Transcript: Bhutila Karpoche: Refugee to MPP | May 06, 2019

Welcome to the
a show all about--
drumroll, please...
(Drumming on table)
Is that..?
We can hear it.
Let's do that again.
A show all about...
drumroll, please.
(Drumroll sound effect)
...Ontario politics.
(Theme music playing)
I'm Steve Paikin.
And I'm John Michael McGrath.
Steve, this is episode four.
We're like halfway to becoming
good friends now.
What do you think?
Halfway to becoming
good friends?
Eh, three quarters.
I thought we were lifelong
besties, John Michael!
Come on, come on!
So last week we discussed which
of us is the bigger nerd,
but there's the bigger question
of why either of us are nerdy
about this particular topic of
Ontario provincial politics.
Right on.
Why are you such a nerd?
Why do you care so much about
politics, Steve?
Genetic defect, no doubt.
Something like that.
No, you know what, I grew
up in a house that was
small-p "political." My parents
were interested and active
in politics, although not in a
partisan way.
I think I take from them in
that regard.
But it was not unusual for them
to volunteer for friends'
campaigns, it was not unusual to
have the odd politician
drop by the house-- something
must have stuck along the way,
'cause I've just always been
interested in the people
who are in it, what motivates
them to do what they do,
how they make the decisions that
they make.
Um, you know, why turn left when
you could have turned right?
All of these decisions, just for
whatever reason, interest me.
And I've been lucky enough to
find a job
that lets me talk to these
people and ask them questions,
and try to find stuff out and
pass it on to other people.
We were driving to Ottawa once,
and my wife, uh, was asking me
to explain some issue-- my wife,
a writer, was incorporating
some kind of policy dispute into
one of her books, and so
she was just asking me to give
her a bit of the, sort of,
background to stuff, and after
about 30 minutes of talking,
she said "Okay, okay, I'm sorry
to distract you from driving."
And I said "No, you got me
explaining (bleep),
I'm never happier than when I'm
explaining (bleep) to people."
(Both laughing)
And I...
STEVE: Are you allowed to swear
on this podcast, though?
I guess podcasts-- you're
allowed to swear on podcasts.
Well-- whether TVO will allow us
to put this out or not
is another question.
STEVE: You might have just got
beeped, in other words.
You might have just got beeped.
But to your point about having
a great job, I mean,
I've always approached my
journalism as educational
in spirit, right? I-- There are
people who do great
investigative reporting, there
are people who do, you know,
great political reporting,
and I want to find that question
and, you know, maybe it's a
question everybody is asking.
Maybe it's a question that
nobody is asking,
but it fascinates me, and I want
to just answer it
and lay out the case for people.
Why do you care so much about
all these issues in general?
I mean, I know this about you,
you are a kind of
"nose in the middle of the
report, looking through
all the footnotes" kind of
nerdy, picayune...
Like, that's your thing.
I come to that because, I've
mentioned before, you know,
I came to Queen's Park after
reporting from City Hall.
And one of the really powerful
lessons you come away from,
especially, I think, municipal
is the details matter.
Really, really, um...
tiny, picayune details, uh, to
use your word,
can actually have big effects.
STEVE: So be honest, when you're
home on a Friday night--
(Both laughing)
Are you reading land use studies
or what's going on there?
There was-- okay.
There was a time a few weeks
ago where between
trying to watch an episode of
Star Trek
with my wife,
I was also reading about
case law
on the power of, uh,
like, parliamentary privilege.
Um, that--
that was not, admittedly, the
most exciting Friday night,
but I also have a young child,
and I'm really tired at the end
of the week.
I don't know, you know, I know
you a little bit, I think that
might be what constitutes an
exciting Friday night
in the McGrath household.
(John Michael laughing)
There are puzzles in politics.
So that Friday night example,
I was trying to answer the
question to myself of--
this is just after
MPP Randy Hillier
had been kicked out
of the Tory caucus,
and I was trying to answer
the question,
could he be expelled from
the legislature entirely,
and what kind of constraints
are there on...
the legislature's
ability to do that?
There's a whole ancient
principle of parliament
that actually they can kick
anybody out of the parliament
for any reason that they want.
But in Canada, there's also
a Charter of Rights,
so could parliament kick out an
MPP just because he's Jewish?
The ancient parliamentary
principle says "Sure you can."
The Charter of Rights says
you can't.
Which one of those wins, right?
And so I find myself on a Friday
night, digging through,
in this case it was
The Ottawa Law Review
trying to answer a question.
And that is why he is a bigger
political nerd than I am.
(John Michael laughing)
You win.
Says the guy who's written how
many books about Bill Davis?
STEVE: Just one... about him.
But he makes an appearance
in a few others.
You know, I think I've written
five books about politics,
and every single one is inspired
by a single quote
that Bill Davis gave me 34 years
ago in an interview
after he had left public life,
after we had torn down the
lights and put the cameras away,
so it wasn't even on camera.
It was a throwaway line at the
end of our interview,
as we were packing up,
getting ready to leave.
And I looked around his office,
he was a lawyer at the time
at Tory, Tory, DesLauriers and
Binnington, and I looked around
and I said "You know, you've got
a wonderful office here,
you make five times as much
money here as you did
when you were premier of
you see more of your own
grandchildren now
then you saw of your own
children when you were
premier of Ontario-- your life
is sane, you don't have to worry
about the government falling at
the end of the day--
this must be the best job
you've ever had."
