For the first time in its history, the Ontario PC caucus will include Black MPPs after voters elected Charmaine Williams (Brampton Centre), David Smith (Scarborough Centre) and Patrice Barnes (Ajax) to serve in the legislature.
The upcoming term will also mark the first time in Ontario’s history that representatives of the Black community sit on both the government and opposition benches, as an equal number of Black MPPs have been elected on the other side of the aisle: Laura Mae Lindo and Jill Andrew returning to the NDP caucus, and Mitzie Hunter re-elected for the Liberals.
“It’s pretty amazing, I guess,” Barnes, who had been unaware of the distinction she and the other MPPs now hold, told Queen’s Park Today. “I’ve always been about representation, and I tell my kids to venture to places you don’t usually go, because you should be everywhere.”
Premier Doug Ford made sure to highlight the diversification of his party during his first post-election press conference on Friday.
“If you look at our party today versus four years ago, it’s very, very different. What I’m very proud of, we have three candidates from the Black community that got elected, and that’s a massive achievement,” said Ford. “I’m just so proud of each and every one of them. And it gives you a real snapshot of how the party is changing.”
That said, the number of Black MPPs at Queen’s Park remains the same as it was before the election, at six, as the NDP lost three of the five members who made up its Black Caucus — Kevin Yarde, who lost his Brampton North nomination race, Rima Berns-McGown, who opted to leave politics, and Faisal Hassan, who lost his seat in York South—Weston to the premier’s nephew, Michael Ford.
Despite disappointment over that lack of increase in Black MPPs, Velma Morgan, the chair of Operation Black Vote Canada, called it a “historic” moment for Ontario politics.
“We are happy that now we have representation across party lines, particularly in the governing party, which we felt was an issue during the last parliament. We just didn’t have representation at the decision-making table,” Morgan told Queen’s Park Today in an interview.
“So that is a good part of this election.”
Lindo agreed, calling it “fantastic” that there will be Black MPPs on the government bench this term in “yet another step for Black representation in history.” She told Queen’s Park Today it will help get more legislation addressing Black needs passed, such as Bill 67, Racial Equity Equity in the Education System Act, which died on the order paper this spring.
Had there been Black voices in the PC caucus last term, said Lindo, perhaps the government would have felt more pressure to move the legislation along. She also believes Black PC MPPs will be well-positioned to keep an eye on the regulations the government makes and ensure they don’t harm Black communities.
“A lot of people don’t realize that at Queen’s Park, when you’re in the chamber, you’re talking about legislation, but we don’t have control over the regulations. It’s only the government side that does that,” she said.
‘Representation for representation’s sake’ can’t be the end goal: NDP MPP
Operation Black Vote Canada penned letters to each party urging them to run more Black candidates in ridings where they would be likely to win. Even though the PCs did not respond to that memo, Morgan was pleased to see they “did exactly what we asked” anyway. Now, she says the new government needs to take the next step.
“What we are asking for now is that they become cabinet ministers,” said Morgan. “It’s great to have them elected, but now we need them to be at the cabinet table where major decisions are going to be made — hopefully in key portfolios, particularly education or health. Those are issues that have an adverse effect on [Black Ontarians], especially during the pandemic.”
Having Black voices in cabinet could draw attention to the community’s needs as Ontario rebuilds its economy, Morgan noted, ensuring Black workers and businesses are not left behind.
But Lindo warned cabinet “representation for representation’s sake” will not necessarily further the interests of Black Ontarians. She said it’s more important that Black MPPs are supported in their roles so they can succeed and obtain positions of authority on their own accord.
Barnes, who is still feeling a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of coming to Queen’s Park, says she can already feel the weight of expectations being placed on her.
“That’s probably the hardest part of being the first,” she told Queen’s Park Today. “You carry the expectations on your shoulders, and you sort of walk with your entire community with you. But, as I’ve always said, if you’re there, you are able to have input.”
With the NDP’s Black caucus — which had been a first during the last term — taking a hit, and the presence of Black MPPs in all major parties, Morgan suggested those MPPs form a cross-party Black caucus at the Pink Palace.
“Perhaps all six of them can get together as an Ontario Black caucus and share best practices and be able to create policies that will be good for the Black community in Ontario. I think when it comes to creating good policy, it has to be non-partisan,” she said. “I hope there is an appetite to do that, this is a historic [opportunity.]”
Barnes said she would be open to that possibility provided that such a group is “fair and productive.”
Lindo is also willing, but noted the NDP Black caucus’ creation was formed in response to recommendations from the Black community, and she would need to do more consultations with Black Ontarians about what they expect and want to see happen in the legislature.
“I don’t think that we really are in a place to be able to say exactly what it will look like until we actually have an opportunity to speak to the community because, again, it’s guidance from the community that actually helps you to organize well, and to legislate well,” she said.
Who are the new MPPs?
Patrice Barnes has been a trustee on the Durham District School Board since 2014, as well as a member of the Durham Region Police Services Board, and director of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. She has also served on the school board’s Youth Poverty Strategy Team and as an advisor to the Ontario Black Youth Action Plan and Ontario Education Partnership Roundtable.
Barnes said her education career began with a challenge her son had been having at school and blossomed from there. Prior to that she worked as an events director for various companies.
“Once I got into the board, you hear the stories from parents and students that were very similar to what happened with my children. And you see the data about the challenges Black children encounter in the school system and the long-lasting impact it had on their lives,” she said in a phone interview. “I think that’s how I became so invested. I saw every child as my child.”
Barnes decided to run for the PCs because she believes the party’s track record shows it is best positioned to make progress on issues important to Black Ontarians, especially when it comes to education. She had particular praise for Stephen Lecce’s work on equity issues within the school system as education minister, despite the “flack” he sometimes gets.
During his time as education minister, Lecce de-streamed high school math in a bid to make the system less discriminatory.
“Being in education eight years — I was there during the Liberals and I was there during the Conservatives — and the places that I saw movement and support really for anti-Black racism was in the PC Party,” she said.
Ajax, the riding she will represent, has the highest Black population percentage of any major Canadian municipality, according to the Community Development Council Durham.
Charmaine Williams is a therapist by trade, specializing in families and children dealing with issues such as domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, neglect and trauma. She has served as a behavioural consultant for the Reach Out Centre For Kids in Halton Region for the past eight years.
She was also the first Black woman to be elected to Brampton City Council in 2018. She is stepping down from that position, although there has been a bit of a kerfuffle over the filling of her seat on the Brampton council.
Williams was one of six Brampton councillors who made headlines by refusing to attend a council meeting earlier this year to protest what they saw as the abuse of procedures by other members of council and senior staff, which they argued were undemocratic and amounted to “an authoritarian dictatorship.”
David Smith is a three-term trustee on the Toronto District School Board, where his tenure has been marred by some controversy.
In 2017, Smith was censured by his fellow trustees after the school board’s integrity commissioner found he had broken expense rules by accepting a $500 cheque from a TDSB employee union and using board resources for outside businesses. Smith, who is a professional accountant, maintained his innocence during the unanimous vote against him.
Smith was also charged and convicted of violating the Municipal Elections Act by failing to follow campaign finance rules during the 2014 election. He was fined $6,505 by the court.
During the campaign, the Liberals dug up a newsletter Smith sent out to constituents in 2019 where he blasted the Ford government’s cuts to after-school programs in that year’s provincial budget, saying the province had not been forthcoming about the impacts of the cuts, which would “leave lasting harm to our schools.”
Despite his past criticism, Smith ran for the party anyway, saying that “I believe in the premier … I would like to be part of that.”
Williams and Smith did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.