By RON FANFAIR
A group of concerned citizens has responded to the under-representation of Blacks in politics by launching a Black Caucus.
There is only one Black Member of Parliament – Marlene Jennings – in Canada’s 305-seat House of Commons, while Margarett Best and Michael Thompson are the lone Blacks in the Ontario Legislature and on Toronto’s city council, respectively.
The Inspiring You Politically organization, led by Gwyn Chapman, a former co-chair of John Tory’s mayoral campaign, is spearheading the drive to get more African-Canadians involved in politics.
“I was raised to think that if you want things to change, you have to start with yourself,” said Chapman. “Now I am creating a chance for young adults to embrace politics and allow their voices to be heard…As adults, I think we all want to be respected. We are not respected politically and that’s because we don’t take our political potential seriously.”
Dr. Howard McCurdy who, in 1984, became the second Black Canadian elected to the House of Commons, was the keynote speaker. He has been involved in several unsuccessful attempts to develop a national organization for Blacks in Canada.
“Afrocentrism reflects that notion of having a room of one’s own to talk about how we can strengthen our development as political participants in the Canadian system,” said McCurdy, who was denied access to bowl or play pool or golf back in the 1940s because of his skin colour. “It’s necessary for us but, if we become involved, we cannot do so just as Black people. We must become involved with people who understand that justice for us is justice for all.
“If we do enter the political process as others before us have done, it cannot be on the basis that we are elected as Black members of Parliament, Black councilors or Black MPPs. We must be elected to represent all the people. We cannot be separated from participation in the general society. So what we want to do is learn the skills, the practices and routines that are necessary for full participation – not as Blacks but, as ordinary Canadian citizens.”
McCurdy, who helped establish the now defunct National Black Coalition of Canada, said he fully supports the creation of a Black Caucus.
“It’s not enough for us to meet and talk,” he said. “So, if we are going to have a Black Caucus, understand that it must be on the basis of a concerted effort to get all who are interested in this project involved, right across the country.
“You also must understand we can’t set up the caucus on the cheap. There are, in this room, people of tremendous professional skills and people who have achieved success in a variety of areas. If you have achieved personal material success, you are obligated to be involved in making your community a better place to live and Canada a better country. Those of you who are professionals should put your hands in your pockets and contribute to this Caucus if it’s really to become a Caucus.
“Several attempts have been made to start national Black coalitions, but they have failed because we have refused to put our money where our mouths are. There is an opportunity here for us to participate. The slogan of the Black Caucus should not be “Yes, We Can” but “Get it Done.”
Former Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader John Tory was among several politicians who attended the launch last week at the historic St. Lawrence Hall erected in 1850 and which, a year later, hosted a meeting that led to the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. The North American Convention of Colored People was also held at the same venue that year.
Tory said he joined the Conservative Party when he was 14 because politics was appealing to him at a young age.
“I started by licking stamps, putting up signs and handing out brochures,” said Tory who, six years ago, ran for mayor of Toronto. “But, over time, I got to know people and I got to be concerned as we all are about the issues. I got to be given more responsibility because, as you get older, people get to know you.”
Though stepping down as the provincial Conservative Party leader earlier this year after losing a by-election to Liberal Rick Johnson in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock, Tory pledged he will continue to support the Black community, as he has done in the past, in any upliftment endeavour.
“Besides believing in the political process, I believe in this community,” he said. “And even though I am out of politics, my friends are here and when they ask me to come and participate in an event that celebrates the political process, encourages people to get involved and tries to find a way in which this talented, committed, determined and dedicated community can be better represented in the political process, I will always be there to say good on you for doing that.”
Willowdale MPP David Zimmer encouraged young people to answer the noble call of public service, adding they have an obligation to make a difference, as well as eking out a living.
“Politics is important because it’s the political voices that get heard in our society,” said Zimmer. “All of the big societal decisions are made at the political level. That’s why this Black Caucus should have a voice at that table. This is a starting point.
“(U.S. President Barack) Obama got involved in politics as a neighbourhood organizer, going around knocking on doors and doing very small pieces of work 15 years ago. Then he became a state senator and U.S. senator and now the president. He’s at the big table and his voice is being heard.”
Councillor Thompson said he also embraced politics at a very young age.
“At around age 13, I recognized that the people in Scarborough who were supposed to be making decisions for me actually had no interest in me,” said Thompson, the councillor for Scarborough Centre since 2003. “I said that when I got older, I would change that. I started by sweeping floors in political campaign offices and I used to deliver literature for Paul Cosgrove (former Scarborough mayor). Later on, I ran campaigns. I want to tell you, it’s important that you participate and get involved in the political process.”
To celebrate the launch, Inspiring You Politically honoured political trailblazers Leonard Braithwaite, Zanana Akande, Alvin Curling and Jean Augustine.
Goodwill vice-president Mitzie Hunter was ecstatic to be called upon to make the presentation to Augustine, who was the first Black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada in 1993.
“Jean has had a tremendous impact on my life,” said Hunter. “After a business meeting with her a few years ago, she reminded me that I should always be prepared and get my credentials so that when the call comes, I will be ready. I took that to heart and I went back to school.”
Two weeks ago, Hunter graduated with an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.