POLITICS
12/27/2018 07:46 EST | Updated 12/31/2018 13:30 EST

Bhutila Karpoche, Ontario’s 1st Tibetan MPP, Wants Ontario To Be A Place Where Immigrants Thrive

In her 16 years in Canada, she's gone from working temporary factory shifts to sitting in the provincial legislature.

BHUTILA KARPOCHE/FACEBOOK
Ontario MPP for Parkdale-High Park Bhutila Karpoche marches in a minimum wage demonstration.

TORONTO — Bhutila Karpoche snaps her finger.

"Yes, you can count on me for the energy," she tells HuffPost Canada in her office at Queen's Park.

It's approaching 5 p.m. and Karpoche has been answering questions about her life for almost an hour. She's explaining why young people should hold public office, and how she convinces constituents of that when they're wary of her age.

"How old are you?" was a common question for the 34-year-old NDP MPP during Ontario's spring election campaign. Karpoche says she got used to listing off her qualifications — she's an epidemiologist with a master's degree in public health and a PhD on the way — and she told people that they should want lively millennials running the government.

"In many ways, we're the right generation to be elected to office," she says. "We are living the challenges of the people of Ontario."

She is one of several millennial MPPs in Ontario's legislature.

Karpoche says both her struggles and her hopes are quintessentially millennial. She frets about precarious employment and climate change. She daydreams about a world where every worker gets a pension.

In many ways, we're the right generation to be elected to office.Bhutila Karpoche

"The kinds of opportunities that were there for previous generations are not there for us."

Karpoche, who is the first person of Tibetan heritage to hold public office in North America, arrived in Canada when she was 18 years old. She was born in Nepal, where tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees have fled China's occupation in their home country. Her childhood was spent in both Nepal and at boarding school in India.

Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood was the Karpoche family's first home in Canada. Six relatives shared a two-bedroom rental apartment in a high-rise building.

Being able to afford that apartment in Parkdale, where many of the city's 8,000 Tibetans live in an enclave called Little Tibet, was key to setting up their new life in Canada. Unfortunately, Karpoche says, newcomer families can no longer afford to rent even a small apartment in the city.

"Even the people who have lived in the community forever can't afford to live there anymore," she says. "It's no longer that place that can be your stepping stone into your life in Canada."

BHUTILA KARPOCHE/INSTAGRAM
Ontario MPP Bhutila Karpoche poses for a photo with incoming U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a photo from Instagram.

That's one of the reasons why Karpoche says housing is one of the most urgent issues facing Ontarians. (During our interview, Karpoche says housing is the number one issue. She calls back a week later to say she's changed her mind: income inequality is actually the biggest problem, because she believes all other issues stem from that.)

Karpoche credits many of her experiences in Parkdale with shaping her political views.

Soon after arriving in Canada, the teenager heard about a chance to get some work. She was told to wait in the McDonald's parking lot at the corner of King and Dufferin streets for a van that would pick up temporary workers. For a few days, the van showed up, but Karpoche wasn't chosen to get in. So she got ahold of the boss' phone number, and called him personally to make a plea for work. He finally picked her for a shift.

"I had no idea where we were going," she says. She was only told that she would be driven to a factory for a 12-hour shift. It turned out to be a spray can factory in Mississauga, Ont., where she worked on the assembly line and carried heavy boxes.

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Potentially dangerous work

Later, she would learn how much money the temp agency was collecting from her paycheque and that it may have been dangerous to do that kind of work with no training.

That job has grounded her belief that having strong employment standards is actually a public health issue.

"It's not just, for me, a topic of study. It's not just a research issue. It was my experience," she says.

Karpoche's always been interested in taking care of sick people — "even when we would play with dolls, I was the one nursing the sick Barbie" — but a few profound experiences like the warehouse gig turned it into her career.

COURTESY BHUTILA KARPOCHE
Ontario MPP Bhutila Karpoche participated in a protest with Students for a Free Tibet outside of the Chinese consulate in Vancouver. Karpoche says the consulate tried to have the students removed by police, but they maintained their around-the-clock presence for a week.

Around 2006, Karpoche was in Vancouver studying for an undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia. She chose the far-away school because it offered the best scholarship. She joined a learning exchange program that had her volunteer at a women's centre in the Downtown Eastside, which has come to be known as "Canada's roughest neighbourhood."

She also did another exchange at a Tibetan hospital in India, which mainly serves refugees.

"I was able to see very clearly that you could be in Nepal, or a refugee hospital in India, or you could be in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver. The determinants of health are still the same," Karpoche says. "People's health doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's a social context to it."

Now, Karpoche brings that knowledge to the mental health and addictions file as the Ontario NDP's critic.

Health is, at the end of the day, a political decision.Bhutila Karpoche

She says individual choices about health, like how often someone exercises or how much fried food they eat, are less impactful than the social determinants of health shaped by society.

"Health is, at the end of the day, a political decision."

On one health issue in particular, Karpoche says Premier Doug Ford's government has made the wrong decision.

BHUTILA KARPOCHE/FACEBOOK
Ontario MPP Bhutila Karpoche stands with her NDP colleagues in a mock Maclean's magazine cover. The group poked fun at the magazine online after it labelled five male Conservative politicians "the resistance."

Ford's government announced in October that it would allow existing safe-injection sites for drug users to keep operating, but they have to shift their focus to getting people into treatment.

"There's overwhelming research to show harm reduction works, that safe consumption sites are the right way to go," Karpoche says. "For people to seek treatment, they first have to be alive."

And for people to tackle an addiction or mental health issue, they first need stable housing, she says. The government can put all kinds of money into health care, but if they're not tackling social issues like housing, the problems won't go away.

All of these issues — housing, health care, mental health and addiction — are deeply connected to each other, Karpoche stressed in her follow-up phone call to HuffPost. And she says millennials have the right perspective to take it all on.

"We are the generation that acts."

This story is part of a HuffPost Canada series on Ontario's millennial MPPs. Read our story on PC Stephen Lecce and check back for features on Vijay Thanigasalam, Goldie Ghamari and Gurratan Singh.

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