I just put it to him like that.
And he said "Steven,
let me tell you something.
This job, on its best,
most fascinating day,
can't touch being premier of
Ontario on the dullest."
(John Michael chuckling)
And that quote just stuck
in my head,
and 15 years later,
based on that one quote,
I wrote a book about why people
go into public life,
and then another one after that
about the terrible things
that happen to them
when they go into public life,
and then a bio on John Robarts,
and a bio on Bill Davis,
Paikin And The
and-- and all stemming
from wanting to better
understand what motivates
and fascinates people by
and the people who play
that game.
So, Steve, who are you talking
to this week?
Well, this week we're gonna talk
to the rookie MPP
for Parkdale-High Park,
Bhutila Karpoche.
Her win in 2018 was historic
because she became
the first person of Tibetan
descent to hold office
anywhere in North America.
It's obviously a big deal to be
an elected official
when you grew up stateless.
Her family is from Nepal, where
Tibetans essentially
do not have access to
The Tibetan existence is one of
global diaspora.
Now for example,
the Toronto neighbourhood
of Parkdale-High Park, which is
Karpoche's riding, incidentally,
it is home to the largest
concentration of Tibetans
outside of Asia.
And back in Nepal, Karpoche
remembers hearing
about a local coffee shop on
Jameson Avenue, in Parkdale,
Toronto, that's how strong the
global ties are
in the Tibetan diaspora.
And now, John Michael, as fate
would have it, she is their MPP.
Here is a little snippet of our
crew setting up in her office
at Queen's Park,
and she arrives.
BHUTILA: Oh, hi!
STEVE: There you are, hi!
We just made ourselves at home.
BHUTILA: Oh, absolutely!
STEVE: So nice to meet you,
Steve Paikin is my name.
BHUTILA: Yes, of course.
Steve, you had an appointment.
Why did you have to tell her
your name?
Well, I'd never met her before!
And I wanted to introduce
myself, and a polite gentleman
introduces himself by extending
his right hand
and saying his name.
Now why did you introduced
yourself like you were
a mobster in the 1930s?
(Steve laughing)
"Steve Paikin's the name, see?"
STEVE: No, listen--
"Is this the end of Rico?"
That's reference that went over
the heads of everybody
under the age of 60 here,
but anyway--
Edward G. Robinson played a
mobster back in the day.
No, actually, go back
to the tape.
I said "Steve Paikin's my name."
Okay, fair enough. I am told by
the producers that there was
a poster hanging in her office
that stuck out to you.
Well, indeed, 'cause she had
a lot of posters on the walls
of her office, but there was one
in particular that stuck out,
and the letters "AOC"
were on the poster,
does that ring any bells for
you, John Michael?
It does, indeed. I believe
that's congresswoman
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Indeed, from New York State,
who is sort of the darling
of the social democratic world
right now.
Not just in the US, but beyond,
and I couldn't help but notice
that poster was there.
Are you Ontario's AOC, Bhutila?
Is that the idea?
Is that the idea behind this
(Bhutila chuckling)
Just trying to put some
inspiration in this office.
I see.
"Just a little inspiration"
is what she says.
Okay, so what else do we need to
know about Bhutila Karpoche?
Well, John Michael, her story
is not typical at all
for a politician, but for some,
it speaks to an ideal version
of the Canadian story.
She came to Canada with her
family as an
18-year-old refugee, and they
settled in pretty quickly.
She started to pursue a PhD in
public health
at the University of Toronto,
but she put that aside
to run in the June 2018
election, and she has gone,
if you can imagine this, from
refugee to MPP.
Well, thanks for having us here,
and let's start to tell
some of the Bhutila Karpoche
story, shall we?
Sounds good!
Let's start with the obvious,
where were you born?
In Nepal.
You're born in Nepal,
how many years ago?
And how much of your life did
you spend in Nepal?
18 years.
Where are your parents from?
And how did they end up
in Nepal?
So Tibet was invaded by China,
and in 1959
there was an uprising.
And many, many people
fled Tibet after that.
And so after the Dalai Lama fled
Tibet, many people followed,
and my parents and grandparents
were among the hundreds
and thousands of Tibetans
who fled Tibet
and ended up in Nepal.
Have you been to Tibet?
STEVE: You've never been?
No, and I'm not allowed to go.
Any desire to go?
What would you want to do if you
were there?
In Tibet? I would like to go
visit my parents' home towns,
and I just want to breathe the
air, I want to explore
the places I've heard about,
I've only ever imagined.
But you know, it would be great
to see if what I have
in my mind, the picture, the
dream that I have in my mind
reflects what it is.
Sadly, I know it won't, because
it has obviously changed a lot
since my parents were
last there.
Does it feel odd to be
a Tibetan, and yet,
never having been there?
(Bhutila chuckling)
Sadly this is a reality for
most Tibetans,
especially the diaspora outside
of Tibet.
Um, you know, home for us is
Tibet, but it's a home
in our imagination, in our
Um, in our hearts.
It's-- the only thing we know
about it is what we read
about it, what our parents or
grandparents tell us.
It feels very close,
even though it's such a distant
land to me, to us.
Have you met the Dalai Lama?
Yes, several times.
What was that like?
Well, the first time I met him
was when I was a high school
student, we did a school trip.
It was very emotional the first
time, because, you know,
for many Tibetans, the Dalai
Lama is both a spiritual
and a political leader.
