'Make our own representation': BIPOC, LGBTQ volunteers on why they're involved in federal election campaigns

Six volunteers of local campaigns spoke to CBC K-W about why they got involved in local federal election campaigns, what they're taking from the experience and what advice they have for others who think they might want to help out.

‘If you don't feel represented, just ... go be the representation,’ says volunteer Maya Linsley

CBC K-W spoke to six volunteers about being involved in federal election campaigns. They are, top row from left, Emmy Tran, Gavynn McKay and Hanna Batool (bottom row from left): Janeth Cameron, Paul Okoye and Maya Linsley. (Photos submitted by volunteers, photo of Paul Okoye by Hannah Marie/KW Headshots, photo of Emmy Tran by Devi Thompson)

The backbone of any election campaign is the team of volunteers who give their time and energy to help the candidate they support.

In the past few years, more people have spoken out about the need to see people of varying backgrounds named as candidates to local elections. That includes the Waterloo Region Women's Municipal Campaign School and the group Equal Voice — both encourage women and gender-diverse people to get involved in politics. Also, the new group Run4Office Waterloo Region offers information to people who are African, Caribbean and Black who are considering running for office, as well as Operation Black Vote Canada.

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"There are plenty of white men in Parliament already," Eleanor Fast, executive director of Equal Voice, said on the CBC Radio call-in show Ontario Today last week in talking about the Sept. 20 federal election.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo wanted to highlight some of the people behind the scenes of local campaigns, specifically volunteers who are BIPOC or LGBTQ.

In interviews, the six people CBC K-W spoke to talked about how they got involved in politics, what they enjoy about the work they're doing and what advice they had for others who may not necessarily see themselves reflected in local politics, but want to get involved.

Candidates for the Liberals, NDP and Greens responded. One Conservative candidate responded to say there were no volunteers willing to speak with CBC K-W, and the other Conservative candidates did not respond to the request.

Below are the stories of just a handful of the many volunteers who are knocking on doors, working on websites, creating TikTok videos, making phone calls and helping to put up signs.

'Making change from the inside'

Gavynn McKay sees himself going into politics, and that's what spurred him to volunteer for Suresh Arangath's campaign, the NDP candidate in Kitchener South-Hespeler.

McKay is transgender and queer, and studying for his master's in social work at Wilfrid Laurier University.

McKay is studying for his master's in social work at Wilfrid Laurier University and volunteering on a campaign in Kitchener South-Hespeler. (Submitted photo)

"I would love it if more social workers were in politics and more human-focused folks were creating legislature. So I thought that if I don't see that in politics as much, then I should just join in and be that representation and take with me my social work background and my equity focus background," he said.

"I really strongly believe that there should be more transgender representation. 

"Sometimes the needs of the transgender community are different from the queer community, and so it's really important to me to also have someone at the table who is aware and has lived experiences with transgender issues and concerns," added McKay.

He said he was inspired by, Lyra Evans, who ran in Ottawa-Vanier and was the first openly transgender candidate to represent a major party in an Ontario election.

He said his partner also has an interest in politics.

"I was kind of apprehensive about politics and she just convinced me that making change from the inside can be incredibly impactful, and there's a lot of great politicians out there that are doing it for more than power and money, and that I could be one of those people," he said.

'It starts in your neighbourhood'

Janeth Cameron takes her daughter canvassing in Kitchener South-Hespeler for Liberal candidate Valerie Bradford, partly because the 17-year-old needs her volunteer hours for school, but it's also a great lesson.

"We try to listen to people," Cameron said. "We are in a diverse culture, and so there are different issues and concerns that we come across during [the] canvassing. And so we try to listen to them and direct them to where they might find the answer."

Cameron, right, and her daughter Janine have been volunteering to knock on doors for the Liberal candidate in Kitchener South-Hespeler. (Photo provided)

Cameron, former president of the Filipino Canadian Association of Kitchener-Waterloo who started and now also volunteers with the Tricity Seniors group, said knocking on doors helps her stay connected with the community.

"It's a very good experience, actually, because you learn so much.

"It doesn't matter who is running and all that. If you are into that, if you're concerned about what's happening all around you, within the community, in the neighborhood and, you know, the entire community and the entire country as well. There are a lot of issues and concerns, but it starts in your neighbourhood, you know — it's a good start to listen to."

'Truly welcome and celebrate diversity'

Paul Okoye has always voted in elections, but after a heavy year between the COVID-19 pandemic, issues to do with social justice and racism, and the discovery of the remains of Indigenous children at former residential schools across the country, he felt he had to do more.

He researched the political parties and the local candidates before deciding to volunteer for the campaign of Beisan Zubi, the NDP candidate in Kitchener Centre. 

Okoye says it doesn't matter what political campaign people want to get involved in, 'the more diverse voices we have, I think the richer the political campaigns of the country can be.' (Hannah Marie/KW Headshots/Submitted photo)

When asked if he feels he's being reflected in the local politics in Waterloo region, Okoye said, "I guess the simple answer is no, not always, and so it is refreshing to see when people who look like me get involved."

For other people interested in getting involved in politics, even behind the scenes, he suggests they read up on the parties and their platforms, and really understand where the parties are similar and where they diverge from each other.

"You need to figure out what is most important to you. And once you do, I find that you begin to ask yourself, 'Where do you want to make that difference? Municipality, provincewide or national?' I chose the national space," he said.

"But depending on what matters, what issues matter to you most, you figure out what level you want to get involved in."

The one criticism he had for all the parties was he found it difficult to figure out just how to volunteer. In some cases, he sent emails but never heard back.

