Vicky Mochama is a Toronto-based writer and host of the Safe Space podcast.
One afternoon in June, earlier this year, the mayor of the country’s largest city, the Premier of its most populous province and the Prime Minister of Canada found themselves unexpectedly sharing a stage together in downtown Toronto. They – along with an estimated two million fans from throughout the city – had come together to pay tribute to a group of young (and mostly black) men.
Four days prior, the Toronto Raptors had defeated the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship, leading to a national outpouring of pride and joy. The Raptors possessed an incandescent quality, and a rare one: They were Canadian and cool, two words that don’t usually come together unless you’re talking about the weather. For the Prime Minister, the election loomed, and for the others, it was a rare moment in political life: a captive audience with a deep well of goodwill. Of course politicians wanted to be associated with the Raptors.
It wasn’t just politicians. Never in my life have I seen so much of the country so enthralled by so many black men. Possibly not since Donovan Bailey captured the gold medal in the 100-metre dash at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games had Canadians felt such intense joy at the success of someone (in this case, many people) from the black community.
Unwilling to brave the crowds, I watched from a television in my office as Justin Trudeau screamed hoarsely into a microphone that "the diversity this team represents is that of the entire country.” Mayor John Tory presented the team with the key to the city, while the crowd serenaded Premier Doug Ford with boos.
What will happen, I wondered, when these men leave the stage? What will happen when the crowd disperses from Nathan Phillips Square, when the garbage is cleaned up, the streets are turned back over to traffic, and the glow of the championship begins to wane like the light of a setting sun?
The crowd that day looked more like the athletes who joined the politicians on stage. I saw black faces, many young – not often fêted by our politicians, not deemed as important as a victory parade – faces that also would fade conveniently in and then out of the views of men like the mayor, the Premier and the Prime Minister. These powerful leaders had all found time out of their busy schedules to crash a party thrown for a victory they played no part in winning. Where, I wondered, were these politicians – leaders, I’m told – for the regular and equally (if not more, frankly) heroic black people who don’t wear team jerseys?
Black people are one of the most targeted groups for hate crimes in Canada. From 2005 to 2015, there was a 71.1-per-cent increase in the federal black prison population. Educational inequities persist between black people in Canada and their white counterparts. According to the 2017 Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada, “black Canadian children are living in poverty at the unprecedented rate of 33 per cent for children of Caribbean heritage and 47 per cent for children of continental African heritage, compared to 18 per cent of white Canadian children living below the poverty line.” The list, unfortunately, goes on. From household and economic concerns to criminal-justice issues and immigration, black people face a seemingly immovable force determined to prevent our success, and our politicians don’t seem concerned with helping to counter that force.
I’ve thought about the Raptors’ celebration many times in the weeks and months that followed, and especially during the past six weeks, which have featured one of those men, Justin Trudeau, in a battle to save his job and to lead the country for another four years. Again, we have arrived at election day having avoided debating the issues relevant to black communities – issues that overlap with and affect many other communities in this country. The concerns and desires of those black faces in the crowd that June day have been missing, once again, from the discourse, from the debates, from the campaigns. Instead, as usual, it’s up to the community to make their voices heard.
As a politically engaged black woman living in Canada, I will head to my local polling station on Monday, but it feels like my ballot has been spoiled before it’s even been cast.
The history of black Canadians is a rich tapestry; tugging a single thread could take you from the enslaved and indentured men and women of New France to the fortunate escapees who took the Underground Railroad to its terminus in Ontario and Quebec; from the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia to the Black cowboys and homesteaders of the Prairies and the black communities of British Columbia. We out here, but we been here.
Yet, for all the history – deep, diverse and dispersed – black political life has remained separate from politics in Canada. Despite an unbroken presence in the country, the fortunes and well-being of black people have risen, stagnated and, in some ways, reversed. And our political leaders don’t seem to care.