And really it has been through
his leadership, you know,
as a representative of the
Tibetan people
around the world, and being
the kind of leader
that talks about compassion,
and about loving kindness,
that has really helped us
Tibetans be accepted.
So when I met him the first
time, I was just very emotional.
How old were you at the time?
I think I was about 16.
And where did it happen?
In India, in his residence.
And did you actually, you know,
get to shake his hand,
have a conversation with him,
the whole thing?
Yes, yes, picture, everything.
He's a-- I mean, this is an odd
thing to say about
a man of that significance, but
he's a very funny guy, isn't he?
He is, which is-- it's sort of,
especially as a Tibetan,
it's sort of hard to reconcile,
because, you know,
when you meet him in person, he
is-- and he will say this you,
"I'm just a simple monk." And it
feels like he's just another
human being who loves to laugh
and joke around, you know,
and is very happy.
Did he-- you pointed out he's a
political leader, did he have
any influence in where you have
obviously ended up?
Um, yeah, and I think that
as a Tibetan,
I don't know if you've heard
this, but there's a saying,
especially among younger
"Born a Tibetan, born an
And that's because for
many of us,
now three generations,
we are born as stateless
people, right?
Because we don't have a home
to go back to.
Tibet is not even recognized by
so many countries
around the world as a country.
And so where we are,
why we're born in places
that are far away from our
ancestral lands,
um, you know, the kind of
life we have,
is so much influenced
by the politics of Tibet,
and so it's almost by default
that we're born into politics.
So let me understand this
better, because you were born
and spent 18 years in Nepal.
But you don't feel Nepalese
at all?
Um, I have a very,
very soft spot for Nepal,
because that has been
really my home, right.
I spent my childhood there,
I mean, I spent a good chunk of
my life there.
But the reality is that as a
Tibetan who was born in Nepal,
given that Nepal was not a
signatory to the UN convention
on refugee rights,
given that Nepal is a
neighbouring country to China,
there were certain decisions,
political decisions
that the government of Nepal
made to not recognize
even somebody like me,
who was born in Nepal,
as having any rights or having
any hope in the future
to a pathway to becoming a
Nepali citizen, for example.
So you're not a citizen there.
No. And so, you know, these are
political decisions
that have shaped my life,
and you grow up
feeling, and you know,
a certain exclusion from
and so, you know, whenever
people ask me where I'm from,
it's always a very difficult
because I feel Tibetan, uh, and
my parents are from Tibet,
but I was born in Nepal, so it's
a very long story
that I have to explain.
But I do want to say that, you
know, the decisions
that the government make is very
different from the people,
and in Nepal, the Nepalese
are one of the most kind,
friendly people,
and they were good to us
as Tibetans
in their land, but government
decisions just always try
to exclude Tibetans from being
part of society.
Okay, you left at 18. How come?
A civil war broke out.
The Maoists were increasingly--
you know, they sort of
started in the rural areas, but
they were gaining traction
and more power. I don't know if
you recall,
but the monarchy fell, in fact,
the family was massacred.
So it was just a very, very
difficult time in Nepal,
and there was a mass exodus
from Nepal.
And you know, not just Tibetans,
but even Nepalese themselves.
How much of a discussion do you
recall having with your family
at that point as to whether
or not
you were going to stay or leave?
It was just "we're going?"
BHUTILA: It was everything, yes.
It was just "pick up your bags,
we're leaving,"
and it was just a matter
of days.
Did you know where for?
Where you were going to be
leaving for?
BHUTILA: Uh, no.
No, we didn't. I mean, I didn't
know much, other than,
you know, we had to leave Nepal.
And it was your father, your
mother, you, and siblings?
My siblings, yes.
STEVE: How many?
BHUTILA: We're four of us.
Four kids?
STEVE: Okay.
Where are you
in the birth order?
BHUTILA: Second.
STEVE: You're number two, okay.
So every-- you're deciding
"We all gotta leave,"
and which country did you leave
to first?
To the United States.
Where to?
To New York City.
Did you live in New York?
Uh, not really. It was more
a transition.
Through New York, we came
to Canada.
Okay, where-- I mean, that is
a classic story
that has been experienced by
millions of people
around the world, do you have
any recollections
of seeing Lady Liberty and if
that meant anything to you?
You know, I do have pictures,
but, um,
it was such a nervous time,
like, you know,
there's so much
um, and at that time, I'm sure,
like, my parents were thinking
"Let's do a tour, let's get to
see the city a little bit,
let's try to take the worries
out of our kids' minds.
Let's try to make them have
some fun," maybe.
I don't know, I'm guessing
that's probably what
they were thinking,
but it's hard to--
it's hard when your mind is so
occupied with all the questions
about what's going to
happen next,
and just being in this
completely foreign land
that you didn't know you were
going to go to,
and, you know, you're there now.
And you're a refugee.
Was it always the plan to go
from the United States
to Canada?
STEVE: How come?
Um, so we had heard--
and we did have already,
relatives here, in Canada,
in Toronto already.
But we had also heard that there
was a sizeable Tibetan community
in Toronto. In fact, it's
quite funny,
but I had heard about
Jameson Avenue.
You had heard--
From Parkdale.
You had heard, when you were
living in New York
about Jameson Avenue?
BHUTILA: No, in Nepal.
You had heard from Nepal about
Jameson Avenue
in the West End of Toronto?
Yes, in Parkdale. Yeah.
And Jason's Coffee Shop,
because Jason's Coffee Shop
is the place in Parkdale where
lots of Tibetans frequented
to just, you know, catch up on
Tibetan world news.
