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As A Black Man, It’s Time For Me To Look Beyond Loyalty To The Liberals

Which Canadian political party has the best interests of Black people at heart?

At the outset of my nomination campaign, I was brimming with optimism. I imagined myself winning in the 2022 provincial election, making speeches and writing my first private members bill. The last thing I expected was to be withdrawing my candidacy seven months later, and requesting for my application fees to be returned.

As a nomination contestant for the Ontario Liberals, I had a front-row seat to unwelcoming and discouraging behaviour that changed my outlook on the party, and all of Canada’s major political parties in general. Though this experience would lead me to end my hard-fought candidacy prematurely, it also marked the beginning of an eye-opening personal journey of political exploration.

The writer, Vonny Sweetland, campaigning in Toronto.
The writer, Vonny Sweetland, campaigning in Toronto.

I grew up a biracial child of working-class parents in Toronto. Like many other young people of colour, I had become accustomed to supporting the Liberal Party. Their progressive positions on issues that mattered to me, their relentless outreach to minority groups, their promises of inclusivity and diversity — it all made me feel like I had a home in this party.

In 2020, it was reported that COVID-19 disproportionately affected Blacks and communities of colour. It was made clear that there were very real inequities that existed in our health-care system and other key institutions. Police brutality became a key subject all across North America.

I decided I would try and address the many issues my community was facing by serving in government. I answered the Liberals’ call for young, diverse leaders of colour to enter politics. As a Black, openly gay millennial, I was convinced that I was more than the right fit.

The first red flag for me came when a popular politico publication reported that, of seven prospective contestants hoping to run under the Ontario Liberal banner in the Toronto Centre riding, three were Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC). The three would-be contestants said they felt discouraged from running by the riding association’s president, Milton Chan — allegations the Ontario Liberals did not investigate. This was incredibly unsettling to me. Former Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes called out the party and its leader at the time, writing, “Everybody is an #ally until it’s time to do the work!”

As other young Black Liberals started to compare their experiences, it became clear there was a pattern. BIPOC candidates seeking nomination did not seem to receive the public endorsements afforded to non-BIPOC contestants, and seemed to be generally less supported overall.

A young racialized volunteer named Sam Nami spoke out about his experiences while working on a Liberal campaign, alleging a “climate of bullying and harassment” and that he and another complainant were targeted because they were not white. The party later stated it would investigate the allegations.

A few years ago, Caesar-Chavannes talked about subtle and unintentional insults that “feel like a death by a thousand cuts.” She said that for some people of colour politics can sometimes feel like “navigating a place that wasn’t built for you.” Her words felt all too real to me.

“It became clear that I needed to start a journey of political and self exploration.”

When the party made the decision to reduce application fees for young and female candidates, they failed to do the same for BIPOC candidates. I felt compared to candidates of similar media backgrounds, but different races, and saw that my accomplishments were treated as less valuable. It isn’t uncommon for BIPOC to be expected to be “exceptional” or work twice as hard to make it in politics. As a Black man upsetting the status quo of an old-guard organization, I also found myself being told my tone was “threatening.”

I was beginning to believe that the Liberal Party’s mandate to run more minority candidates was all just words. After I ended my campaign for good, Liberal leader Steven Del Duca spoke to members of the press gallery, saying he was disappointed to hear that a Black LGBTQ candidate is no longer vying for the nomination because he felt that he was treated unfairly. “I feel really badly to hear that,” Del Duca said. So did I.

Looking beyond political conditioning

In February 2021, former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes released a book detailing her time serving within the federal Liberal government. She wrote of a lack of support from her colleagues and the prime minister during a 2018 social media feud that caused her much hurtful drama. She questioned whether the Liberals spoke truth to power on diversity, and felt she was tokenized for political benefit.

After reading about Caesar-Chavannes’ experience and dwelling on my own, it became clear that I needed to start a journey of political and self exploration, and answer a question I had been asking since the end of 2020: which party has the best interests of Black people at heart?

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole's messaging seems to signal a more inclusive, welcoming party.
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole's messaging seems to signal a more inclusive, welcoming party.

Like the Liberals, the Conservative Party has had a contentious track record on diversity and BIPOC issues. A 2019 EKOS Research Associates poll found negative attitudes about immigrants and visible minorities were strongest among self-identified Conservatives. Former leader Andrew Scheer had a well-documented history of courting and appealing to white nationalists. We can also recall former prime minister Stephen Harper’s attempted niqab ban in 2015.

Do I support the regressive positions, statements and thoughts from the Conservatives’ past? Absolutely not. But like people, political parties are constantly evolving. When a party can own its past and look to the future with firm action, it deserves another chance.

When MP Erin O’Toole won the Conservative leadership in 2020, I naturally became curious about what new direction the party may take. O’Toole has been very adamant about ensuring Canadians from diverse backgrounds feel that they, too, have a home in his party. When Conservative MP Derek Sloan took donations from white nationalists, O’Toole kicked him out of the caucus. Under Erin O’Toole’s new leadership, Black folks are starting to feel more optimistic about embracing a revamped, modern Conservative Party. Feeling that optimism myself was not only shocking, but unsettling. This was a party that I had seen as the enemy for so long.

Do I think there are other parties also worthy of exploration? For sure. With the federal Green Party recently electing a Black woman as their leader, I am inspired. Annamie Paul has stated her intention to create a team that is both diverse and prepared to tackle Black issues in Canada. And I’m learning new things about other parties every day.

My journey is far from over, but over the past few months, I’ve learned that blind loyalty to any party isn’t wise, and of the importance of looking beyond political conditioning. I encourage BIPOC Canadians to start re-evaluating their political loyalties, and find an organization whose actions, not rhetoric, reflect their values.

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