At this week’s “Where Do We Start?”, we tackled representation in politics and asked: Why is it so hard to have our elected officials accurately represent Toronto’s diverse population?
It was a difficult topic to unpack and without being left in despair, but we were lucky enough to have four amazing women walk us through some of the issues those in council face and what we can do now to enable real change. Gracing our stage for the night was Bhutila Karpoche, the MPP for Parkdale/Highpark, Olivia Labonté, candidate for Toronto District School Board Trustee for Ward 10 (University Rosedale and Toronto Centre), Arezoo Najibzadeh, the Executive Director of Young Women’s Leadership Network and Sukhpreet Sangha, who practices poverty law at a community legal clinic while also writing, directing, and acting.
We started on a hopeful note, with Bhutila Karpoche offering some insight on why voting still matters, even in a system that can seemingly work against you. According to Karpoche, voting is about life – our elected officials make decisions about our day to day lives, the personal is very much political, and those in office have the power to dictate who benefits from their decisions, and who bears the burden of them. Elected officials have the power to decide who is deserving and valuable.
She said, “To choose not to be politically engaged is a privilege, and often comes from having the system work for you. It is far more personal for those who face barriers along the way.”
Olivia Labonte spoke on what exactly a TDSB Trustee does, and why they are so integral to government. TDSB trustee candidates also face the uphill battle of trying to tell people that they should care about voting for TDSB trustees and why that matters. You can read more on exactly what their role entails at the link below.
Labonte stressed that while parents are critical stakeholders in TDSB decision making, public education impacts an entire community. Labonte stated that there is a lack of diversity amongst the position holders, and the infrastructure is crumbling. Children are not being given the basic foundations they need to learn, and this will in time impact us all.
Labonte then turned to speaking about the incumbent advantage. She spoke of the reasons this continues to occur, including the fact that people don’t do research on all candidates. People often favour a familiar candidate’s name on their ballot, making it harder for new talent to emerge and puts us at risk of electing in those who have held the position for decades, insular conversation between people who have been holding the position for decades.
Arezoo Najibzadeh spoke of the importance of getting people with the best intentions and qualifications to the table and represented in our political institutions. Her focus was on changing the ways we engage, and what engagement itself looks like. Najibzadeh emphasized the need for political power within our communities, so that when progress is made (with the example of MPP Bhutila Karpoche) that the first does not remain the only. We need to not only think about how to get underrepresented populations into positions of power, but also how to keep them there. Once elected, how do we make that a better space for them to exist, and gain collective power as women and minorities? Najibzadeh argued that in order to avoid siloed conversations, we need to both go to the streets and also vote.
Key Takeaways from our Q&A:
- Politicians can often overlook the voices from youth and minorities because they focus on the people who continue to get them elected.
- Arezoo pointed out that many who talk about a frustration with politics and general apathy await a ‘revolution.’ This again is a privileged perspective. If you do not have workers compensation and are injured, or a victim of sexual violence – you do not have time to wait for the revolution.
- YES – it can be discouraging that these systems were set up to oppress a lot of people. That does not give us permission to disregard the system, because it impacts our daily lives. Real change starts and ends with the vote.
- WE NEED VOTER REFORM. Ideas that were talked about were a mixed member partial system, ranked ballots, setting term limits, proportionate representation, or strategic voting, but the consensus is that many people voted Liberal because of the promise for voter reform, and it is a high priority for Canadians.
- There is a lack of civic education in this country. Voting is a habit that needs to be built.
- 48% of new Canadians said they would vote municipally if they could because they are paying taxes. Taxation without representation is unfair.
- Sangha discussed the need to expand the franchise. People don’t think about the fact that citizenship is as expensive as it is, and voter suppression very much exists in Canada. It costs roughly $500 to take a test for citizenship. This includes a language test, and a number of questions that are irrelevant to most Canadians (who themselves would not know the answers).
- A big theme throughout the night was the need to disrupt the ways in which politics have become so divided and dehumanized. In a non-political arena, individuals would never treat each other the way they do in politics. We need to have conversations about the root causes of the problems and what we share.
- Bhutila spoke on the importance of having young people run before they have been worn out or are too frustrated with the system to engage. Get people to run who genuinely believe in change and will fight for it.
Come by this week to cram for the election! Find out how our system works and what tools you need to make the best decision on election day.
Image from SheDoesTheCity.com