Do black votes matter? Reflections on Ottawa's municipal election

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I will be voting today but frankly, I am not even sure it matters. I feel awful saying this as someone who works at encouraging members of my low-income housing project to become more civically engaged. But as a young black woman, I really don't think my vote matters to politicians and despite the fact that I come from one of the largest visible minority communities in Ottawa, I also come from one of the poorest, and throughout this election I have heard politicians talking to those with wealth, those who own houses, those who earn enough disposable income to invest in their campaigns. Not people like me. But one positive aspect of this election has been the number of black candidates who are running.

Municipal politics is relatively easy for aspiring politicians as the registration fees are minimal, you don't have to get involved with party politics, riding associations, or winning a nomination. So for members of the black community who want to try their hand at politics, it would seem like a great place to start. However, according to Fred Sherman, former director of communications for The Honourable Jean Augustine, the first black cabinet minister, winning in a riding with an incumbent during a municipal election is almost impossible.

"It's all about name recognition," Sherman said, "Unless you have a great media strategy, people will vote for the name they know at the polls." The majority of the black candidates running in this election are hardly household names. A possible exception is Oni the Haitian Sensation, who is running in Bayward. Oni is an internationally renowned Haitian-Canadian spoken word artist who has performed for former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean and was the subject of a National Film Board of Canada documentary. She was also running in a riding without an incumbent, as Alex Cullen had decided to throw his hat in for mayor. Oni had a real chance. Then Cullen changed his mind and dropped out of the mayoral race.

Speaking in an August 31st interview with The Ottawa Citizen after learning that Cullen was returning to Bayward to run as the incumbent, Oni had this to say: "He told me he wasn't running and he encouraged me (to run). It was important to my decision. When you run as a candidate, it's an investment. I think it's really dishonest what he did. It's very dishonest, disappointing. It's not cool." As most of the other black candidates are running in ridings with incumbents, it doesn't look like Ottawa is going to see a black person elected to city council any time soon.

But I still am excited to see so many black candidates running as were the executive of Ottawa Young Black Professionals (OYBP) when they decided to showcase Ottawa's black candidates at a forum entitled Black Votes Matter. The original concept behind the forum was to have an opportunity to provide some basic civic education to members of Ottawa's black communities, many of whom, like me, are not so sure that their votes actually matter.

Unfortunately, the forum turned into more of an all candidates' debate after it was decided to open up the forum to all municipal candidates, not just the black ones. However, it did provide an opportunity for members of the black community to discuss their priorities with candidates. "It was surprising because transit didn't come up at all, unlike in most mainstream all candidates' debates we've seen," reflected Seyi Okuribido-Malcolm, an executive member of OYBP who helped organize the forum, "People were more concerned about youth engagement. They were asking the candidates what they were going to do to reach out to young voters." And for a community with almost half of its population under the age of 24, according to the 2006 Census, getting black youth out to vote is crucial.

While the spotlight has been on blacks running for city council, I've been particularly interested in the members of Ottawa's Somali community, the largest ethnic group among Ottawa's blacks, who are running for the position of School Trustee. Ismail Mohamed and Mohamoud Abdulle are running for positions with the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and Abdourahman Kahin is running for a position with Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario. Although certainly less high-profile, the power school trustees wield to determine the supports available for our children and youth is immense. With the recent move to cut funding for the Multicultural Liaison Program, a program which has been instrumental to the integration of Somali and other students coming from immigrant and refugee families into the public education system, members of the Somali community are now determined to place more school trustees in power who share their priorities.

So, we might not see any blacks elected to city council this year but we are a growing community and next municipal election, there will be many more members of our community who will have reached voting age. Now is the time to start working on their civic education. Now is the time to start working out what our priorities are as a community. Now is the time to start identifying our future leaders, the ones who have the charisma, knowledge, and perseverance to win a municipal election. Now is the time to start making black votes matter. All these incumbents do have to retire someday.

Chelby Marie Daigle lives in Ottawa and works with youth and immigrant communities. To learn more about her check out her writing at The Woyingi Blog.

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