“Never get involved in politics.” That was the advice my uncle gave to me when I was in my teens. Subhash Sharma, a Hindu immigrant from Punjab, arrived in Canada in early 1969 and became a political organizer in the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s for the BC NDP party. My uncle’s advice on politics was based on his experience helping organize the Indo-Canadian community for the BC NDP. As the story goes, he was treated unfairly because of his race, and was neither appreciated nor respected for his efforts. My uncle died in 2005 in his mid-50s.

Just before my uncle passed away, Martyn Brown, former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s chief of staff, appointed me to the Office of the Premier for British Columbia where I worked as the manager of media monitoring in the West Annex of the B.C. legislature. Before that, I’d served as a legislative assistant in the Official Opposition caucus to many MLAs and as an executive assistant to the minister of intermediate, long-term and home care.

Towards the end of his life, my uncle was regularly ill, so most of his days were spent at home. Selfishly, I took that opportunity to visit him often, and chat about my roles in the legislature. He’d always welcome the conversation, congratulating me with a polite smile. But not once did my uncle suggest that I work towards becoming an elected official, as he wisely knew the hardship that can come with being a person of colour in politics. So, I suspect he wanted to spare me the grief he’d endured.

I always had an innate desire to enter politics. I knew I wanted to help Canadians with their concerns about jobs, education and other issues. I also knew I could easily navigate the legislative and ministerial processes to encourage policies that would positively impact constituents in B.C. That’s why I disregarded my uncle’s advice about politics, instead going on to organize for both the Liberal Party of Canada and the B.C. Liberal Party. Eventually, I ran as a candidate for the B.C. Liberal Party in two provincial elections (2014 and 2020) and as an independent candidate in one municipal election (2018).

Reflecting back on my last 20 years of political activity, I can recall many instances when I felt the same way as my uncle, discouraged in my efforts to effect change. But I chose to ignore the negativity, opting instead to keep my head down, stay quiet and work hard. I didn’t discuss or even acknowledge the racism I encountered. I repeatedly told myself to be grateful with what I had and to avoid complaining because I didn’t think anyone would listen.

But over the past 16 months, I’ve had the opportunity to work as the project manager for an equity, diversity and inclusion project in B.C.’s construction industry, called the Builders Code. This work helped me understand I have the right to acknowledge that what I feel is racism, bullying, hate and discrimination – all of which are alive and active in Canadian politics today.

In October 2020, I was verbally accosted while running as a candidate in B.C.’s provincial election. Rather than keeping quiet, I worked with my campaign team to proactively ensure that the constituents I was hoping to represent knew of the incident, including the racial slurs thrown at me and their broader negative impact.

Photo: The author is interviewed by a local TV station during the B.C. provincial election in October 2020. Photo by Roop Jawl.

Recently, the world has witnessed more overt discrimination. Stereotypes surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic have led to acts of violence towards Chinese and other Asian communities around the world. Then there was the police killing of George Floyd this past summer in the U.S., which echoed hateful, discriminatory acts towards Black communities here in Canada. Just last year in Toronto, nooses were reportedly found on a construction site. These terrible incidents have ignited a much-needed conversation about anti-racism.

Canadian politicians often talk about and make claims of increased diversity in Canadian politics. But although we may be moving in the right direction, only 19 of the 87 members in the B.C. legislature are people of colour. The District of Saanich, the municipality in which I ran as a candidate in 2018, didn’t elect any people of colour, even though 2017 census data shows that 22.1 per cent of residents identified as a visible minority.

In Montréal, there is a movement led by organizations from the city’s Black, East Asian, South Asian and Arab communities to increase the number of people of colour elected to city council. It’s a laudable goal and they have the support of a local councillor, Marvin Rotrand, who introduced a motion to amend Montreal’s bylaws to ensure that one-third of candidates are people of colour and of Indigenous origin. This should be a model for other cities to consider, particularly those with large, racialized populations, to increase diversity on council.

The BC NDP, the province’s governing party, initiated a policy in 2011 that mandates when a riding is vacated by a male MLA, any nomination to replace that retiring MLA should only go to a woman, person of colour or someone from other underrepresented groups in Canadian politics. In the 2017  provincial election , there was some controversy raised surrounding the policy, but now, the BC NDP is recognized as having the first caucus in Canadian history with more women than men, as well as more people of colour serving than any B.C. caucus ever elected before.

Local riding associations, which have volunteer leadership positions, should also make formal efforts to include team members from underrepresented groups. More inclusion at the local leadership level is in turn likely to drive more action for change within the party. This could take the form of local policy changes, and the introduction of resolutions at annual conventions that support engagement with diverse communities.

Parties also elect a president and other executive members who are paid through fundraising efforts. Their job is to manage the central party’s administrative apparatus. The party president and a lead executive member, the executive director, should also be held accountable by riding associations for ensuring that equity, diversity and inclusion is a priority.

As noted, mandating policies on anti-racism can be difficult and controversial, but open dialogue will help drive much-needed change. Parties can host forums to increase awareness about the benefits of increasing diversity, equity and inclusion. But, to be successful, those facilitating these events must have the appropriate training to guide difficult conversations. I witnessed very uncomfortable conversations about racism and discrimination while co-hosting some of the Builders Code training sessions with B.C. construction sector employers and employees. After the sessions, participants had a better understanding of the value of increasing equity, diversity and inclusion.

This can be achieved in Canadian politics, but it will take hard work and constant attention at all levels of government. Pressure can come from the lower levels of a political party, but to be effective, DEI must be a priority for party leaders because they carry the most influence in Canada’s political system. Leaders ultimately approve candidates in all ridings, and their public comments to media and private comments to their leadership teams can be incredibly persuasive.

One thing Canadian politicians should always remember when working to combat racism? Efforts should be invested in real change and not just towards paying lip service.

This article is part of the Identifying the Barriers to Racial Equality in Canada special feature.

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Rishi Sharma is currently working as director in the British Columbia government. His experience also includes many years working directly in BC’s Legislature, including the Premier’s Office.

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