Contrast this with U.S. politics. The agenda for Democrats is set and won by courting black voters. Arguably, black voters are captive to the Democratic Party, but they are, at least, a force to be reckoned with. The Congressional Black Caucus wield 53 seats in the House of Representatives, approximately 12 per cent of the total number of seats. With black Americans making up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, they thus are nearly equally represented in their legislature.
In Canada, during the 2015 election, 30 black candidates from the five major parties ran for office. Seven of those candidates won seats, one of whom, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, announced last spring she would not run for re-election. (Notably, the “Because it’s 2015” cabinet of diversity did not include black members.) That means that, in the last Parliament, barely 2 per cent of seats were held by black members of Parliament. According to the 2016 census, black people in Canada represent 3.5 per cent of the population numbering 1.2 million. Black people in both Canada and the United States remain underrepresented.
The black population in Canada is a growing one. Since 1996, when it was approximately 600,000, the number of black Canadians has doubled.
That increase can be accounted for by black immigration to Canada – increasingly from Africa – but also from the number of black people born in Canada in the past two decades. In 2016, per Statistics Canada, 26.6 per cent of the black population was under the age of 15 while for the rest of the population the number of young people accounted for 16.9 per cent.
Ontario has the highest number of black people, containing just more than half of the country’s black population. But from 1996 to 2006, the black population in Alberta has quintupled, and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, there are three times as many black people now than in 1996. Notably, the fastest growing urban populations of black people include Lethbridge, Alta., and Moncton, N.B.
The growing number of black people across the country, especially in the Prairies, has political effects.
For the first time in Manitoba, black people will be represented in the provincial legislature – by not just one, but three MLAs. According to the population projections from Statistics Canada, by 2036, black Canadians are projected to account for between 5 per cent and 6 per cent of the country. Canada is only going to get blacker.
But black Canadians cannot be said to held in thrall to a single party. Whereas black people in the post-1960s United States allegiances shifted en masse to the Democratic party, black Canadian political “firsts” represent an array of parties.
The first woman to vie for the leadership of a federal party was British Columbian Rosemary Brown, a black woman who ran for the NDP. The first black person elected to the House of Commons was Lincoln Alexander, a Progressive Conservative from Ontario. And the first black woman to win a federal seat was Jean Augustine, winning in 1993 for the Liberal Party.
The casual assumption that all black people are left and Liberal voters is common. But if you think black voters are solely progressive liberals then you haven’t met a lot of my uncles.
Ironically, this Federal campaign, which wraps up this weekend with a neck-and-neck race between Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party, is that we’ve been talking about race more than any other election during my lifetime.
In September, several photos emerged of a younger Justin Trudeau wearing blackface. When I’d finished screaming, then laughing, I sighed, knowing the photos would encapsulate the frustrations of being a black voter. The first people to speak to the Prime Minister were a planeload of (white) reporters. It would not be until the next day and until the last question of Mr. Trudeau’s follow-up news conference that the Prime Minister was asked to name specific policies to do with racialized people.
The moment was defined as a choice between apologizing, resigning and counting the number of blackface instances. Meaning a thoroughly political conversation – a politician! Wearing blackface! In an election! – failed to answer any political question. Feelings overran policy to the detriment of black and racialized people.
In the immediate aftermath of the photos, the Liberal Party announced their plans for ending gun violence – a policy that has been led by former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, whose achievements include the expansion of racial profiling. The Conservative Party’s riposte included a plan to classify gang members on par with terrorists, increase mandatory minimums and to end “automatic bail" – a process that does not exist. Their plans also include an expansion of prison sentences by both administrative and judicial means. The NDP hopes to bring an end to carding (racial profiling with a snappier name) by federal law enforcement and introduce a task force to study the “chronic overrepresentation” of black and Indigenous people in the federal prison system.
