Candidates from marginalized groups bring diversity to Quebec City's municipal election

·6 min read
Démocratie Québec candidates Mbaï-Hadji Mbaïrewaye (left) and Bertrand de Lépinay (right) are both running to become city councilors in the 2021 municipal election in Quebec City. (Franca G. Mignacca/CBC - image credit)
Démocratie Québec candidates Mbaï-Hadji Mbaïrewaye (left) and Bertrand de Lépinay (right) are both running to become city councilors in the 2021 municipal election in Quebec City. (Franca G. Mignacca/CBC - image credit)

Sophia Laababsi had a clear goal in mind when she decided to run for city council in Quebec City's Plateau district: to carve out a space in municipal politics for people who don't typically see themselves represented at city hall.

"I'm here to make sure that people feel like they belong," she said. "To make sure that if they have a voice that they want to raise, they can do it – and feel comfortable doing it."

The Québec Forte et Fière candidate, who came to Quebec City from Morocco 18 years ago, said she thinks residents are disengaged from municipal politics because they don't relate to the candidates who typically run for election.

Diverse candidates are running in all five main municipal parties in Quebec City this year, although it is unclear if this is a growing trend, because the province only tracks the ages and genders of municipal candidates.

Démocratie Québec candidate Mbaï-Hadji Mbaïrewaye, who also ran for councillor in 2017, says he thinks things have improved since the last election.

"There are more racialized people getting involved in politics and that is a nice move," he said, adding the main challenge now was to get people of colour and Indigenous people to vote.

Mbaïrewaye was born in Chad but came to Quebec City to study at Université Laval in 2007. He said one of his priorities is to make the city a more inclusive space for people of colour.

"One of my main motivations to run in politics is racial justice," he said. "I fight for social justice but also for racial justice."

Mbaïrewaye says he plans to work on fighting against hate crimes and racial profiling by the police, and on increasing representation in city council and the Quebec Chamber of Commerce.

How diverse are the main municipal parties?

Peter Tardif/CBC News
Peter Tardif/CBC News

Mbaïrewaye is one of two Black candidates running for Démocratie Québec, the other being Bertrand de Lépinay.

Équipe Marie-Josée Savard says it has two candidates who identify as a visible or religious minority, and two LGBTQ candidates.

Transition Québec says it has two candidates from a visible minority and four LGBTQ candidates, including one who is non-binary.

Laababsi is Québec Forte et Fière's only ethnically diverse candidate. The party says it has one LGBTQ candidate.

Québec 21 says it has one candidate from a visible minority, Stevens Mélançon, but no one from the LGBT community. Mélançon declined the CBC's request for an interview.

Mbaïrewaye says the presence of all these candidates is inspiring for young people of colour who live in Quebec City.

"Even if we are not elected, those young people are proud of us and we hope they can follow our example in the next years," he said.

Visible minorities made up 6.4 per cent of the city's population in 2016, according to the most recent federal census data.

City of Lévis could have its first ever Black mayor

Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada
Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada

The municipal race in Lévis, Que., on the other side of the Saint-Lawrence river, is also seeing more racial diversity.

Elhadji Mamadou Diarra, chief of Repensons Lévis, is running for mayor against incumbent Gilles Lehouillier, who has held the position for nearly ten years. If Mamadou Diarra wins, he would be Lévis's first-ever Black mayor.

The father of two, who moved to Quebec from Senegal 26 years ago, says achieving this milestone is not the main priority of his campaign.

"It's a pride yes, but I am not taking every opportunity to say 'oh look I'm the first Black candidate,'" he said. "For me what is important is to really serve the entire population of Lévis regardless of where they come from."

He says he has been campaigning on the promise to make municipal affairs more open and transparent.

And while he admits that some people he's met seem reticent to his ideas because of his skin colour, he says the vast majority of voters were very receptive to him and his team.

"People are very welcoming and favourable to us on the whole," he said.

Dealing with Islamophobia and racism

Like Mamadou Diarra, some candidates in Quebec City have had to deal with incidents of racism, such as their signs being vandalised.

In particular, Boufeldja Benabdallah, candidate in the Cap-aux-Diamants district for Équipe Marie-Josée Savard, was the target of Islamophobic comments made by the only candidate of Alliance Citoyenne de Québec, Alain Giasson.

Franca G. Mignacca/CBC
Franca G. Mignacca/CBC

Benabdallah, the co-founder and former president of Quebec's Islamic cultural centre, says the comments showed him there is still a lot of work left to do to fight off racism.

"I was really hurt that there are still people who don't see me as a citizen, who just see me as a religion," said the father of four, who has been in Quebec City for 50 years. He says the city deserves better than a party that tries to divide its citizens.

"Why create animosity because this person is LGBT, this one is Muslim, this other one is Jewish?" he said. "Never have these communities created issues for the city."

He says that cultural diversity is a great asset for Quebec City, and that he hopes the urban centre will continue to be an international hub where people from all ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds can live together harmoniously.

"It's up to us to build these bridges, to bring people together," he said.

Creating a space for young people and the LGBTQ community

Salem Billard, a non-binary candidate for Transition Québec who uses the pronouns they/them, wanted to run in the election to show that people like them belong in municipal politics.

"Around all of my social media, I'm taken less seriously because I'm non-binary, because I'm young, because I was born a woman," they said.

It made them realize their presence was needed, they said. "I need to show the world that we are still people."

One of their main goals is to make the city more inclusive for non-binary and transgender people. For example, they want to add more gender options on municipal forms, and enable residents to use their preferred name instead of their legal name.

Franca G. Mignacca/CBC
Franca G. Mignacca/CBC

This is the first time Billard will participate in a municipal election. The 22-year-old had never so much as voted until now, because they felt no one properly represented them.

"I want to build a safer place for [the LGBTQ community]," they said. "I want to make sure that … they feel safe about their political environment."

Billard says their age doesn't make them any less qualified for the job though. They are an intervention worker, who has experience working with homeless people, survivors of domestic violence and people living with HIV/AIDS.

Quebec City residents will head to the polls on November 7.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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