Meet some new, diverse candidates running in Montreal's municipal election

All three major municipal parties have made commitments to fielding diverse candidates in the municipal election. However, it is unclear exactly how many diverse candidates each party has or how they are tracking it.

Political parties have committed to more diversity in their slate of candidates

All three major municipal parties have committed to fielding more diverse candidates in the municipal election. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Gracia Kasoki Katahwa knows there has never been a mayor in Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce who looks like her.

It is Montreal's most populous borough, and one of its more diverse. Of the more than 160,000 people who live there, nearly half (47 per cent) identify as a visible minority, according to the 2016 census.

The largest proportion of them are Black, like Katahwa.

"That's why I'm running in CDN-NDG. Because I represent change," she told CBC News.

"I think many people in the borough, many young people in the borough or many parents, will see themselves in me, or their children in me."

Gracia Kasoki Katahwa is running with Projet Montréal to be the borough mayor of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Katahwa, a nurse-turned-first-time political candidate, is running to be borough mayor with Projet Montréal. She credits the party with helping her make the jump into politics.

"The reason why I'm standing here in front of you today, it's because of the actions that they took to make sure that we recruit [enough] candidates that come from diverse backgrounds."

All three major municipal parties — Projet Montréal, Ensemble Montréal and Mouvement Montréal — have made commitments to fielding diverse candidates in this November's municipal election.

However, it is unclear exactly how many diverse candidates each party has or how they are tracking it.

Statistics with few specifics

When asked by CBC News, Projet Montréal said 45 per cent of its candidates come from "diverse backgrounds." It did not offer a definition of diversity or indicate what backgrounds are considered diverse. 

Ensemble Montréal says it has 48 per cent, which includes "people from visible minorities, as well as candidates from the LGBTQ community."

When asked about Mouvement Montréal, party leader and mayoral candidate Balarama Holness didn't offer a figure, but said his party is "100 per cent diversity because of the party culture, who we are and what we represent."

That message resonated with Idil Issa, who is running with Movement Montréal to be the city councillor representing Ville-Marie's Peter-McGill district.

Idil Issa, who is running with Movement Montreal to be the city councillor representing Ville-Marie’s Peter-McGill district, says there's no excuse for parties not to have diverse candidates. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

"If your party isn't diverse, that means you're not picking from a pool of candidates that represents the city," she said. "In this day and age, there's just really no excuse for that."

Issa says that within the party, they don't make "a big hoopla" about their own diversity but are more focused on tackling the issues without "tokenizing" any of the candidates.

"For example, a trans candidate wouldn't necessarily be assigned to just work on trans issues," she said. "We could have them working on business interests because we feel like they're more than capable [of handling that file]."

Mouvement Montréal candidate Sam Donald — who is queer, non-binary and uses they/them pronouns — acknowledges that they aren't a visible minority, but says they want to break ground as a non-binary person in public life.

"I recognize that in a public setting, I represent a certain community," they said. "I want to represent them — and myself — fully and honestly and openly."

Donald, who is running for the city councillor position in the Saint-Paul–Émard–Saint-Henri-Ouest district of the Sud-Ouest, says the campaign has helped them connect to other non-binary Montrealers in the borough.

Mouvement Montreal candidate Sam Donald, who is queer, non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, acknowledges that they aren’t a visible minority, but says it's important to break ground as a non-binary candidate. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

But Donald says there is still a long way to go. The Elections Montréal candidacy forms have only two options under gender: male or female.

"They're doing this survey to see how diverse their government applicants are, and it didn't occur to them that in the year 2021, there might be applicants …  that identify as non-binary or don't fit the gender binary," Donald said.

"They were looking for diversity and yet they didn't even know how to ask for it."

In the end, Donald made their own box and ticked it off. 

White men receive more money, safer seats

Why is it important to have diverse candidates? For Katahwa, the candidate running for borough mayor in CDN-NDG, it comes down to perspective.

"I bring to the table the reality of many people that are maybe not always around the table," she explained. 

During CBC's interview with Katahwa, a man stopped to listen. In between questions, he asked Katahwa if she lived in the area and if she knew that he too had experienced racism.

The man noted that as a Polish white man, he had experienced racism in his life and asked what Katahwa was going to do about it.

After a pause, Katahwa said that discrimination, against anyone, should not be tolerated.

A recent CBC/Radio-Canada investigation found that white men who ran for office federally in 2015 and 2019 received more money from their parties and also ran in ridings that were easier to win. 

On the municipal level, incumbent mayor Valérie Plante has been criticized for the fact that her executive committee was mostly white and lacked visible minorities.

"Oftentimes when we talk about diversity and organization, we look at the global statistics, how many people from diverse backgrounds we have," Katahwa said. 

"But we often forget to look at where those people are, at every level of the organization, because that is really important," she said. 

"And that is something that could bring structural change."

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.

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