Of course, black political concerns are not solely matters of crime. Yet, as Robin Maynard reminds us in her book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, there is a long-standing conflation of blackness and criminality. In practice then, even “race-neutral” policies about policing and crime have serious, even deadly effects on black lives. It is in those places that the legacies of anti-blackness and colonialism are keenly felt. Prisons in Canada are fast becoming sites of injustice, where the most vulnerable and least-thought-of are held by the state, and not just black people: Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous women, and people with mental-health issues are affected. Yet, in the debates about gun violence that immediately followed the blackface scandal, anti-black racism was somehow not a central topic.
The black Canadian vote is no more, or less, than anyone else’s vote. I don’t enter a polling station to vote for some mythical, Garvey-esque black nation without Canada. But it is still a decision that contains my black Canadian life, for good or ill.
As a black woman in Canada, my income is likely to be less than that of my white peers, which affects, among other things, my ability to own a home. As a black immigrant, the wealth gap is compounded not just by my own immigration status but by the late-start careers of my parents and their cohort of arrivees. And as a person who falls a lot (I’ve learned a great deal about how an arm breaks this year), I’m keenly aware that universal health care does not mean universal health outcomes, especially for black women.
If we’re going to spend yet another election campaign not talking about policy, what’s a black voter to do?
One evening, earlier this summer, I elbowed my way to the back of a room in a crowded theatre in Toronto’s east-end to meet the NDP Candidate for Hamilton Centre, Matthew Green.
As the first black city councillor in Hamilton, he’d been an outspoken voice on “street checks” (basically the same thing as carding, but sounds like a nineties-era rap group) while at city council. Who, I wondered, would leave the relative independence of city politics for the constraints and frustrations of federal politics?
“I was too angry to stay in city council,” he says, and so he jumped into federal politics with the NDP, who are running 12 black candidates. The Conservatives have two black candidates: Abdul Abdi in Ottawa-West Nepean and Helen-Claire Tingling in University-Rosedale. The Liberals have five black candidates, while the Greens have another five.
One organization, Operation Black Vote Canada, works to increase the number of black people in politics from the House of Commons down through to the staffers who work on the Hill. Based largely out of Toronto, the group has focused their efforts this election on the social and interpersonal through an event series called Dinner and Politics, inviting Black people to engage in explicitly political social events.
In late August, I attended one of their events. In the backyard of a low-slung white-gabled house in Scarborough, members of the Black Business Professionals Association (BBPA) were meeting for a panel and lunch.
On the panel sat Denise Siele, a strategist for the government relations firm Tactix, who noted that political backrooms are taken with the question of how to address communities of colour – but, she also noted, political parties themselves are not sophisticated enough to understand the diversity of black communities. That is, a Nigerian-Canadian who arrived as a refugee and lives in Edmonton may have a vastly different set of desires and needs than a fifth-generation black Canadian from London, Ont. What they are likely to share, however, is the cumulative effect – if not similar experiences – of anti-blackness on their lives. Where notions of “the ethnic vote” collapse fundamental differences between immigrants, the black experience in Canada is shaped substantially by anti-black racism. It doesn’t, however, mean that every black person thinks the same or wants the same thing.
Speaking to black people at the BBPA’s August event confirmed as much. One woman I spoke to, an aspiring counsellor and life coach working to get her business off the ground, said she wasn’t concerned about politics; for her, it’s all about business. Meanwhile, Lucy Nywarwai, a 27-year-old public servant (whose job requires her to be publicly non-partisan) wanted to know where the space was for black youth at formal events such as the kind run by the BBPA.
“I wonder what it would be like if those spaces were open to us. I feel like they see us as a nuisance,” she said. As for the coming election, she wouldn’t say who she was voting for but she did say, “I was misled that one party was going to to do things differently, especially in the black community.”
Where Ms. Nywarwai was cagey, Adam Tomlinson, a 23-year-old athlete from Oshawa, confidently declared that Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives were going to win. “I don’t know what that’s going to do culturally or economically,” he added.
