Matthew Green on race, power, politics and more as Hamilton's 1st black city councillor

"I did not run as an African-Canadian councillor. I didn't run to be the first of anything."

'I did not run as an African-Canadian councillor. I didn't run to be the first of anything'

"People might consider me to be fairly confrontational," says Matthew Green. But for the most part, he says, he agreed with his fellow councillors. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

When Matthew Green was elected in 2014, he became the first visible minority to ever sit around the council table at 71 Main St. W.

The more diverse city council is, he says, the more comfortable people feel to walk through the doors.

Green was elected to represent Ward 3 in Hamilton's central lower city. He didn't run for reelection in October. Instead, he became the interim executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion. He plans to pursue the federal NDP nomination in Hamilton Centre next year. The current MP, David Christopherson, is retiring.

We asked Green what it was like to be Hamilton's first black city councillor.

Why do you think that the city hasn't had a black city councillor before you?

When I ran, I did not run as an African-Canadian councillor. I didn't run to be the first of anything. The realization only came Oct. 27, 2014, probably 10 minutes after the results were read. It occurred to me that I would be representative of a community that hadn't had representation since Lincoln Alexander. It also occurred to me that I would have a responsibility to create a culture of engagement and participation that would encourage other people of colour to run.

Unless somebody can see themselves reflected in an institution or an organization or in a power structure, they don't even think it's possible. We've seen that time and time again throughout the modern western history of our country.

What difference does it make if there are non-white voices around the council table?

There are experiences that people of colour bring to the table that European Canadians or quote-unquote white Canadians would never have to consider. They would never have to consider issues of race because in Canada, whiteness is dealt with as the default, inherent hegemonic power of the country. That is, again by default, the definition of institutional white supremacy.

Green filed a complaint about a Hamilton police officer he says discriminated against him when the officer stopped to question him. The officer was found not guilty. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Is city hall a friendly place to be black?

Like all things, I think it would depend on where your power is. Is it a good thing to be a black councillor? I thought that I was accorded respect and power and privilege just based on the really strange hierarchy of being a councillor. I mean, I would interact with staff who in the early days wouldn't know that I was a councillor, but that's fine.

If you're coming in having faced racism within the city of Hamilton, I don't think it's very friendly. But if you come in as a black police officer, it would be. So it really depends on the intersections of power and privilege and class.

I would argue that my participation in city hall brought more diverse participation at city hall, even just having folks enter into city hall that had never stepped foot inside there before. People had shared with me that they just didn't feel like it was their city hall. Not just the black community. Multiple racialized communities shared this with me. 

Can you speak to what challenges you expected versus which ones you faced? Was it like you thought it would be?

Not at all. Coming at it as an activist, I thought that I would actually have to fight more than I fought. It might sound strange because people might consider me to be fairly confrontational, but that's only because I came in with a set of values and principles I was unwilling to compromise.

I thought that I would get more resistance to change, but by and large, I would have to say that 95 per cent of the things that I brought to council table passed. Things that I would previously have considered to be fairly radical asks, and they were supported. So it was only in the five per cent of things that I proposed that didn't gain traction. A lot of topics, for example, around governance and trying to change the way we do business had immediate resistance. We are a status quo council in a lot of ways in terms of how we do business and how our leadership is structured.

But the only times I was in opposition were the times when I put myself there, not just going along to get along.

Matthew Green announced plans in August to seek the Hamilton Centre NDP nomination next year. Antonio Damptey-Bonilla looked on. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Can you list a couple of things in that 95 per cent that you thought would be more difficult?

The opposition to the incineration plant. At the time, I think (Mayor Fred Eisenberger) was a supporter. Fred was the only one leading the charge, which was bizarre. The Blue Dot motion. I didn't think that I would have as much traction on payday loans.

What advice would you give someone who is a racialized minority and wants to be a city councillor?

Hamilton is a relational city. Residents here are not easily fooled by people who just show up at election time and claim to be leaders.

The question I ask people who want to be involved as a city councillor is "what have you led?" That was the challenge I had with people who are interested in the job but haven't done the work. They think it's a ceremonial glamorous thing. If you're doing it right, it's a grind every single day.

Green brought his son Langston to a meeting about public transit last year. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

There's an adage that elections are won in the four years between elections.

Absolutely. 100 per cent.

How can we make it easier to have a more diverse group of voices?

I'm not foolish enough to think that we could ever make it easier to disrupt power. The process is fairly simple though.

We need to start thinking beyond geographic boundaries of wards. When we have people solely focused on constituency as it relates to wards, diverse communities are so disperse across the city that no one collective voice can emerge in a neighbourhood to elect someone representative of their community.

People of colour need to start organizing in a deeper way through intersections that go beyond just identity and religion and race and start to work on issues that affect a cross section of people, like income, environment, the economy. When we talk about economy in Hamilton, that typically means big business — Amazon, Stelco, Dofasco. But a disproportionate number of small business owners relative to their population are newcomers and are racialized people. So how are we collecting those voices and then connecting those voices in a deeper way?

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca