NDP's Black caucus translating community needs into the language of the legislature

Kitchener Centre NDP MPP Laura Mae Lindo is reminded of the challenges of advocating for the Black community from within a system that has often trampled its rights whenever she steps inside Ontario's legislative chamber.

'I'm in a system that has taken quite a long time to recognize my humanity,' head of party's Black caucus says

Laura Mae Lindo, NDP MPP for Kitchener Centre. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

Laura Mae Lindo is reminded of the challenges of advocating for the Black community from within a system that has often trampled its rights whenever she steps inside Ontario's legislative chamber.

"When I look at the speaker and above his head it says 1867, I'm always reminded we weren't considered people at that point," the New Democratic representative for Kitchener Centre said in a recent interview.

"So I'm in a system that has taken quite a long time to recognize my humanity as a Black person and the intersectionality of who I am as a Black woman."

Just a few years ago, Lindo was the director of diversity and equity at Wilfrid Laurier University and as a community member she would urge the Ontario government to take anti-Black racism seriously. Next month, the legislature will  debate her private member's bill titled Racial Equity in the Education System Act.

It feels like her life has come full circle, she said.

"Some days, it's so hard inside because I feel like I'm in the belly of the beast, that I wish I was on the other side," Lindo said.

"But we get this reminder from communities that they need us on both sides of it. We need people outside that are pushing the system to do better and we need people inside who are talking about why the changes are so important. It's sort of translating what the community is saying outside into the language that this particular system at this particular moment in history understands."

Lindo is the chair of the Ontario NDP's Black caucus -- the first Black caucus in the legislature's history. The five-member caucus,formed in 2019,also includes Jill Andrew, who represents Toronto-St. Paul's, Kevin Yarde, who represents Brampton North, Rima Berns-McGown, who represents Beaches-East York, and Faisal Hassan,
who represents York South-Weston.

Representation is very important, Hassan said in an interview.

"The Black caucus gives also our next generations an opportunity to be inspired and also to dream to be politicians at Queen's Park," he said.

Hassan, who is also the NDP's youth opportunities critic, created his own youth council and people from predominantly Black and Indigenous communities applied. A 14-year-old girl approached Hassan a few months ago and wanted to volunteer because she could relate to him, he said.

"I think that's also what the Black caucus doing is to inspire many, many young people in our communities, not only the Black community, but also young people of all identities and backgrounds," Hassan said.

Lindo said the Black caucus has been doing a lot of work to better engage with the community and to raise its issues at the legislature.

One way the caucus has been connecting with the community is by holding practice committee deputations, Lindo said. It can be a daunting process to testify at committees, so they set up rooms like the ones at the legislature, had the elected officials sit at the front of the room, and turned off the microphones after a certain amount of time.

After a series of practice deputations, there was a growing list of people who wanted to be informed about issues being discussed at the legislature, including a lot of people outside downtown Toronto,

In areas where Lindo said Black communities tend to get ignored. 

Inside the legislature, Lindo was on the finance committee and has spoken about anti-Black racism and advocated for measures to help Black business owners.

Caucus members take opportunities to raise issues of anti-Black racism within other discussions at the legislature, she said, including food insecurity, border crossings, and employment.

"Being able to amplify people's advocacy -- that's a reminder that the work that we're doing is meaningful and the work that we're doing is important and it circles back to the reason that community asked us to form a Black caucus in the first place," Lindo said.

The idea of a Black caucus started as a joke, Lindo said. After the 2018 election, the NDP arranged a celebration with Black leaders from across the province. With five Black members in the room, the community leaders remarked that it was the first time they had seen so many Black elected officials and jokingly said they should form a Black caucus.

Lindo later officially proposed the idea to NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who was supportive of the idea so long as there was an actual master plan and wasn't performative, Lindo said.

"I told her, I'm not interested in doing the performative stuff," Lindo said. "So as long as she's ready for -- in the words of Beyonce, that jelly -- then we are ready to go."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2022.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.