I cannot believe you had heard
about a West End coffee shop
from-- in Toronto, when you were
living in Nepal.
That's right.
And you represent that part of
the province now.
I know! Isn't that wild?
That is wild. Yes it is,
yes it is.
All right, let's continue
the story.
So you end up in Fort Erie.
And then how long before you
come to Toronto?
Oh, immediately, yeah.
Immediately. All right.
and your family establishes
itself in Toronto.
BHUTILA: Yes, Parkdale.
And you're 18 years old, I
guess? And what do you do now?
Well, that's the thing. And for
me, personally,
I just remember, like,
my first full day in Canada
coincidentally happened to be
Canada Day.
I didn't know it, that it was
Canada Day, but it was July 1st.
STEVE: What year?
BHUTILA: 2002.
July 1st, 2002 was your first
full day in Canada.
Yes, and I didn't know it was
Canada Day.
I just saw people out on the
streets, you know.
It was a beautiful summer day,
everybody was in a great mood,
STEVE: Flags flying.
Yeah, and I thought "this is
just another day in Canada!
This is great!"
(Both laughing)
So my first impression was "it's
such a happy place.
And people are happy."
That's a very nice first
impression to have of the place.
How long before you realized
"Eh, it's not quite like that
every day of the year."
I think a few days later.
STEVE: A few days.
And was the idea-- so it's
summer time right now.
So at that point, do you-- are
you planning to go
to post-secondary in the fall,
or what's the plan?
Well, I always knew I wanted to
go to university,
but before that, there's a
longer process
in terms of going through our
immigration paperwork,
and so by January.
I was able to start university.
Uh, at what point are you sort
of getting the idea of
"I think I want to be
a Canadian,
here's what I think I want to
do with my life."
You get established at a certain
point, when was that?
Oh my gosh, almost immediately.
And I think it's
also because of the really
warm welcome I felt in
the neighbourhood, in Parkdale.
I just-- I just have like,
all these images
in my memories of, you know,
seeing Tibetan seniors
walking down Queen Street
or Jameson
with their traditional
Tibetan outfits.
And I remember seeing so many
roti shops, and, you know,
young, um--
young kids, my age,
teenagers who were, you know,
of Tamil descent, going to
school and I--
I immediately saw the diversity
of our community,
and we had fantastic neighbours,
and of course,
great community organizations
that was there
to support newcomers,
settle and integrate.
And you know, that kind of
support from the community
really made me so hopeful that
despite all the challenges
that may come along the way,
I just knew that
at the end of the day, things
were going to be okay.
That sense of belonging
was very, very powerful.
And I just-- I just knew that
I was meant to be here,
and that I-- it was a dream to
become a Canadian citizen.
When did that happen?
I have had the privilege
on a few occasions
of having presided over
those ceremonies,
where you ask a whole group
of people, 150, 200 people
to hold up their hand
and say the oath,
take the citizenship oath,
and I found it astonishingly
and emotional, and I remember
the first time I did it,
I nearly--
like, my voice cracked.
When I asked people to, you
know, swear an oath to the Queen
and to Canada, and I was
surprised at how powerful
that moment was. 'Cause a lot of
us who were born here
tend to not think about
that moment.
But does that moment stay with
you? Do you remember it well?
Oh of course, and I just
remember, also,
that it was very important for
me to sing the national anthem
and to know the lyrics of it,
and you know, it was--
I think, also, I think you have
to understand that
we're talking about three
generations of being stateless.
Of not having any government
give you rights.
And then all of a sudden, it's
happening, it's real.
And you know, it's a great--
it's a great moment
in not just my life, but our
family's life history.
You all took the oath together,
I guess?
No, it was separate times.
Okay, so did you do it alone?
STEVE: You did, okay.
Who did it first?
Oh... I think I was the first?
You were the first to become a
Canadian citizen in the family?
I'm just trying to recall?
I think I was the first, yeah.
So that gives you,
sort of, bragging rights
in the pecking order.
BHUTILA (Laughing):
I guess!
I've never used it, I should!
That's why I'm here, to help,
you know.
Okay, all right, so you're a
Canadian citizen.
At what point do you start
to decide
"here's what I want to do
with my life?"
Well, actually, so for me, I've
always been interested
in health as an issue,
and so I did the typical
bachelor of science in my
trying to explore the health
Where was that?
At UBC in Vancouver.
And after that, I, um,
I did my Master's in public
health at U of T,
just down the street, actually.
And I--
I started out in
the epidemiology stream,
which is very technical,
and I'm actually trained
as an epidemiologist,
but the more and more I studied
and learned about public health,
I was convinced,
at the end of the day,
health is a political decision.
And the politics of health
really dictates health outcomes
of people and communities,
and the population.
So I was increasingly
attracted to policy.
And I saw the potency of policy,
and really, keeping people
healthy, you know.
In the field of public health,
it's very well known
and accepted that an
overwhelming percentage
of your health is determined by
social factors, like housing--
The social determinants of
health, as they call them.
Exactly, exactly.
And so I then pursued
public health policy as a field.
You're working on your PhD now,
aren't you? You were, anyway.
Yes, that's on hold currently.
STEVE: I guess so, I guess so.
BHUTILA: But yes, yeah.
You want to finish that someday?
Oh, I hope so! Yeah.
