This past Wednesday April 17th marked two weeks since the Daughters of the Vote 2019, 338 delegates, took seats at the Parliament Hill of Canada for the second time. For the second time in history, the House of Commons was filled with only young women and non-binary folk from all across Canada.
Daughters of the Vote (DoV) is organized by Equal Voice, a multi-partisan organization with the purpose of promoting women’s participation in politics. Through this initiative they bring a young leader (who identifies as female or non binary) from each riding in Canada to represent their Member of Parliament at the House of Commons during the DoV summit. Though it meant to be a model for reality, unfortunately it does not reflect our real caucus. In the 2015 federal election, only 26% of the 338 federal seats were held by women.
It honestly was quite a week for all of us in Ottawa (April 1st – April 4th). A free trip is never a chance to miss, but most importantly, we got to meet some of the most powerful leaders that are currently in governance. But- I made a tough decision in sacrificing time right before exams and handing in assignments late to be a part of this historic experience- but was it worth it?
This is a personal reflection looking back to the week.
It was an honour and privilege for me to represent Toronto Centre and taking the seat of the Honourable Bill Morneau, the Minister of Finance for Canada. It almost felt surreal to think that it is possible for a young, marginalized Muslim woman to take this seat at the House of Commons. It would be even more surreal, to actually have a visible female minority in the near future take the seat for an entire term.
To be very honest, I am not the most active when it comes to civic and political engagement- regarding the governing body specifically, however I am somewhat aware of what’s going on. The most intriguing part for me was the fact that this program was about to bring 338 strong youth leaders from across the country that are making changes in their own communities right now, together in one hall. If I have learned anything from my last few years of community service work, it is that change only happens when everyone works together. And of course receiving a free trip to Ottawa for a week was the cherry on top! And….let’s not get into the story of how I submitted the application with 20 seconds to spare before the deadline. Yeah, so that happened!
I live in a community in Toronto called Regent Park, with almost 78% of its population composed of visible minorities, most being first and second generation-immigrants and refugees. At the age of 10, when I moved to Canada, I wondered why my parents were struggling to live from pay cheque to pay cheque despite them having been medical physicians back home. The truth simply is, is that our leaders don’t reflect the population they are representing. Bringing in skilled immigrants and not giving them opportunities to use their skills shows the lack of importance Canada places for innovation. As a daughter of an immigrant, a sister of an immigrant and a neighbour of an immigrant, I decided to attend this summit to question some of our leaders directly, for which I didn’t get much of an answer to unfortunately.
On our first day of the conference, we had an “Anti-oppression” workshop. Different people might have felt different, however for me personally, it raised a lot of questions. The idea of “being privileged” is much deeper and has more aspects that what we just see. It’s not only about race and gender, but it’s also about ableism, education, sexuality, ageism, socio-economic factors and much more.
In order to really get a grasp of a conflict we need to understand someone before expecting to be understood.
The idea of listening to others’ thoughts and building a safe space really carried me and pushed me through the conference. Even though I do strongly believe that listening to others is a fundamental step towards solving many conflicts, but it also started to raise some doubts. Are people really allowed to share what they believe in? If your definition of “safety and freedom of speech” is rooted in our community’s discrimination, should you really get a platform? Throughout the conference, it felt like there was always a barricade around the “safe space”. Were people really welcomed to share their stories without feeling judged? And most importantly, were the people who were in need of this workshop truly attending it with an open heart? What is really deemed a safe space? There were a number of incidents where a lot of my sisters, delegates, felt like they were being “bullied” by other delegates because of their beliefs and values.
Everyone is fighting for their identity, individuality and space in this country, but how do we build that space when we are constantly being tokenized? How do we work on our identity when our identities are being questioned?
As we all know, the most looked forward to moment for us was to take our seats at the House of Commons which happened on Day 3. Waking up with a terrible fever in the morning, it was an honest struggle to get out of bed and make it to the West Block of Parliament Hill at 8:30 am. But ooh boy! I am glad that I was able to push through and ready to witness some of the most politically iconic moments of my life.
Power in Unity, No Apologies
Sitting at the HOC and listening to my fellow delegates bring up issues that are so dear to their heart was extremely powerful. However, there was one specific moment where I basically lost control of my tears (uh, a tissue paper sponsorship would be nice next time!). The most prevailing moment from this entire experience was when our very first delegate, Kailey Arthurson from Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, spoke about the systematic injustice the Indigenous communities have faced from the Canadian Government. As she was addressing the HOC, her baby who was also in the chamber, had started to cry. The most moving part was that not only did she not lose her focus at all, she also did not even remotely apologize for any inconvenience.
For me personally, she reminded me what it means to be a warrior for your community, to represent the next generation unapologetically, and to embrace many roles as a strong woman and a leader.
Protect vs Protest?
We were also addressed by all the party leaders about women’s participation in political leadership. When the leader of the Official Opposition Party, Andrew Scheer, walked in, quite a few of my fellow delegates walked out to protest against his beliefs and his association with white supremacy, racism and misogyny.
I have been asked numerous times on social media, by my family and team if I walked out or not. I did not walk out. Why did I not walk out? I was there as a Delegate of Daughter of the Vote and I had a responsibility. I was there on behalf of my entire community and riding, not just as an individual, nor just on behalf of Youth Gravity. It was a privilege for me to sit there as a Muslim, a racialized young woman; as a visible minority. At that very specific moment, I chose to reject him with silence by not clapping or standing up at all.I chose to stay to let him know that we are not here to give up our space and let him do whatever he wants to do or say.
