For women of colour in Quebec politics, progress 'remains fragile,' MNA warns

·4 min read
Ruba Ghazal, the Québec Solidaire environment critic and MNA for the Mercier electoral district says it's important for her to talk about the need for better representation of women and people of colour in Quebec politics. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Ruba Ghazal, the Québec Solidaire environment critic and MNA for the Mercier electoral district says it's important for her to talk about the need for better representation of women and people of colour in Quebec politics. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Ruba Ghazal's family wasn't big on politics — they'd already fled two countries because of them. So it was a course in high school about social involvement that Ghazal says awoke something in her.

"I liked participating, and then I liked history. Eventually, I was the one who would explain Quebec politics to my parents," Ghazal said.

But it's when she got to university that Ghazal became more involved in causes she cared about, eventually obtaining a master's degree in environmental studies.

Ghazal is now the environment critic for Quebec Solidaire and the MNA for Montreal's Mercier electoral district, which covers much of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough.

Ghazal is taking part in an online talk on women in politics and women of colour in politics this Thursday, in honour of International Women's Day.

The talk, dubbed Politiqu'Elle, is organized by Hanadi Saad, founder of Justice Femme, an organization that helps defend women from minority backgrounds against harassment in Quebec and which rose to prominence when the CAQ government tabled Bill 21 in 2019.

Now law, Bill 21 bars public school teachers, as well as police officers, government lawyers and some civil servants, from wearing religious symbols — such as hijabs or turbans — while at work.

The law was passed last year despite protests from civil rights groups and religious minorities.

Saad says her advocacy work against Bill 21 and the effects of its debate (which she says prompted hundreds of Muslim women to report being harassed in the street to her organization) made her realize just how much Quebec politics lacked Muslim women, and women of colour more generally.

"It's really clear there is a problem," Saad said. "Someone who is born here, who is not from an immigrant family, cannot understand what an immigrant is living."

Saad says Quebec lacks politicians who know their constituents and the issues they face intimately.

"We need more politicians doing field work, knocking on doors," she said.

Hanadi Saad founded Justice Femme to help protect and defend Muslim women against islamophobic harassment.
Hanadi Saad founded Justice Femme to help protect and defend Muslim women against islamophobic harassment.(Submitted by Hanadi Saad)

'Nothing is guaranteed,' says MNA calling for structural change

Ghazal was born in Lebanon to a Palestinian family and grew up in the United Arab Emirates before they moved to Quebec when she was 10.

She says though environmental issues are her main focus in politics, she doesn't shy away from speaking about the need for more diversity in Quebec politics, as well as encouraging younger generations of underrepresented people to get involved.

In an article in the Canadian political publication Policy Options last week, Ghazal laid out the case for a proportional electoral system that would involve incentives for parties to name candidates that truly represent the population.

"If that doesn't exist, there will always be steps forward and then backward. Nothing is guaranteed," Ghazal said.

In the piece, Ghazal notes the state of representation in the National Assembly is better than it was before the last election, with eight per cent of MNAs being people of colour, compared to 13 per cent of the population. Forty three per cent of Quebec's MNAs are women.

"That progress remains fragile," Ghazal wrote.

The CAQ government tabled a bill to reform Quebec's electoral system and add more proportionality, Ghazal notes, but the bill hasn't yet been debated and she worries it will have fallen to the wayside after the pandemic.

She says it's in part thanks to Québec Solidaire's will to name candidates from underrepresented communities and hand them districts they have better chances of winning that she is now an MNA.

It's because of a lack of willpower to implement such practices within his party that Mohammed Barhone says he left the Quebec Liberal Party in 2020, after having served a number of roles for six years.

Barhone will also be speaking at Saad's event, as a kind of political insider who isn't under pressure to walk a party line.

"If there were more women of colour, more Indigenous women; if there were more Muslim women in decision-making roles, things would have taken a different turn," in the debate around Bill 21, said Barhone, who says his mother's struggles as a single parent raising three children in Morocco have made him sensitive to barriers women of colour face.

For Ghazal, there was a silver lining in it all: "It allowed women like Hanadi [Saad] to mobilize people and explain to them, 'Hey, you who has always felt far from politics (like my family), well, look, politicians are now voting a law that could prevent your daughters from teaching, for example.'"

That's why Ghazal says she continues to participate in talks like the one on Wednesday — even in places that may not involve her constituents — because maybe it will awaken something in a young person, like she once was.

"I like sharing my experience to show it's possible," she said.

Other speakers at the talk include former NDP candidate for Ahuntsic-Cartierville Zahia El Masri and Laval municipal councillor Sandra El Helou.