At what point do you decide,
though-- okay, I understand
the attraction to public policy,
but then at some point
you made a decision,
"I'm a New Democrat."
BHUTILA: Oh, right.
STEVE: How'd that happen?
So, I was very active
in my community.
I was active not only with the
Tibetan Freedom movement,
locally with Students For A Free
Tibet, a youth organization,
but I was also getting active
with other groups
like Parkdale Tenants'
and just my-- my world of
and community organizing was
opening up.
And at that time, our local MPP
was Cheri DiNovo,
and she was one of the people I
lobbied hard--
to do things like pass a motion
in the legislature to recognize
rights of Tibetan people, to
condemn the actions
of the Chinese government, but
also, you know,
in terms of everything else that
was happening in the community.
And so she approached me, and
asked me to join her team.
And I knew her by then,
I think, well enough to know
that she was a good
representative for our community
because she-- based on my
was always there to listen to
us, and to take action
on things that we had asked
her for.
Um, so I didn't hesitate to
join her office.
And that's when you became
a New Democrat?
And that's how I technically
joined the New Democratic Party.
But I'm very glad, I mean, it
makes sense, looking back,
that, you know, my belief
in Cheri,
and her values,
obviously reflected also the
party's values.
How long did you work for her?
A total of eight years.
STEVE: In the riding or
at Queen's Park?
BHUTILA: Oh, first I started out
in the riding,
and then I moved to
Queen's Park.
And I gather one of the reasons
she wanted you
is that you speak a lot of
languages, right?
BHUTILA: Yes, that's right.
So you learned-- obviously you
learned English back in Nepal.
STEVE: You had it before you
came to Canada.
STEVE: Okay, what else
do you speak?
BHUTILA: So, Tibetan, because
that's my mother tongue.
Um, and because we were in
Nepal, I speak Nepalese.
Uh, almost actually-- almost
every Tibetan speaks Hindi,
Nepali, Tibetan, and English.
In fact, there are many, many
Tibetans that live
in settlements in South India,
so they also speak Telugu,
or Tamil language.
Uh, yeah, it's just how
we grew up.
And I studied Spanish for a
little bit.
So you know a little bit of
Spanish? How's your French?
Oh, I'm embarrassed to say. I
attempted French before Spanish
but somehow Spanish just
came easier.
STEVE: That's hilarious.
(Bhutila laughing)
Now as an elected person, do you
feel any obligation
to learn Canada's other official
Um, I wish I had the time.
(Both laughing)
Bhutila, does your name mean
STEVE: What does it mean?
It means
"Mother of 10,000 children."
Why did your parents
name you that?
BHUTILA: Actually the Dalai Lama
named me.
Tell me that, what do you mean?
So it's very common practice
for parents
to ask a highly revered monk,
especially the Dalai Lama,
to name their child.
So we just send in a request to
the office of the Dalai Lama
and asked for a name,
and they sent it back by mail.
Do you like the name?
I didn't really think much of
it growing up,
but then after I came to Canada,
I've heard so many different
pronunciations, and all of that,
uh, for a while I thought
"Oh goodness,
why couldn't it be
something simpler?"
But now I've really
embraced that
and I'm proud to have a unique
Tibetan name.
Was it always understood that
when Cheri DiNovo
wanted to retire from
public life,
that you would attempt to
take over from her?
Oh, no, no, not at all.
So how did that happen?
In fact, when Cheri broke the
news that she would not
be seeking re-election,
I volunteered
to be on the candidate
search committee.
'Cause I thought "We really need
somebody like Cheri,"
or like, you know, somebody good
to run the riding.
Now, why did you not think of
yourself right away
as a potential replacement?
Um, at that time I had just
started my PhD.
Soon after Cheri made
the announcement,
I was approached by many people
in our riding.
Um, I would say party activists,
community leaders,
and also a lot of young people
in the riding.
And they asked me to consider
to run.
I thanked them, I took it
as a compliment,
and I didn't make much of it.
And that was, I think, around
end of November.
And then Christmas holidays
and then January came around.
And some of them came back
to me, saying
"So did you give it any
And that's when it just
hit me, like,
"Oh! You were serious."
And then I actually started to
think about it.
Now having been a political
I think I know what life is like
for an elected politician.
I know the pressures of the job,
I know the sacrifices that you
have to make.
I know the impact on family.
But at the same time, for me,
I knew that it was going to
be very rewarding,
because, you know, having worked
with Cheri,
we were able to make some very,
I would think, impactful
So things like adding gender
identity and gender expression
to the human rights code,
which officially protected
trans people.
You know, making sure PTSD was
covered for frontline workers.
So I knew that you could do a
lot of good work in the office.
So it was sort of like, I had to
balance that.
At the same time, January, Trump
had just been elected.
Or, sorry, sworn in. He was
elected in November.
He was sworn in, and you know,
he came out with
the Muslim travel ban,
there was a lot of strong
anti-refugee sentiment,
there was just real fear of
this "other."
The other, right?
And for me...
I remember during the time I was
reflecting on it,
I thought for somebody like me
to hold office
would send a kind of message
that says, you know,
Tibetan, or any, refugee
came-- who comes to Canada,
can succeed in Canada, but also,
more importantly,
we are just as Canadian as
anybody else.
And we too want to build our
We want to see everybody around
us succeed.
And I thought that it was very
important for me to not just
talk the talk, but walk
the talk.
So those factors, given the
political climate,
and just feeling this
sense of...
"I can't sit and do nothing
about it,
I have to do something
about it."