"There is no clear sense of onboarding," he said, noting it's likely easier for someone who has done it before. 

"For someone who has just been voting and not been actively involved internally, it was very difficult for me to figure out how to get engaged, who to talk to. I don't have many friends who are politically active and so I couldn't just reach out to them."

Even so, Okoye said, he's always up for a chat about how people can get involved.

"If you see me on the street and you have a question, absolutely, I'd be happy to talk. I just find that, the more people, the more diverse voices we have in campaigns, whatever the party, the more diverse voices we have, I think the richer the political campaigns of the country can be.

"We find ways to disagree respectfully, regardless of party, and that politics is not always a win-lose situation is how we can work together to refine a better Canada. And I find that only happens when you truly, truly welcome and celebrate diversity."

'Make our own representation'

Maya Linsley is entering her second year at the University of Victoria and has spent her summer working two jobs remotely. Volunteering for Kitchener Centre Green Party candidate Mike Morrice has allowed her to work on some skills, like editing and writing scripts for his Midtown Radio show, and it also got her out of the house.

"I went canvassing for the first time in my life a couple of weeks ago and it was pouring rain but it was really fun," she said with a laugh.

For Linsley, there's no interest in entering politics, but she has a "casual interest" in "what goes on around politics" including the social issues.

Linsley went door to door canvassing for the first time in her life this summer, and says despite it pouring rain, it was a fun time. (Submitted photo)

"Even if you have the barest interest, I would honestly encourage anybody to get involved in this type of thing because as a young person who, I'm just entering the workforce, trying to see what I want to do and I've been really interested in communications and like various forms of writing and I've just found that being able to do this, aside from all the other perks, it's been a really great learning experience," she said.

"They just support you through it and you learn all these new skills and it's just been so relevant to my goals and my interests. Yeah, it's just really fantastic so I would 10 out of 10 recommend, you won't regret it."

Linsley is a lesbian, and is half-Chinese and half-European. She said she hasn't really seen herself reflected in politics. 

"It's kind of a specific thing to be so I don't actively seek out representation, if that makes sense, because sometimes it's hard to come by," she said.

"And you know what? We have to make our own representation. So if you don't feel represented, just, like, go be the representation."

'I never really saw myself in the government'

Hanna Batool, who is from Waterloo and a fourth-year neuroscience student at the University of Guelph, describes her recent internship at Waterloo Liberal candidate Bardish Chagger's office before the election was called as "a really eye-opening experience."

"It was just really interesting to see just how important it is to actually be represented in politics," Batool said. "I've never really been at a job before where my boss and the management is South Asian and a person of colour."

She said she also took note in 2015 when Maryam Monsef was elected to represent Peterborough–Kawartha and Iqra Khalid, who brought forward M-103, a motion that condemned Islamophobia and religious discrimination. That non-binding motion was passed in March 2017.

Batool is from Waterloo and has been knocking on doors during this campaign. She says at first, she was nervous to canvass, but says 'there's so many nice people out there and it's very nice to see how they're very involved.' (Submitted photo)

"[Monsef] was broadcast on TV and they highlighted that she spoke Dari, which is the language that I speak and it's not a very common language. And for me that representation was so important because I've never seen an elected official speak Dari," Batool said.

"I have to be honest, I never really saw myself in the government and I never saw policies that reflected people like me. So it was really nice to see that."

Batool describes herself as "a visible Muslim that wears the hijab. I am a Shia Muslim, so I'm a minority group within Muslims and I am from the Hazara ethnicity. So a minority within a minority within a minority."

She admitted door-to-door canvassing was something that concerned her. She didn't know how people would react: would they be happy or would they tell her to go away?

"But there's so many nice people out there and it's very nice to see how they're very involved and they'll tell you: 'this is what I'm happy the government is doing, we could do better in this.' And they're just very friendly," she said.

Batool said she hasn't thought about whether the volunteering she's doing on the campaign might inspire other young Muslims to get involved.

"I guess definitely it could be happening, just as I was inspired by elected officials who stood up and decided to run."

'You can take up space'

Emmy Tran is a full-time social media manager and part-time artist who isn't eligible to vote in this election. 

She moved to Canada from Vietnam four years ago and is not a Canadian citizen. Still, she's volunteering on Zubi's campaign.

She's using the experience to build her portfolio, helping make TikTok videos and working on social media campaigns, but she says it helps that the party's platform aligns with her own stance on issues.

Tran can't vote in this federal election, but says she's still getting involved in a local campaign because the next government will still impact her, her friends and her community. (Devi Thompson/Twitter/@emmytranpr)

"As a woman of colour myself and a part of the community, I've always been really vocal about issues that I care about — human rights and social equity," Tran says.

"So even when I don't even have the ability to vote because I'm not a citizen, it's still something that I care about a lot because obviously it's part of my community. This is my home now, right? So it makes a difference to the people around me and my life as well."

She said she feels like older generations of immigrants sometimes coming to Canada "with the mindset of just keep your head down, don't get involved in politics, that is not your space."

But she said that doesn't make sense to her.

"You're choosing this country as your new home. If this is where you're establishing your life, then absolutely you have a stake in what's going on politically. And as a person of colour, as an immigrant, you should even be more involved in what's going on in what's shaping the policies, what's shaping the country," she said.

"What I say to that is: you can take up space. You're allowed to. It's not something that's going to hurt you in the future. It's something that affects every single person. Like if you're here, if you're a resident, if this is what you call home, then absolutely, you should have a voice."

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