safe” ridings, parties can remove some of the initial barriers these candidates face. The BC NDP’s equity policy, mandating EDAs to nominate female or male equity-seeking candidates once a male NDP MLA has retired, is an approach that has proved successful in producing a more diverse caucus relative to other parties in the BC legislature.
Parties can also take a more targeted approach and directly appoint Black and equity-seeking candidates to run in stronghold seats, such as when the federal Liberals appointed Marci Ien as their nominated candidate for Toronto Centre to replace Bill Morneau.
Second, parties must adequately resource Black and equity-seeking candidates. Running for office is a remarkably costly endeavour. Competitive candidates often meet the election spending limits which, in the 2021 federal election, ranged from nearly $90,000 to over $143,000.
In addition to fundraising from their network and self-financing their campaign, competitive candidates often must take a significant amount of time off work (at minimum, four to five weeks during a campaign’s writ period and possibly weeks or months before to start door-knocking and mobilizing a campaign). Candidates who have young children will need to save additional funds for daycare or have a family supporting them with child care.
The cost-prohibitive nature of running for office could explain why the CBC found that nearly 40 per cent of Southern Ontario’s 2019 federal candidates were already politicians, business professionals or lawyers.
Considering the wide income inequality gap between racialized and non-racialized Canadians, and the fact that it barely changed between 2005 and 2015, political parties should do more to level the playing field and ensure that their Black and equity-seeking candidates represent a diversity of income-levels and professions. Initiatives like the Ontario NDP’s BIPOC Victory Fund – a fund dedicated to supporting candidates that are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour – should be replicated and bolstered by all political parties.
Lastly, political parties need to foster inclusive cultures and environments that are welcoming to Black and equity-seeking candidates, enabling them to be their authentic selves. The microaggressions that former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes faced and the challenging internal politics that torpedoed the rise of Annamie Paul, the first Black Canadian and first Jewish woman to be elected leader of a federal political party, paints a disturbing picture that could unfortunately signal political parties are not meant for diverse people “like us.”
Intentionally creating a culture centred on inclusivity – from having diverse staff, to justice, diversity, equity and inclusion training and policies – is critical for parties to not only attract but retain top political talent from Black and equity-seeking communities.
Black Canadians deserve to see themselves represented in our democratic institutions, particularly at a time when people are losing faith in them. Doing so, while also providing all Canadians the best candidates from our communities, is one way of restoring the trust Canadians have in democracy.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.