Did anybody challenge you for
the nomination?
So February was when I made
the decision
to seek the nomination,
um, and--
STEVE: This is February of--
BHUTILA: 2017.
So a year and a half before
the election?
STEVE: Okay.
Because I wasn't nominated until
September of 2017.
And, you know,
in that period of eight or
nine months,
there were several people who
were interested
in seeking the nomination,
I think at one point, there were
about eight names, but--
And we should say, Parkdale-High
Park, for those who don't know,
is considered a pretty good NDP
seat, a pretty safe seat.
So if you win the NDP
nomination, chances are
you're gonna win
on election night.
That's what I tell people is, is
that for seats like the NDP--
like in Parkdale-High Park,
sometimes the nomination race
is the more difficult
race, right?
Towards the end, uh, everybody
either endorsed me
or withdrew, and so I was--
STEVE: You were acclaimed.
BHUTILA: Acclaimed, yes.
Unanimous support.
Well-- that makes things easier,
doesn't it?
Yes, yeah.
You got acclaimed for a very
safe NDP seat so at that point--
Well, I shouldn't say very
safe NDP seat, like,
there is no safe NDP seat we
have to fight for every seat.
Well, no, that's fair, and I
think I remember a couple of
elections ago, Cheri only won it
by about 400 votes or something.
BHUTILA: Yeah, 525.
STEVE: 525, okay.
So it was pretty close.
Now there was a moment during
that election campaign
leading up to the June 2018
where the NDP were in first
place for the polls.
Things looked fairly encouraging
for your side
for a good week or two.
Do you remember what you were
thinking at that time?
No, my gosh, I was just focused
on knocking on as many doors
as possible,
and I did that obviously
months ahead
of the red period, and again,
being a political staffer,
I know polls can go up one day,
down the next day.
I know, but don't you allow
yourself the possibility
of dreaming about the fact that
"Oh my gosh, front page of
Toronto Star,
there's a poll
that shows the NDP
in 1st place.
It's a few weeks 'til election
day still, admittedly,
but holy cow,
if we form government,
I could be in cabinet!"
Now come, on, you thought
that at one point!
Oh, no, no!
Come on, Bhutila, you never
thought that?
BHUTILA: (Chuckling)
To me, for me,
the goal was to become the MPP
for Parkdale-High Park, right?
And so that is what I was
focused on.
And especially, coming again
from political organizing,
I know that you can't let these
things distract you.
You have to be very disciplined,
you have to be very methodical
in what you are doing every day.
You know, all day.
And that was to talk to as many
people as possible,
tell them who I am, why I'm
running, and what I plan to do.
Which New Democratic Party
candidate in the city of Toronto
had the biggest margin of
victory on election night?
Peter Tabuns.
Who came second?
(Both laughing)
BHUTILA: Took a moment!
I think you won by about 20,000
votes or something like that.
STEVE: It was an insanely
big margin.
BHUTILA: It was huge.
Now on election night, you
loaned us Cheri DiNovo.
She was with us on
The Agenda
That's right, yeah.
--Doing the election night
but what was it like back at
your party headquarters?
Oh, wow... oh my gosh.
It was just...
You know, the energy
of the crowd...
um, obviously,
for a lot of people
at the back of their heads,
it was a little bittersweet,
because, you know,
we had won with huge success
in our riding locally,
but of course, overall in
Ontario, Ford had a majority.
But we were trying to focus
on the good,
focus on the work that we
had done.
And I just remember it just
being so...
it was just an exciting time,
because for the members
of the Tibetan community,
it was a historic night.
How come?
Because I became
the first Tibetan--
STEVE: You were the first.
You were the first elected
representative in North America.
BHUTILA: That's right.
STEVE: From Tibetan background.
What did that mean to you?
I feel that, you know, and this
is something that many
of the Tibetan community members
have told me,
especially our elders, is that,
kinda what
I mentioned earlier,
that they finally feel that this
is a big way to give back
to Canada, through public
And also to show to Canada,
that, you know,
we as Tibetans, we're Canadians,
and we want to build our
country as well.
And they feel that to be part
of the mainstream
political world,
especially for it to come from
a young person,
um, it was a good sign,
and that the future was going
to be very hopeful.
Not just for the Tibetan
but for any immigrant community.
Let me, if I may,
tell you a little story
as I set up this next question,
which is, I do remember,
back in this building in 1985,
when a guy by the name of
Alvin Curling became the first
black MPP in Ontario history.
And I interviewed him years
later, during which time
he said to me "You know, I had a
headache almost every single day
I went to Queen's Park,
because I felt-- I felt so much
being the first not to
screw it up.
And I knew I had the hopes, and
aspirations, and dreams
of a whole community of people
resting on my shoulders,
and I so desperately did not
want to disappoint them."
Did you feel any of that?
I do feel some pressure,
but I have to say that I
have to remind myself, you know,
no one person speaks
for the entire community,
and that especially now,
in my role as MPP representing a
riding with a significant
Tibetan population, one of the
best things that I can do
is to make sure that I am
building capacity within
the community, so that it's not
about the first anymore,
it's about who's next.
Now unlike a lot of the rookies
who got elected last June
in 2018, you had been in
Queen's Park numerous times,
you had been on the floor of
the legislature numerous times.
What's it like to claim your
seat though, for the first time,
walking into that chamber, not
working for somebody else,
but you being the MPP?
oh my gosh, it's such a huge
and I remember just walking into
the chambers the first time.
