At the only English debate in Election 44, Annamie Paul stood her ground wearing a Suffragette-white suit with gathered shoulders. The colour of the suit matters for a woman who has had to battle her party just to exist as leader and who had to “crawl over a lot of broken glass to get here.” Without Paul, Black people would’ve been erased from the debate discussion, despite the murder of George Floyd last year and the resulting global protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism. In a country that claims its multiculturalism in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it does systemically and systematically do its best to erase the existence of Black voters from its political structure.
Representation matters, yet Black voters and voices are still ignored.
This isn’t new. Anti-Black racism and marginalization happened way before Confederation, first in the form of slavery, then after Confederation in the form of a law that prohibited Black Canadians from voting. However, a shift in immigration policy, brought in by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, which introduced the points system, changed the face of Canadian immigration to non-European countries, particularly from the Caribbean. In 2015, Maclean’s columnist, Andray Domise, wrote about the emotional ties that Black voters of his grandparents’ generation experienced coming to Canada — ties that turned into votes: “In the early 1970s, my grandparents immigrated to Canada from Jamaica. They arrived alongside a fresh wave of immigrants from the Caribbean whose skin colour and country of origin were no longer barriers to entry; for that they have the Liberal government under the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau to thank.” As did my parents, who came from Guyana. And for decades the Liberals owned their votes, too. With the Immigration Act of 1976, Trudeau Sr. ensured a generation of Black voter loyalty.
In a country that claims its multiculturalism in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it does systemically and systematically do its best to erase the existence of Black voters from its political structure.
However, the script is flipping and that loyalty that the Liberals have come to rely on is no longer a given with millennials and Gen-Z.
Young, Black voters are issues-based voters who are voting for those who bring solutions to the challenges they face such as housing, economic advancement, systemic racism, labour rights, and police brutality. “Millennials and Gen Z are the largest voting demographics and have no real loyalty to a party,” says Velma Morgan, chair of Operation Black Vote. The main beneficiaries of this switch have been the NDP and the Greens. (This is material, given that 60% of the Black population in Canada is under the age of 35, which means that the Liberal Party has lost a generation of Black voters who are still young and have a lot of voting left to do.)
For us, fighting systemic racism is not only a political priority, it’s a matter of life and death.
While the Liberals have made overtures to fight systemic racism, performatively taking the knee at an anti-Black racism and anti-police brutality protests, they have not shown themselves to be effective at addressing these problems. Defunding the police and reallocating that funding to preventative social services aren’t policies taken seriously (except, ironically, by the Calgary police) and the 2021 federal budget gave the RCMP money to police themselves. Last December, 12 Black federal public servants launched a class-action lawsuit against the government for violating their Charter Rights by failing to provide a harassment-free and discrimination-free work environment. This duplicity is indicative of a Liberal government that says all the right things but discriminates against us behind closed doors. I know, I was one of them.
At least they acknowledge systemic racism since the Conservatives have yet to do that. In fact, the Conservative party has no mention of systemic racism, Islamophobia, or racism for that matter, which is utterly offensive and demonstrates their contempt for our people.
The NDP, while they may seem like they are Black allies in their messaging, call for some of the same backdoor policies that increase funding to the police by establishing local hate crimes units. In 2019, 223,000 hate crimes were self-reported, while law enforcement only reported 1,946. Even Statistics Canada noted, “that hate crimes are classified based on the perception of the accused, not by the characteristics of the victim.” And these crimes are gendered, where two-thirds of the victims are women.
Smells like misogynoir.
The NDP, however, have benefitted immensely from the Black union vote. And here is where gender comes into play: Black women — like Jan Simpson of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, who is the first Black woman to lead a national union in Canada — are leading some of the largest unions. However, this doesn’t translate into political success within the traditional political system.
Morgan explains that Black women are doing the civic engagement work in their communities; we are more politically engaged on a grassroots level than Black men, since we are the adhesives of our communities. When Paul said she had to crawl over broken glass to get to that debate stage, she echoed the experiences of many Black women around the country who are the organizers in their communities, yet are still systemically and systematically barred from representing them politically.
Currently, there is only one Black woman MP, Marci Ien. One. Out of 338. In other words, we are doing the work, but not getting elected. When asked why this paradox occurs, Morgan said that systemic barriers come into play: Black Canadians aren’t engaged in the political structures — such as joining riding associations, volunteering on a campaign or attending debates — compared to their white counterparts.
There is a myriad of reasons for this systemic exclusion, including financial (policy conventions and leadership races aren’t free and getting time off is a dubious prospect for many), and the toxic and unwelcome environments of the points of political entry.
Morgan thinks that parties need to meaningfully engage with Black voters: “Political parties need to be more transparent with the process of how to be involved and they also have to make it affordable.” But they also need to meet Black voters where we are and engage us with issues we care about, not gaslight us into believing the issues that we care about have no value to anyone else. And that’s the rub: we’re either hypervisible, like when criminality is discussed, or invisible in spaces where power resides.
For Black voters who have gone through a year and a half of a pandemic that won’t quit, where many are essential workers, accessing the political process is more important than ever. We’re over a year after the murder of George Floyd and the resulting anti-Black racism and police brutality protests where we were promised change. That hasn’t happened and the leaders have reverted to ignoring Black voters and our needs. To say the current slate of politicians are failing Black voters is so trite it triggers an eye-roll, however hope comes in the form of the rays of light through the darkness. And it’s dressed in Suffragette white.