By Jaime Woo
In 1988, community organizer Carolann Wright-Parks became the first black woman to run for mayor of Toronto, against incumbent Art Eggleton. Born and raised in Beechville, Nova Scotia, the oldest indigenous black community in Canada, Wright-Parks had lived in Toronto for nearly a decade when she ran. She finished second in a field of nine with 24,479 votes, or 17.4 per cent. (Eggleton won with 64.9 per cent of the vote.) Wright-Parks was always realistic about the purpose of the campaign—to drive awareness rather than to win—but she nonetheless made history.
Her campaign was part of a string of elections that saw women land in second place, before the six years between 1991 and 1997 that Toronto was led by June Rowlands and Barbara Hall.
She was also the first and last visible contender of colour until Olivia Chow, a unfathomable quarter of a century later. Drawing direct comparisons is unhelpful: Chow is a career politician, Wright-Parks was not; Chow is running post-amalgamation, Wright-Parks faced only old town; and Wright-Parks challenged an incumbent expected to win, unlike the three-ring Ford circus. Yet, in her own words, Wright-Parks calls it "very shocking" that there have been few viable candidates of colour since her run.
In 1994, Wright-Parks returned to Halifax. She is now the Director of Community Economic Development and Strategic Engagement at the Greater Halifax Partnership. The following excerpts are from an interview done with Wright-Parks at the end of August.
It’s not meant as direct commentary on the current election. Instead, it is an occasion to look at our city’s past, and reflect on how some things have stayed the same.
ON ANNOUNCING HER RUN
“I was not expecting to run. I'm an organizer, not usually a frontperson. It was purely the community who said, ‘Look, we'd appreciate if you did this because it would highlight the issues that we work so hard from day to day. It would give a face to the issues of anti-poverty.' I had no political experience at that time (but now I understand that that doesn't matter!) and was not politically sophisticated at all, but I knew what the agenda was.
“When I first announced, there was a pause because I don't think a black woman had ever ran before. A black man had been in city council in the 1800's at some point a long time ago (William Peyton Hubbard, a City of Toronto Alderman from 1894 to 1914) but I think I was the first black woman who had ever run, period. So, there was some pause, like 'is it serious?'
ON CANDIDATES FROM MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES
“In politics you realize how candidates get beaten up even in the running. Your business is all out there, and it is what it is. For marginalized communities, when all your business is out there, it's very hard to concentrate on what you're trying to do when people are questioning your lifestyle.
“Like with black candidates: ‘They're only gonna represent black people.’ I got that a lot. That we're always corrupt and the racism around that. When volunteers were canvassing for me, people would go, "Oh, I'm not voting for her. She's only going to represent black people." My sisters, who went canvassing, heard that and were completely shocked. You get marginalized about who you're going to represent.
“I'd say, ‘Of course I am, but that's not going to stop me from representing you. This is why I'm running. I'm supposed to bring another dimension to the position of office in terms of understanding who I represent—it's a value-add.’
“If you're a black person, people make the mistake of saying, ‘I'm not here to represent black people. I represent everybody.’ But you are representing your community. I was representing a segment of my community. That's the reality of it. I never apologized for that.
ON THE MAIN ISSUES DURING HER CAMPAIGN
“During that period there was a lot of police violence against young black men. The issue of race in Toronto was extremely volatile, particularly about policing. And, if you were a poor single mother in the system, and God forbid you were black, people thought it was okay to treat you a particular way. We had to not only address this in the campaign in a practical way, but get it on the Mayor's agenda.
“Young people growing up in Regent Park and St. Lawrence and surrounding areas in the city did not vote. They did not care and were not interested because they felt they were not cared about either. I think people were at that particular time fed up with the dismissiveness around low-income communities and homelessness: things that were just not on the Mayor's agenda at that time. We wanted to let people know their voice counted. It counted on election night.
“The voter turnout was excellent during that campaign because we spent time in communities doing things that were not traditionally done in civic campaigns. I never really thought about [winning] at that time to be perfectly honest with you. We were so focused on the campaign issues.”
ON HOW TO HANDLE DISCUSSIONS OF RACE
“The way that we had been approaching it, people become really defensive and it shuts down the whole conversation. People want to protect what they have, and it becomes me-versus-you, us-versus-them type of scenario. I can paint a picture for you all day in terms of how racism affects my life but I want it to change so how do I create that opportunity for you to do that self-examination and to realize the impact of that? It flips the conversation a bit.
“How you begin is not trying to change their worldview, but to ask the proper questions so that people begin to examine it for themselves, and to challenge themselves around how they see the world and why particular worldviews hold other people hostage.
“When you tell me that you don't see colour, that is not a sophisticated or accurate analysis of the situation because you are seeing colour. You decided by saying that it doesn't matter—you decided that, but it does matter.
“How did you derive that? What do you believe? Questioning beliefs and values: how did you arrive here so that you believe this is true?”
To read the whole interview, go here.