She’s only 31 years old. She came to Canada as a refugee from Eritrea and grew up in Toronto Community Housing in the northwest end of the city.
Despite the challenges she faced early in her life, Saron Gebresellassi became a lawyer, started her own law firm, and championed some high-profile civil-rights cases. Then, in last month’s Toronto mayoral election, she convinced more than 15,000 people to vote for her. She placed fourth — behind John Tory, Jennifer Keesmaat, and Faith Goldy — and notwithstanding the obstacles her campaign failed to overcome, she couldn’t sound more excited about her political future.
“It was 100 per cent worth doing,” Gebresellassi told me last week. “One hundred per cent, I will run again.”
In fact, Gebresellassi has already decided that she’ll contest the Parkdale–High Park NDP nomination in hopes of running in the October 2019 federal election (she was inspired by the example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, at 29, will become the youngest woman ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives).
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“The only way to get more women running is to trample over the gatekeepers,” she says, referring to backroom folks in political parties, big players in the union movement, and the media.
While Tory and Keesmaat captured most of the public spotlight — and invitations to mayoral debates — Gebresellassi garnered more than her share of attention within the second tier of candidates.
“We had a global following,” she says. “I got messages from Berlin, from Nairobi, from Johannesburg, from Portland, Oregon. People saw something symbolic happening.”
Had she won, Gebresellassi would have become the youngest mayor in Toronto’s 184-year history. She also would’ve been the first person of colour to hold the job, and just the third woman. She ultimately fell well short (John Tory, for example, garnered nearly 480,000 votes), but the experience clearly ignited in Gebresellassi an ambition for political success.
“Political parties cherry-pick candidates and the gates get locked,” she says. “But then along comes a locksmith like me and disrupts things.”
Gebresellassi first made a name for herself at 15; she was the youngest member of an African-Canadian delegation focused on eradicating gun violence. She met with Prime Minister Paul Martin and was mentioned in the United Nations General Assembly. She later provided legal counsel to Black Lives Matter, and she continues to champion human-rights cases.
She plans to go to British Columbia next month to campaign for federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh in the Burnaby South byelection, which has yet to be called.
“He needs something drastic to change on the ground if he’s going to have a chance to become prime minister,” Gebresellassi says. “People need to get to the conclusion that a visible minority can become prime minister of Canada.”
While Gebresellassi enjoyed the experience of running for mayor, she was also disheartened to see Faith Goldy, a far-right white nationalist, receive 10,000 more votes than she did.
“It hurts Toronto’s reputation to see a neo-Nazi sympathizer do so well,” she says.
Gebresellassi acknowledges that she’ll have to pick up her game if she’s going to win in politics. Fundraising was almost non-existent for her mayoral bid. Her sister served as campaign manager, and her parents, who also live in Toronto, were enlisted into the cause.
But, she says, “there’s no question I now have a global following” — not boastfully but matter-of-factly. “And when I win, I will bring something very unconventional to the table.”