Kristyn Wong Tam just made history. They became the first Asian-Canadian, queer and non-binary person elected to Ontario’s legislature, significantly expanding the vision of what a politician looks like in this country.
Kristyn joins other recent Canadian political “firsts,” including Bhutila Karpoche, the first elected official in North America of Tibetan descent, and Doly Begum, the first Bangladeshi-Canadian woman to be elected in the country.
These leaders share a similar journey that first began with meaningful participation in civic engagement and community work, increasing political engagement, culminating in the decision to run for elected office.
Why does the political engagement of people like Kristyn, Bhutila and Doly matter so much?
Seeing a visibly powerful immigrant woman or non-binary person in an elected, decision-making role in the political arena empowers others to do the same. Emerging research shows that visibility and role modeling increases political participation and results in a stronger democracy from more diversified representation.
Higher engagement from traditionally under-represented groups strengthens our social and political fabric, creating more trust in our institutions as they begin to more accurately reflect the society they purport to serve. This is particularly important now when our democracy is threatened by the rise of misinformation, low voter turnout and a growing distrust of authorities and institutions.
So how can we support civic engagement for future trailblazers like Kristyn Wong-Tam? In our recent academic and community-based research on civic participation of immigrants and refugees in Canada, undertaken with my colleagues at the Journeys to Active Citizenship project, we found that the journey starts first with community involvement.
We found that newcomers often become involved in local community-based activities before engaging in formal political activities like voting and running for office.
Voting and other forms of formal political engagement do not happen in a vacuum. Behind the decision to run for office are often journeys built on community engagement, a belief that the system is worth participating in and a social network that supports you.
Unsurprisingly, voter turnout amongst immigrants is higher the longer someone has been in Canada. Elections Canada even acknowledges that language can be a barrier to voting for new Canadians, alongside a lack of knowledge of the election process, less awareness of early voting opportunities and a lack of trust in the Canadian political process. However, once immigrants and refugees overcome settlement challenges, they are more likely to vote.
Immigrant women in the past have been less likely to participate in formal political processes, however, they are much more likely to participate in informal civic activities, which often act as a critical stepping-stone to formal participation through actions like voting, writing to your elected representative or running for office.
So how can we bolster opportunities for formal and informal civic participation for immigrants, and particularly immigrant women?
Building social networks has been proven to strengthen integration and belonging and is critical to help immigrants establish trust with fellow Canadians. Enabling community engagement is another key piece of the puzzle.
Creating and strengthening civic education and engagement that is tailored to newcomers, particularly women, would be important to build the skills, knowledge, capacity and confidence that would enable newcomers to engage more fully in Canada’s democracy.
In our interviews and group sessions with immigrants and refugees over the last two years, we found three recurring sources of community for newcomers to Canada: religious spaces, community-based organizations and post-secondary institutions. Academic literature also tells us that community-based organizations may act as mobilizing agents for civic participation.
Delivering programs through these places of community important to newcomers in their early years would be critical for success.
Supporting programs that bolster opportunities for newcomers to engage in a wide range of community initiatives such as volunteering, participating in local community events, or joining social clubs will help foster a sense of trust and belonging in our political processes and institutions, and ultimately lead to an increase in formal political participation.
Canada already benefits greatly from the labour of immigrant women — something that has been highlighted throughout the pandemic. It’s time we included their voices, expertise and experiences in the political process. Our democracy will only become more robust as a result.
Seher Shafiq is the Journeys to Active Citizenship Manager at North York Community House. She is also a writer, speaker and commentator on civic engagement and political participation in Canada.
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