UPDATE: Marci Ien won the Toronto Centre byelection Monday and will represent the riding as Liberal MP. Toronto Centre has been a Liberal stronghold for 27 years, but this year's byelection pitted the journalist and former host of The Social against Green Party's new Leader Annamie Paul. "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be your voice in Ottawa. I will not let you down," Ien tweeted. Refinery29 interviewed Ien earlier this month about her new career in politics.
Original story, published Oct. 16, 2020, follows.
Marci Ien has just gotten off a Zoom call with the struggling small business owners of Toronto Centre, the riding in which she’s running for Liberal MP. “If you had asked a year ago if I thought that this is where I would be, I would have given you an unequivocal absolutely not,” Ien, 51, says with a laugh. A year ago, Ien would have been live on TVs across the country as a host of The Social, a national daytime talk show. On the day we speak, her former co-hosts are talking about the season’s best tea blends and Kelly Clarkson’s divorce while Ien is campaigning in the highly anticipated October 26 byelection that’s pitted her against the Green Party’s new leader, Annamie Paul.
No one’s 2020 is going according to plan, but news of the broadcaster’s sudden move to politics was met with shock from pundits and the public alike. And yet, Ien’s decision to leave the glitzy world of TV behind (officially, she’s taking a “leave of absence” from The Social) to run a grassroots campaign in the part of Toronto where she was born actually makes a lot of sense to anyone who has met Marci Ien.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Ien for years. I used to be one of her producers on The Social. It’s impossible for me to be unbiased here, but trust me when I say she’s the kind of person you want in politics. Walking down the street with her is difficult because she's continually recognized as the national treasure she is, but also because she will stop to talk to everyone she meets. She’ll ask them about their lives and families. And she’ll never forget their face or their story. It became a running joke at Bell Media, where The Social was filmed pre-pandemic, that it would take Ien an hour just to make it out of the building at the end of the day — she’d be too busy checking in with everyone on her way. She truly cares that deeply about people. It’s like she’s been campaigning (without an agenda) for decades. “The best politicians know how to listen, they know how to learn, and then they know how to take action, or at least be a voice for those who don't have one,” she tells me.
Ien has been that voice for Black women in Canada for her legendary 30-year career. Before The Social, she spent her 15 years on Canada AM as the first Black woman to co-host a morning show in the country. Before that, she was a news anchor. She’s been on television for as long as I can remember blazing trails, telling stories, and creating space for women of colour to come after her. From speaking out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, to organizing for Indigenous students in La Loche, Saskatchewan, to sharing her own story of “driving while Black,” Ien has never been afraid to pull up for the communities that need her.
Here, Ien talks about why she said yes to running when the Liberals came knocking, her faith in the party despite years riddled with scandal, and how racist online trolls prepared her for being a politician.
When I saw your tweet announcing you were running, my jaw dropped, but then a second later I was like, Yeah, that tracks. I also thought of how terrifying this decision must have been. Was it?
Yeah. But I'll tell you, it helped that I had already experienced a huge transition coming off of almost 15 years of Canada AM. The biggest transition of my life so far before this was the fact that my show ended [Canada AM was cancelled in 2016] and I found a home at [The Social]. I already felt what it takes to leave everything that I've known and jump into something completely different. It was like, By the way, you're going to be on a talk show and it's going to be nothing like news. You're going to be sharing your opinion and doing all these other things that you're not quite comfortable with. You'll have co-hosts that you don't know but you will grow to love quickly. That was a huge transition that took a lot of courage. So, here we are again. I also feel that there was no other decision to make. It had to be yes.
There was no other decision to make. It had to be yes.
You said you wouldn't have pictured yourself here a year ago. Why?
I just didn't think [politics was] where my voice was needed most. I thought that I was doing a good job in speaking about Black Lives Matter and speaking out about social issues as a talk show host. I thought, Okay, I'm the Black woman on this panel and I can speak to life experience. I think I'm doing it well. I'm staying true to myself. I feel that I'm bringing a community along with me. But It's one thing to scream from the mountain tops, "Black Lives Matter.” It's another thing to be at a larger table that puts programs and laws in place, and be at that table to tell my story, and tell our stories. There’s quite a difference when you can put action to the things that you're saying. That was the missing piece.
I have been presented with the idea of getting into the political realm in the past, but this time felt like it absolutely was the time. I had a couple of people say, "Listen, if there's interest in you now, it'll always be there." And I said, "No, this is the moment right now." Never before have we seen this kind of action and this kind of courage in people telling their stories, and not just asking for change but demanding it on so many levels. I thought, If not now, when? Then, it came down to Blaize, my 16-year-old. I had so much to say about making sure that she and [my nine-year-old son] Dash were okay. I said, "Blaize, I need to make sure that you get to university. I need to make sure that you can do the things that I, as your mother, want for you." And she said, "Mom, I'm hearing a lot of ‘I’, I think you should replace it with ‘us,’" meaning our nuclear family, and then the us meaning everyone else outside the family, the community. I chose all of us.
As you're talking, I’m thinking of the “Black woman will save us” trope, and the idea that as the world burns, people are looking to Black women for solutions. We even put the pressure on ourselves to fix everything. Is that fair? And do you feel that pressure?
There's nothing fair about life, but I do believe in responsibility. When you are the first at something — and as a Black woman, I was the first to do the job as a nightly news anchor and [as a host of] the morning show — you carry your community with you, and you either see it as an honour or you see it as a burden. It was never a burden for me. I look at it as an absolute honour. I want to show the young Black women who are coming up what this road looks like. Because of my journey, there are footsteps in the path. They can jump into them. This is just the next step. I would never sugar coat it and say this is easy, but do I see it as a privilege? Absolutely. Do I think I'm saving the world? Absolutely not. Can I forge a path that may help others coming up, and coming after? Yes.