It was during members'
I couldn't believe that I was
in the chambers,
because-- especially as
a political staffer,
there are certain places
that are off limits,
and chambers is one of them.
And here I was walking through
the main entrance
of the chamber doors, and going
in, and this is--
this is where I'm supposed to
be, you know?
This is now a place where I have
a seat, so it--
you immediately feel a sense of
but also the responsibility you
have, because now,
not only have the people in your
riding placed their trust
in you, overwhelmingly, now you
have to deliver.
I mean, it's kind of astonishing
that 16 years earlier,
I think, 16 years earlier--
BHUTILA: Yeah, 16.
You were fleeing a civil war
in the country in which
you were born,
and now here you are, an elected
in Ontario, Canada. I mean,
that's quite a journey!
Yeah, it has been.
Think how unique that is. Not
many people get to do that.
That's right.
I can't help but notice, in
your-- we're sitting here
in your office at Queen's Park,
but in-- in the, whatever
you call that room next door to
us, what is that?
Where your assistants sit?
Yeah, my staff office.
STEVE: You've got a poster of
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
on the wall.
(Bhutila chuckling)
And AOC is a pretty big deal in
the Democratic Party down south.
Why is that poster there?
So I don't know if you
know this,
but I had the opportunity
to meet her.
I did not know that.
Where did that happen?
Yes, this happened in--
when she had just won the
the Democratic primary.
She beat a ten-term incumbent.
That's right, but it was before
the kind of--
Before the election.
--Star power she has, yes,
exactly, before the election.
I mean, you know, people were
obviously noticing her
at that time, but before the big
deal that she's become now.
You met her in New York?
Yes, in the Bronx, actually.
I heard her speak live.
I've obviously
been watching her.
She's, you know,
very inspiring,
she's doing politics
very differently.
And, um, yeah, so if you notice,
I should give context
to listeners, too-- it's not
just her poster,
we have tons of posters.
STEVE: Yes, you do.
Of many different issues and
causes that we feel
passionate about, and hers
is one of them.
It's just to put some
inspiration around,
and also for us to remind
that we represent the people,
and you know,
and to remind
who we're fighting for,
and what we're fighting for.
And one of the things that for
me, personally,
I really, really don't want to
lose is my activism.
I really want to make sure that
I don't get sucked into
the Queen's Park bubble,
that I always have my feet on
the ground.
That I'm always knocking on
doors talking to people,
and staying true to myself,
which is being a community
How's the job so far?
Um, it's-- I get this question
a lot,
especially from people
in my riding,
and I tell them this.
When I'm at Queen's Park, um,
you know, the environment,
or "the bubble," I like to call
it, that I am in,
uh, can sometimes make you
feel that...
it can make you feel not hopeful
about the future,
just because, you know, it
almost feels like every day
there is an announcement about
some program cut.
Or you know, attack on our
on so many different fronts.
It just feels like bad news
every day.
But then, luckily, I get to go
home, and I get to be
among my community members, and
when I talk to the people
in my riding, it... it makes me
feel hopeful,
because I see that the people
get it. Right?
And there's this huge disconnect
between what's happening here
at Queen's Park, and what
happens on the ground
and in our communities.
What's the disconnect?
In Parkdale-High Park, people
are very, very passionate,
and because they see the issue
of climate change
as really being one of
the biggest issues of our time.
But then you come to
Queen's Park, and here you have
a government that is not
only cancelling cap and trade,
thinks of carbon pricing as
completely wrong...
And in fact, you know, are
putting in programs
that would help big polluters,
as opposed to making
the big polluters pay for
And so that kind of disconnect
where the government
and the people are seeing things
in a very different light,
and doing-- taking different
actions on it.
Well, when I have these
conversations with New Democrats
this is usually the part where I
say something like
"Yeah, but there have been 42
elections in Ontario history,
and I think Conservatives have
got more votes
than New Democrats in probably
38 of those 42.
So are the people wrong?
Well, the--
STEVE: They seem to like their
party more than your party
almost every time, right
out the gate.
Well, I think what-- I mean, I
can only speak to what I hear
from my own community members,
and the people
in Parkdale-High Park, and
that's sort of where I see--
Yes, they overwhelmingly like
your party
over the Conservatives.
But if you get outside Parkdale-
High Park, it's not that way.
Yeah, and I think it's also
about-- you know, you're right,
Steve, that you can be in
Toronto, or you can be
in a riding in rural Ontario.
What I think is the common
struggle is,
is that there is increasingly
greater and greater
income inequality, you know?
Life is becoming very,
very unaffordable, it doesn't
matter where.
I mean, of course, in Toronto
for example,
housing is a big problem, but
housing is a problem
across the province.
And so people...
People want to see the
government do something.
And I have to say that, if you
remember, Doug Ford
didn't really run on much
of a platform.
So people didn't really know.
And certainly--
And they picked him anyway.
Well, I think that it had
also to do
with the fact that,
you know, people were--
people were...
People had given the Liberal
government 15 years,
and their lives had not
improved at all,
and so they were just desperate
for change.
It's been a pleasure to have
spent so much time with you.
Thank you very much.
BHUTILA: Oh, the pleasure's all
mine, Steve, thank you.
Thank you for having me.
STEVE: Thank you.
(Theme music playing)
That was an interesting place to
end that interview
because I think that's something
that a lot of MPPs deal with,
the difference between what
they're hearing in their ridings
versus what they have to deal
with every day at Queen's Park.
