A newly formed organization is encouraging Black people in Western and Northern Canada to run for office and get more involved in electoral politics.
Throughout March, Black Voters Matter Canada will be hosting an event series offering opportunities for potential Black candidates to network, ask questions and learn about the process of running a campaign.
The series will feature national chair of the Conservative Black Congress of Canada Tunde Obasan, NDP member of Parliament Matthew Green, Ontario representative to the Green Party of Canada Federal Council Adrian Currie and Liberal member of Parliament Greg Fergus.
Juliet Bushi, a co-founder and organizer of Black Voters Matter Canada, hopes this event series will help lower some of the barriers to Black candidates running for office.
Last year, Bushi herself ran a successful campaign for Regina Catholic School Division trustee, becoming the first Black woman elected to the role. She believes Saskatchewan politics would benefit from more Black candidates participating at every level.
"Given that our population in Saskatchewan is increasing, we need better representation and equal voices at the table, especially given the current pandemic as well as the unending social inequalities that continue to plague our society," she said.
For Petros Kusmu, also a Black Voters Matter co-founder and organizer, these conversations are particularly important right now, when there are murmurs of a possible snap federal election in the spring.
"We know, historically, [a snap election] doesn't bode well for parties having more diverse candidates," he said. "We have to work with parties to help them scout some of the best-qualified Black candidates in the West and in the North.
"But we also have to engage with our communities and really start telling them … 'Hey, you're a pretty amazing person. You do a lot of great work in the community, You're a smart small-business owner. You're a brilliant teacher. You are the type of person that we think should be considering running for office.'"
In the 2019 federal election, there were no Black candidates in Saskatoon or Regina. In fact, the Black Voters Matter Canada event series does not feature any speakers from Saskatchewan because, according to Kusmu, "we don't have any of our own that we can claim here."
He says it's not just a matter of convincing more Black people to run — parties decide how much to support the candidates who do put their names forward.
"I think the challenge you often see is that you'll get a lot of diverse candidates who are then placed in areas, or encouraged to run in areas, where there isn't a shot of winning," he said.
Political engagement discouraged
While Black Voters Matter Canada is focused on all forms of civic engagement, not just supporting Black candidates for office, Bushi says a lack of meaningful representation on campaigns and in office can do a lot to reduce participation and erode confidence from marginalized communities.
"Oftentimes, politics — and especially campaign slogans — become redundant and quite boring for a lot of marginalized people, because it's the same thing over and over again," she said.
"And once that election is done, they're gone with their promises. So people are discouraged to actually get interested and active and engaged in politics."
Kusmu believes all Canadians would benefit from having more diverse political representation, and that Western Canada is particularly ready to see more Black people run for office and win seats.
He points to Leslyn Lewis, who recently ran for the federal Conservative Party leadership, as an example.
"She was so popular out in the Prairies and in Western Canada — which was a surprise, because she's from Ontario — that the Saskatchewan Conservatives threw their support behind her.
"And there are so many more Dr. Leslyn Lewises and future potential Barack Obamas that are hidden gems here in the West and North."
Kusmu hopes Black Voters Matter Canada will help cultivate "a larger growing garden of amazing Black leaders for Canadians to have the pleasure of picking from" as more Black candidates get the resources, information and support they need to throw their hat into the ring.
"For Black folks who are thinking about running, I want to remind them that no one Black candidate is coming to save us," he said.
"We are the ones we have been waiting for, in terms of who is going to be in office to help change things. It's not going to be the silver bullet, but it's going to be part of this transformation of having a more just and more equitable Canada at the end of the day."