Why the federal leadership races of Annamie Paul and Leslyn Lewis matter

OPINION: Two 2020 races demonstrate not only that more women are needed in politics — but also that more Black women are needed in politics and in leadership roles
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on Jul 28, 2020
Annamie Paul (left) is a leadership candidate for the Green party; Leslyn Lewis is a leadership candidate for the Conservative party. (Facebook)

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When Annamie Paul decided to run for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada, she had perhaps considered the hateful vitriol she might face as a Black Jewish woman. After all, she founded the Canadian Centre for Political Leadership, “a non-partisan charity that trained women and under-represented minorities to run for elected office.”

Maybe she considered the 2018 Amnesty International report that found that, while “abuse is targeted at women across the political spectrum, women of color were much more likely to be impacted and black women are disproportionately targeted.” And perhaps she considered that, as a Black woman running in a country that has historically elected white men, it would be an uphill battle. She ran anyway.

With a law degree from the University of Ottawa and a master’s degree from Princeton University, Paul had the education, the experience, and the ambition.

“I trained as a policy analyst,” she said in an interview with Steve Paikin on The Agenda earlier this year. “I did both of those degrees exactly because I always knew I wanted to be involved in public policy, and, at this moment in time, with these unprecedented challenges, it was really clear to me that the Green party was at the cutting edge of those solutions, and I always wanted to be a part of that.”

And, yet, last week, during a virtual town-hall debate, she was subjected to racist and anti-Semitic hate. In a tweet, she wrote: “Tonight's @CanadianGreens debate was interrupted by chat calling me "N*GGER" and another "F*cking jew." My kids were watching. As a Black Jewish candidate, I've been subject to months of anti-Semitic & racist attacks. Party silence emboldened hate. It ends when I win.”

An anti-Semitic slur was also directed at Meryam Haddad, another candidate who is running alongside Paul.

While the Green party condemned the online attacks and said that the comments had not been made by party members, executive director Prateek Awasthi has since tweeted, “Correction: It appears the perps used bots and fake IDs so we cannot be entirely sure of who was behind these attacks. We’re in contact with the Ottawa Police and the RCMP (who we still want to defund ️). Regardless, we’ll be better prepared next time!”

Leslyn Lewis is also running for leadership of a federal party. She is the first Black candidate to run to lead the Conservative Party of Canada. Lewis earned multiple degrees from the University of Toronto and York University, has credentials in environmental studies, and opened her own law firm. According to a profile of Lewis in Maclean’s, “A poll commissioned by her campaign showed that Canadians, writ large, overwhelmingly preferred a Conservative Party leader who fit her description — ‘Female. Lawyer and entrepreneur. Ph.D. in law and a master’s in environmental studies. Visible minority’ — over those of her opponents.”

Yet Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole have already been declared the frontrunners.

Like Paul, Lewis has been subjected to racism.

During a recent online debate, racial slurs were posted. The following day, Lewis released a statement that said, in part: “The racist comments during last night’s debate which were directed at me, Black people and Jewish people were sadly not surprising …This past week we saw much more blatant displays of antisemitism in Toronto, and it has not been an irregular occurrence for me to encounter racist individuals during this campaign.”

Paul’s and Lewis’s leadership runs should be making the news for their historical significance — not because of bigotry and anti-Semitism.

Women have long been told that they’re not welcome in politics, but why aren’t we talking about how other groups are kept out?

It’s been 45 years since a Black woman ran for leader of a federal party, and, this year, two Black women from two different parties are vying for that position.

Rosemary Brown made history many times over. In 1972, she became the first Black woman to be elected to a provincial legislature. In 1975, she became the first Black woman — and the second woman, after Mary Walker-Sawka — to run for leader of a federal party. With the slogan “Brown Is Beautiful,” she finished second only to Ed Broadbent for the leadership of the NDP.    

That was 45 years ago. While it shouldn’t have taken more than four decades for this to happen, these 2020 races demonstrate not only that more women are needed in politics, but also that more Black women are needed in politics and in leadership roles.

It shouldn’t have to be said, but no community is a monolith, and the Black community is no exception. Yet, in every election, Black voters are left with very few options to consider when casting a vote. As Vicky Mochama noted in the Globe and Mail in the lead-up to the last federal election, “For all the history – deep, diverse and dispersed – black political life has remained separate from politics in Canada. Despite an unbroken presence in the country, the fortunes and well-being of black people have risen, stagnated and, in some ways, reversed. And our political leaders don’t seem to care.”

When it comes to the two most visible and powerful parties in the country, on the one hand, you have a Liberal prime minister who has worn Blackface more times than he can remember — and, on the other, a Conservative party that is adept at using dog whistles. So which party do you turn to if you’re from a marginalized and disenfranchised community and you don’t want your humanity up for debate? The NDP?

One party to choose from does not a choice make. And, again, no group is a monolith. Voters cast their ballots for various reasons: they’re not motivated solely by one specific thing (see how white women voted in the United States election). Yet Black voters are not treated as a multifaceted and diverse group, but as one entity. And often as an afterthought.

(As Mochama observes in her column, the “casual assumption that all Black people are left and Liberal voters is common. But if you think Black voters are solely progressive liberals then you haven’t met a lot of my uncles” — or mine.)

That’s why it’s important that Lewis is running for a party that many see as one that would rather court the far right than engage with racialized voters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lewis is running for the Conservatives — after all, it was with them that Lincoln Alexander made history.

“They want to put me in a corner and define what my Blackness is, which is basically silencing me,” she told Maclean’s. “I think that as a person of colour and a conservative, I have a right to define who I am. And I don’t feel that I need to fit into any box.”

In this global conversation of Black Lives Matter and anti-Black racism, it is now more important than ever to talk about the importance of policy and who and what is shaping that policy. Protests are of little value when those in decision-making positions are less than motivated, either because of a lack of lived experience or political will, to enact policies that ensure justice for all.

Whatever happens with the upcoming elections, hopefully it won’t take another 45 years for another Black woman to run for leadership.

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