'Time to go': Parliamentary Black caucus starts a new chapter as Greg Fergus leaves

·6 min read
Liberal MP Greg Fergus makes as announcement about the Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub at Carleton University in Ottawa on Dec. 13, 2021. (CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle - image credit)
Liberal MP Greg Fergus makes as announcement about the Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub at Carleton University in Ottawa on Dec. 13, 2021. (CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle - image credit)

Greg Fergus is stepping down from his dual roles as co-chair of the Parliamentary Black Caucus and head of the Liberal Black Caucus — groups whose advocacy has more than once turned into government policy.

Fergus departs both the PBC and the LBC after six years of representing Black MPs, senators and staffers on Parliament Hill. Fergus said he's making room for a new generation of Black parliamentarians.

"It was just time to go," Fergus told CBC News.

Fergus, a parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said he has a new role in government now — one that involves working with experts and think tanks which forecast trends to understand "where the puck is going" on issues like new technology, equality and climate change. He said he'll present his findings to cabinet.

As Fergus departs, he leaves behind an entity whose work has moved the needle on government policy for Black Canadians — but has also been accused of being too status-quo.

How it began

In 2015, Fergus joined a wave of new Liberal MPs going to Ottawa for the first time.

"Well, the very next day, I was flooded with phone calls from Black Canadians across the country," Fergus said, adding that he wasn't considered "a star candidate."

He said he heard from people across the country telling him how "amazing" it felt to see a Black Canadian take a seat in the Commons.

Fergus said that experience was shared by other newly elected Black Liberal MPs like Ahmed Hussen and Celina Caesar-Chavannes, and by veterans Emmanuel Dubourg and Hedy Fry.

From there, the LBC formed to advocate for the needs of 1.2 million Canadians — everyone from Black Nova Scotians with roots in this country going back 400 years to West Africans recently arrived in Canada.

The Black caucuses welcome non-Black parliamentarians and political staffers to join their meetings. Former Liberal staffer Allen Alexandre remembers a visit from U.S. President Barack Obama as a powerful moment.

"I think there was a sense of history weighing down on us," said Alexandre, who served in senior roles for several cabinet ministers and was a member of the LBC as a staffer.

Over time, a multipartisan and bicameral PBC was created to include MPs and senators from multiple parties.

Black caucus finds its feet during scandal

The idea of a formal group of Black legislators is not new. The U.S. Congress has a similar body that started back in 1971. It's committed to issues like criminal justice reform, fighting voter suppression and American foreign policy in Africa.

Its younger Canadian cousin lacks a social media presence, a website and stated public objectives. Canada's PBC also doesn't regularly report on the progress it has made in achieving its objectives.

The LBC, meanwhile, rallied support behind various causes — getting the first Canadian banknote featuring a Black Canadian woman (Viola Desmond), getting the Canadian government to recognize the United Nations Decade for Canadians of African Descent — and praised Trudeau for his statements acknowledging anti-Black racism.

But Trudeau himself had some explaining to do after images of past appearances by him in blackface and brownface makeup came to light. Trudeau apologized for the photos, called them "embarrassing" and said he was angry with himself for not recognizing the impact they could have.

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Fergus was criticized at the time for publicly standing by Trudeau. "Fergus made himself an agent of colonialism," wrote Erica Ifill, an economist and one of Canada's few Black political columnists, "and allowed himself to be used as window-dressing, or the Black face of a scandal involving blackface."

Alexandre, a senior staffer to ministers, said he saw it differently. Although he and others were disappointed with Trudeau, he said, many still believed he genuinely cared about the problems Black Canadians face and saw the scandal as a moment for meaningful action.

"I do believe that had it not been for blackface, the acceleration that we saw in the pace of addressing issues would not have actually happened in such a short, short period," Alexandre said.

Immediately after the 2019 election, Trudeau appointed Bardish Chagger as minister of diversity and inclusion. Alexandre worked with Chagger.

In 2020, months after the blackface scandal, the Black Lives Matter protests exploded around North America. The murder of George Floyd distilled what racialized communities knew about their experiences of violence at the hands of police. It also exposed systemic racism in institutions — including the federal government.

In response, the PBC issued more than forty calls to action to the government, including diversifying the public service and police and justice system reform. Last year, a CBC analysis determined that the government had made progress on more than half of the calls to action.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Some might see this as a success, but it's one Fergus said doesn't belong to him alone.

"There's an old line: 'You can get anything done in Ottawa as long as you are not willing to take credit,'" Fergus said.

The next generation

At 27, Arielle Kayabaga made waves by becoming the first Black woman elected to London City Council. The bilingual millennial made the switch to federal politics after a late-night phone call from Fergus.

"He was like, 'Sister, I need to talk to you,"' Kayabaga said. "His words were so shocking to me that I was like, 'Let me call you back.'"

Kayabaga said Fergus urged her to run after the Liberal incumbent in London West stepped down — and reminded her that such opportunities are rare.

"They say for women, you got to ask them seven times before they agree to run. Nobody is going to ask a Black woman to run seven times," Kayabaga said.

Now an MP in Ottawa, Kayabaga is following in Fergus' footsteps by taking over as chair of the LBC.

The PBC will elect its next House leader at its next meeting, which is not yet scheduled. Fergus leaves his post as the PBC's Commons chair; his counterpart, Rosemarie Moodie, remains the Senate co-chair while the caucus searches for a new House leader.

"There is nothing inherently sexy or powerful about [the job]," Alexandre said.

The role requires people who can bear up under sometimes conflicting pressures, he said — between party loyalty, government accountability and the high expectations held by the community.

But when those pressures are successfully managed, Alexandre said, caucuses like the LBC and PBC can exemplify how Parliament ought to work.

"It puts a little bit more power into the hands of caucuses, whether they are regional, whether they're issues-based, whether they're religious-based," Alexandre said. "I think the Black caucus really becomes a model that can be emulated."

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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CBC
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