And you know, I think Bhutila
was entirely sincere
when she talks about what she's
hearing from people
in her riding, you can just look
at the vote tallies
in Parkdale-High Park last time
around and yeah,
I suspect she is getting more of
a New Democrat feedback
from her riding.
No question, that's one of
the safest New Democratic Party
seats in the whole province of
Ontario, so no doubt
her own values are being
reflected back to her
by most of her constituents.
And yet, we spoke with
Vic Fedeli,
I would love to talk to him,
now that the budget is out,
about when he goes back
to his riding,
are the people of the riding
of Nipissing
pounding the table saying
"You know what this province's
biggest priority is?
A subway for Toronto."
(Both laughing)
They might not be saying that
in North Bay.
JOHN MICHAEL: I suspect not.
STEVE: I don't think they'll be
saying that in North Bay.
Look at it, we've got an
interesting situation here.
We've got 124 different ridings
where people's priorities
are very different, depending on
where you live
and what your daily reality is.
And I guarantee you that what
they're saying about
public transit in Parkdale-High
Park is probably not the same
thing they're saying about
public transit in Nipissing
riding, you know, four hour
drive north of here.
We talked a bit about this in
the intro,
but I really liked the story of
her being in Nepal
and hearing stories about
Parkdale-High Park.
STEVE: Isn't that crazy?
JOHN MICHAEL: About the coffee
shop, that is such a...
I mean, it's obviously very
specifically a Toronto story,
but it also feels much more
Like, this is what cities do
for immigrants. This is...
They create these clusters
that are able to go back home
and say "come here, there's
family here,
we're safe here."
Steven Wright, the comedian, has
a line which is
"it's a small world, but I
wouldn't want to paint it."
And it's a funny line, but yeah,
how small a world is it,
when half a world away--
10,000 kilometres away,
in a small place in Nepal, they
are talking about a coffee shop
on Jameson Avenue in Parkdale,
in the capital city
of the province of Ontario?
I mean, that's a small world,
John Michael.
One of the things I wanted to
find out when I interviewed
Bhutila Karpoche is I think the
AOC phenomenon is a fascinating
thing right now, and
congresswomen Cortez,
from the United States,
everybody in politics
on the left is
looking for the next AOC.
And to be sure, the provincial
Liberals in Ontario
are looking for the next AOC as
a potential leader
for their party-- you know,
everybody on the left
wants to find out who's gonna be
the next phenomenon.
Who's just gonna grab young
people by their lapels
and say "I am such
a compelling presence,
and I share so many values
with you,
and get on this horse
and let's go."
And AOC did that for
New Yorkers and beyond now
in the United States, and people
are looking for that same person
in Ontario, and in Canada.
And I wonder, because I've had
a number of people say to me
"You watch Bhutila Karpoche,
she's our next AOC."
Uh, I-- you know, obviously
everybody will make up
their own minds,
having heard this podcast,
but I certainly wanted to get
a read on her,
as to whether or not she thought
she could play that role,
and I won't presume to respond
to that question.
But that question is out there.
Well, it's inherently difficult
to reproduce
somebody like AOC.
I mean, you're talking about
trying to put lightning
in a bottle, it is...
it is such a confluence of
different factors.
Yes, it happened so organically.
That's right.
I mean, she-- you know,
she came out of nowhere
to upset a ten-term congressman,
and then, you know,
catches lightning in a bottle.
And yeah, it's a--
it's a utterly unique
set of circumstances
that comes together that allows
that to happen,
but it does happen.
And I don't know, let's keep
an eye on things.
I did note in our ongoing
over who is the bigger politics
nerd that she corrected
your vote count
for the 2014 election results.
STEVE: So she wins.
JOHN MICHAEL: I believe so, yes.
(Both laughing)
Good enough. Well, just a
reminder here,
be sure to stick around to
the end of the credits
for our adorable weekly
What did you think of the show
you just heard? Let us know.
Email us at
Or tweet at us, I'm @spaikin.
And I'm @jm_mcgrath.
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Today's episode was produced by
Eric Bombicino.
Audio and editing by Matthew
The #OnPoli team is rounded out
by Daniel Kitts,
Harrison Lowman, and Cara Stern.
Hannah Sung is manager of
digital video
and podcasts at TVO.
And remember, politics comes
at you fast,
so we're here to give you the
bigger picture.
Thanks for listening.
(Theme music playing)
Bhutila, we have a bit of
a tradition here.
STEVE: On the #OnPoli podcast.
This is a questionnaire that was
developed by a guy
named Bernard Pivot many years
ago, and then made famous
by James Lipton, on a show
Inside The Actors Studio.
And I haven't given you the
questions ahead of time,
so there's no right or wrong
it's gonna be very spontaneous.
I see the horror in your eyes
already, as we-- as we get set
to do this, but this will be
very easy and lots of fun.
Bhutila, what
is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite
What is your favourite
curse word?
The F-bomb.
What sound or noise do you love?
Oh, birds singing in
the morning.
What sound or noise do you hate?
What profession other than your
own would you like to attempt?
Go into public health.
What profession would you not
like to do?
Um... oh, I know.
A chef, or a cook.
I don't enjoy cooking.
(Both laughing)
Okay, finally, if heaven exists,
what would you like to hear God
say when you arrive
at the Pearly Gates?
You done good.
(Music playing)

Watch: Bhutila Karpoche: Refugee to MPP