There aren’t a lot of Black women in Canadian politics. That's just a fact.
It's just a fact. I know that I am riding on the shoulders of Jean Augustine, Dr. Hedy Fry, Celina Caesar-Chavannes. These are women who blazed trails. But you're right, there aren't a lot of Black women and so it's important when people blaze those trails, that those trails continue. I'm privileged to just keep it going and not let their good work die.
I want to show the young Black women who are coming up what this road looks like.
I recently talked to Green Party leader Annamie Paul, who’s the first Black woman to lead a federal party in Canada, and I mentioned that the fact two groundbreaking Black women are going up against each other in the byelection has me a little conflicted. What was your reaction to Paul’s nomination and the fact that she would be your competition?
I reached out right away and sent her a message that said, “Listen, you've made history. Congratulations. Let's soak up this moment. Let's just do that, with full respect and full admiration.” At the same time, I have to say for me, this is full circle. I was born in St. James Town, I understand the riding. Ryerson [University] is my lifeblood. It's not just my alma mater, it is where I was able to create a scholarship program years ago, and it's where I sit on the board of governors. It is my home away from home. So, it's not a riding that is new to me or foreign to me; it’s a riding that is part of me. With that in mind, I know we're in a race, but I'm well equipped to represent this riding. So, may the best woman win.
She said that you're welcome to join the Green Party whenever you're ready.
[Laughs.] That's hilarious.
I have been approached by other [parties], but the Liberal Party is where my values are closely aligned. It's the party that has opened its doors to immigrants. It was Pierre Elliott Trudeau who opened doors to my family when they came to Canada from Trinidad some 60 years ago. It's the party that has served Canadians well through this pandemic that we're living through. I thought long and hard about that: Is this a party that I can talk to people about and campaign for and be fully behind? In seeing the government response to this pandemic, I think that it's been world-class. I really do, and I'm proud of it. People that I'm talking to [during my campaign] have been telling me about the wage subsidy and CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) and how it's helped. That puts a smile on my face. The values of this party are completely in line with my own. Women's issues, women's rights, the environment: I think it's the party that encapsulates all of it.
There has been so much scandal surrounding the Liberals in the past year. Can you speak to the people who may have lost faith in the party?
With regards to the We [scandal], the prime minister has been very, very clear that he should have recused himself [from the decision to offer the charity a government contract]. And he's apologized. With regards to blackface, in February after it happened, I went to Ottawa and interviewed the prime minister. I asked him point blank, “How do I explain this to my son? What do I tell him if the leader for our country is doing this?” And he said, “You need to tell him that it was a huge mistake, that I've learned my lesson, and you need to tell him that I'm sorry.” And that was enough for me. I like to look people in the eyeballs when I'm talking to them. If I'm addressing them and asking them a tough question, I want to see whether they're looking uncomfortable, the body language, all of it. Believe me, if his responses to either matter weren't enough for me, I wouldn't be doing this right now. If I didn't believe in him and what he stands for, I wouldn't be doing this right now because it's my name that's out there.
Toronto Centre has been Liberal for 27 years. Does it feel a little bit like this is your race to lose?
No. It doesn't at all because I don't look like anybody that's represented Toronto Centre in those 27 years. I don’t pay attention when people say, "Oh, it's been there for over 27 years, you won't have a problem." Our team has been operating like we're behind. We are working hard. We are earning every single vote, every single one, talking to as many people virtually and physically distanced as we can, getting the word out. We are not operating like this is ours to lose. I just don't think that's a winning strategy. I think the winning strategy is to operate like you are behind, and you just work, and then the chips fall where they may.
You’ve already faced online harassment and racist abuse as a journalist. Stepping into federal politics makes you more visible and opens you up to even more attacks. Did that make you hesitate?
It's so interesting. For so many of my friends, that was their chief concern because they witnessed it, but I looked at it and thought, Holy smokes, it was preparation. I think about it now, and as hard it was and is to deal with [online abuse], what if it had never happened? What if this would have been my first go-around with that level of harassment and threats, especially threats of bodily harm? Police have been involved in some of the threats that have come to me. What if I didn't already have that experience? Listen, I'm not saying it's the experience anybody wants in life because it's absolutely not. But I think maybe it was preparing me for what was to come.
The bigger thing here is it's not about the online trolls. I don't want to give them more credit or any credit than they deserve. And they deserve none. I don't have the energy to waste on the people who have the time to come at me in that way. I am always up for respectful debate. That is great. Respectfully debate me at any time. If you're not in agreement with something, I am fine with that. We all have different life experiences. Fine. Let me know, but to come with a heart full of hate and to levy against me, against my family, that's another level altogether. So, I don't wish that on anyone, but at the same time, because I've experienced all of that, I'm ready. Had I not, I certainly wouldn't have been.
What happens if you don't win? Do you go back to The Social?
Yes, I go back to work. I had a discussion with a former premier in this province and his advice was, "Marci, never change who you are.” The second piece of advice was, "You have to be okay with both outcomes. If you can say to yourself right now that you're okay with both outcomes, then you know you're doing the right thing. If you're not going to be okay with that, you shouldn't be doing it." Obviously, I want to win, but believe me, I've looked at it from every possible scenario.
As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always talked about purpose. Do you feel like you're living your purpose right now?
I absolutely do. I had a conversation this morning with a Black woman in St. James Town. And she said it means everything to her to see me do this. That's it right there. It does take courage to make this kind of transition. Taking this step is huge. I hope it's me on the 26th, but win or lose, taking this step says something and speaks to my purpose. It means that it's never about me. And that right there I think is my purpose in life. Knowing that it's never just about me, and that it's about representing a bunch of people and their purpose is really lifting me as I rise.
This interview has been condensed and edited.