Nova Scotia

'One day that door will open': Women of colour talk about racism on campaign trail

Women of colour who ran for political office in the the two most recent municipal and provincial elections say they encountered racism and other barriers on the campaign trail.

One woman was asked if she was lost when she filed her papers to run; another heard refugees 'were a threat'

Shelley Fashan, of Lake Echo, would like to see more women of colour run for politics. Her name was on the ballot for two elections in 2016 and 2017. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

As Shelley Fashan prepared to submit her paperwork to run as a candidate in Halifax's 2016 municipal election, she went to a City Hall council session to see how decisions are made.

She was stopped in her tracks by the greeting she received from a councillor she knew.

"One of the councillors looked at me — and I mean, I am the only black face in there — and said, 'Hi Shelley, are you lost?''' Fashan recalled.

Fashan said it sounded like the councillor was saying she didn't belong there. She was bothered she would be asked that question as she watched other people come and go from council chambers.

Fashan, who works in administration for the Nova Scotia government, describes that encounter as one of the many "micro-aggressions" she faced on the campaign trail in her bid for the Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore seat and when she ran for a provincial seat in a bid to become an NDP MLA for Preston-Dartmouth in 2017. Someone sprayed racist graffiti on signs for all three candidates in North Preston in the provincial election. 

Slow progress toward a universal vote

This month marks the 100th anniversary of most women's right to vote in Nova Scotia. Elections Canada notes property-ownership rules in 1918 kept many people from voting, including women of colour. In 1920, federal legislation made the right to vote universal for citizens aged 21 and older.  

The general election of 1921 was the first open to all Canadians, except Indigenous people who wanted to keep their treaty status. Agnes Macphail won a seat at that election, becoming the first female member of Parliament. In 1960, Indigenous people got the right to vote in federal elections without losing treaty status. 

Despite those gains, some women of colour in Nova Scotia say the doors for them to take a political seat are not open — and that the deeply-rooted prejudice on the campaign trail is real.

Fashan, who lives in Lake Echo, N.S., also said that throughout her campaign she was called a token and an angry black woman.

"I understand that where I live at, the racism is very deep rooted," she said. "You have to understand that you will face those things so you got to put your armour on. I did sometimes, other times I didn't; other times you'd see tears in my eyes."

While Fashan may not have gotten through the door to take a seat in council or the Nova Scotia Legislature, she's hopeful others will come knocking "and one day that door will open."

Rana Zaman, of Dartmouth, was an NDP candidate for the riding of Clayton Park West in Nova Scotia's 2017 election. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Rana Zaman, a Dartmouth social activist, was also a candidate for NDP in Nova Scotia's 2017 provincial election in Clayton Park West — one of Halifax's most culturally-diverse neighbourhoods. 

Zaman is Muslim. Her family moved to Nova Scotia from Pakistan in 1971 when she was six.

Zaman, who volunteers for more than a dozen non-profit organizations, said she too was shocked by some of the racist things she heard when she went from door to door.

"A lot of it focused on immigrants and refugees, even to the point where I was told the refugees here were a threat and they were going to rape our young women," she recalled one man saying.  "And I had to deal with answering to that and still do it with a smile on my face."

But by the end of their conversation, the man shook Zaman's hand and told her that he would support her at the ballot box.

More women in office

Because women of colour face disadvantages when they run for public office, they need the support of both the white and non-white community, Zaman said, stressing that she didn't get that.

"I've noticed people of my colour, of my background, did not support me as strongly as people that were not from my community," she said. "We don't support one another and that's the reality."

There's a move afoot to increase the number of women running for public office in Nova Scotia.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is working with five municipalities, including Halifax, to get Indigenous, racialized, and under-represented immigrant women involved in municipal politics over the next three years under its Diverse Voices for Change initiative.

Rana Zaman (foreground) is a member of Diverse Voices for Change, a Federation of Canadian Municipalities initiative to increase the number of women in politics over the next three years. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

Both Fashan and Zaman are involved with the group. It has partnered with the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women to help it make its campaign school for women more culturally inclusive to women from diverse communities. The next campaign school will be held May 25 to 27 at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.

Huwaida Medani, Halifax's advisor of diversity and inclusion, said there is a lot of interest among women to put their names on the ballot. Some of these women are being mentored by sitting municipal and provincial politicians.

"The need is really huge right now … in Halifax," Medani said, pointing out that in the 2016 municipal election, the number of female councillors in Halifax Regional Council fell from four to two.

In the municipality's 10 business units, there are two female directors and one female acting director.

"And we know that the community's full of a lot of talented great women, both the Indigenous community, the African-Nova Scotian, as well as the immigrant community," Medani said. "It's unfortunate that those talents are not being used within the city."

Huwaida Medani is Halifax's advisor of diversity and inclusion. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)
A group of women from various cultural communities gathered in March for a session organized by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to address what steps Halifax Regional Municipality can take to achieve its goals in gender equity. (Submitted by Huwaida Medani)


Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email