I chose to stay because my layers of identities taught me to be unapologetic for who I am, but apologize when I do wrong.
Andrew Scheer, the leader of Conservative Party, should be the one leaving the space, NOT us. I had to build a space for myself to take that seat. And I don’t allow anyone to take that away from me.
When the Rt. Honourable Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, walked in, a lot of my fellow delegates stood up and turned their back towards him as the protest was started by some of my indigenous sisters. I decided to not stand up and as the decision was going through my mind, I was almost in tears. Different people stood up for different reasons, some stood up to protest against his decision of ejecting Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott; others stood up to protest against his pipeline decision in BC, others stood up to protest against Canadian government’s mistreatment of indigenous communities, and there were a few more reasons. I felt the pressure at that moment, as well as after when I was called out by some of my fellow delegates for not standing up or walking out.
Are we trusting the wrong person to lead our country? I went through the dilemma of choosing to stand up or not. People gave him the space to speak his thoughts by not leaving space, just how the government had done the same to their people.
I completely and wholeheartedly agree that this government (among many others) did screw up, and there’s so much more to do. But, we also have to remind ourselves that we have to recognize what we need to protect. In this case, it is what this government has done so far for some of the communities. This is the same government that has supported my Syrian refugee brothers and sisters to come to Canada. This is the same government that gave the most recognition to immigrants and refugees than any other government had, as opposed to Harper’s Conservative Govt that had almost banned the niqab. This is the same government that has given us, students, promising federal grant for our post-secondary education. We need that grant now more than ever, with the new provincial government (Ontario’s Ford Gov’t) that was voted in on revenge of the past mistakes. Today’s Youth have been involved a lot more during this government than they ever have before. The Land Acknowledgement is a very small step towards reconciliation, however it is a step none the less. No other government has even taken that. We have to keep all these changes and fight for even larger ones. But, how will we keep it when we know any slip of our feet means a repeat in history, of electing a PM who will not only oppose all these changes but who will also take us back in time by decades. It has been extremely difficult to really get a grip of where we should really take a stand knowing that anything can hurt my own family and my community, I have lost sleep and appetite because of the the anxiety regarding our next federal election.
Hello…I am a mini-version of you
Throughout the conference, roughly 84 MPs showed up to the dinner or the HOC sitting to support delegates, however my MP Mr. Morneau never took the time to reach out to me or support me at any of the events, until I personally emailed the team and let them know how I had felt. Yeah, we ended up having a meeting. I was able to ask him a few questions (3 to be exact) on behalf of my family and also my team. But, the best thing that came out of that meeting is that out of my 34 followers on Twitter, the Finance Minister is now officially one of them. Just saying.
Following the meeting, on a social media post made by the Minister, I had received almost 300 comments and a few tweets on how Islam is just oppressing women and how Sharia Law should be illegal- (all minor issues). However, it seemed like most of the remarks were either towards the Liberal Party or Islam in itself, not directly at me. As unfortunate as it sounds, I already saw this coming and honestly, by now, though I should not be- I feel like I am really used to hearing these negative remarks about my background or my religion. However, my heart absolutely aches for my Edmonton hijabi sisters who have been targeted specifically by a page that promotes white supremacy.
One of the best things that I was able to take away from this conference was that now I know that I can connect with a sister from almost any corner of this country. Going into the conference, I felt overwhelmed knowing that there are so many strong women as leaders that I want to connect with, and how would I even do that? During breakfast of the first day, as we were learning about each other and it hit us at one point that women leadership is about empowering and lifting each other up.
I would make a huge mistake if I didn’t give a huge shout out to all the volunteers who worked day and night to make this conference as powerful and empowering as possible. There are elements of this conference that I will cherish for as long as I live, including my super incredible roommate. Even though it has impacted all of us in different ways, this experience however, was not as empowering as I expected it to be. There were moments when it felt like my voices was just going into a vacuum and nothing was being heard. There were other times when anxiety took over and didn’t let me speak up or learn more new things.
After this experience, one might ask will I ever run for elected officials? Unfortunately the answer remains a firm NO! However, this experience has definitely made me more aware of the various political situations going on around us throughout this country, which I think was a success to their purpose. By the way, did you know that Newfoundland was a country by itself BEFORE JOINING CANADA?!! (yeah, it’s a miracle I passed Grade 10 History.)
To sum it all up, well yes this conference reminded how truly f***ed up politics can be (internally and externally), but on the other hand, some of the MPs did remind me of why we need more of us taking those seats and fight for our communities. It has been difficult to go back to regular daily life-style after the conference ended, but- it is what it is. If you need me back on the ground, I will come back to fight again to make this experience worthwhile for our next cohort. This conference taught me love, patience and pain. I’ve loved and I’ve lost. But that’s not what I see. I am so grateful for my ex(periences). And conferences truly teach me something new and give me the chance to meet other like-minded individuals, so now, I can finally, truly, and officially say: thank you, next! ( Ariana Grande, Nov 30 2018)
Ariana Grande. “Ariana Grande – thank u, next.” Online music video clip. Youtube, 30 November 2018. Web.