Mr. Tomlinson first voted in 2015. “The last election, I was not thinking about black issues, I was thinking about jobs,” he said, adding university prompted him to think about the job market. As a recent graduate, he added, “This election, I’m going to be thinking more about black issues.”
As the panel wrapped, a woman in a pink jumpsuit stepped up to the mic. Reflecting on the panels, which touched on everything from black youth to procurement to professional presentation to labour organizing, Cora Reed said, “I keep asking myself, ‘Equal to what?’”
Operation Black Vote Canada’s Velma Morgan says increased black representation is essential across all parties but, more than that, the parties have to run black candidates in winnable ridings. It’s a responsibility that Ms. Morgan puts on the political parties themselves. Ms. Morgan likens it to being invited to dance. “If I can’t dance and if I don’t feel comfortable enough to dance then it’s not inclusion.”
Black people in Canada ostensibly have a lobby group, the Federation of Black Canadians, which convenes the annual National Black Canadians Summit. At the organization’s inaugural summit, in 2017, activists and journalists Desmond Cole and El Jones presented Ahmed Hussen, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Refugees, with a letter about the case of Abdoul Abdi, a black man facing deportation. Yet it would be months until the FBC issued a public statement on a case whose public life began at its first major event.
“I think individuals who protest are as important to the struggle of the black community as those who approach this from meeting in boardrooms," Len Carby, a spokesman for the FBC, told me in April. (He is no longer with the FBC.) "Struggling over difficult policy decisions are just as important. I think that those who get caught up in this debate lose time.”
Where organizations such as the FBC are struggling to find their voice, many others have long been shouting.
Discovering our Prime Minister has worn blackface is not the moment to begin to act. It is the racism iceberg. To look at a black Canadian, you may not see how the history and the present move around them. Like blackface, though, what you see shows that there are forces at play.
Black Canadians may be disparate, at times at odds with one another and loyal to no one party. But there are at least two good reasons that politics and politicians should pay attention. First, because we are citizens. Second, even for those who are not, because it is the right thing to do.
Election after election, black Canadians have voted, participating in this democracy while rarely benefiting fully from it. Recall that black people were mentioned for the first time in a federal budget last year.
But citizenship is a weak argument. It’s a sentimental one, clinging to democracy at a time where even democracy seems to be tired of itself.
There have been black people in Canada since before there was Canada. We have long been entitled to be cared for and valued as people. That that reality has changed for black people is a testament to the tenacity of black people and communities. It is not because governments have treated citizenship with the protection and assurance it requires.
Citizenship is not the sole reason to do what is just. Too many black people in Canada exist as migrants and still engage in the act of democracy – from the Caribbean domestic workers of the 1950s to the farmworkers and caregivers today who speak out against the conditions of migrant workers.
But the past is not the blueprint for the future. It is the record of inaction and anti-black racism that demands address. This election falls right into the middle of the International Decade for People of African Descent. (The government of Nova Scotia announced a plan to support the decade.) Meanwhile, the next decade promises to be a more black decade for Canada.
So does the black vote matter?
It’s a question I struggle to answer conclusively. That I want it to matter may, I thought, have been a question of my own wishes. That it hasn’t mattered reflects on a history spanning from the sufferings of the Black Loyalists to the destruction of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver to the razing of Africville to the dismantling of the black Sleeping Car Porters Union. That we bear our own responsibility for the black vote’s absence – in organization, in reconciling our many differences, in articulation, perhaps – feels noteworthy, although perhaps only as an asterisk. For our vote to not matter, however, seems more a choice by those sent to represent us. Black life does not begin and end at the ballot box. Yet so much of what happens to black people in this country is decided by – or ignored by, truthfully – the people we select at each election.
It’s a mistake, I think, to look at the black experience in Canada and not see a systemic failure. And still community organizations are speaking up, whether successfully lobbying for money in the federal budget or turning activist action into policing reform. To varying degrees, they are aided by our few black politicians. But that just means black people are left doing what we’ve always done – looking out for each other.