Canada Votes Part 1: Asian Canadian candidates talk representation ahead of Election Day

For the 2019 federal election, we chat with candidates of all political stripes on why civic representation and engagement is more important than ever.

The constant ads. The nonstop polls. The unearthed scandals.

It’s time for another Canadian federal election and the whole circus that follows our once-every-four-years opportunity to vote for the leaders that will represent all of us and our interests.

So why do the faces on the stage look awfully similar year after year?

We’ve made progress, for sure. Jagmeet Singh is the first person of colour ever to lead a major federal party as leader of the New Democratic Party. But there’s no question that racism has played a factor in this election. We’ve seen racism both directed at and committed by candidates, and it’s a telling sign that we still have a ways to go.

This federal election, Cold Tea Collective wanted to hear from Asian Canadian candidates of all political stripes and chat about why civic representation and engagement is more important than ever. Asian Canadians are one of the fastest growing visible minority groups and yet our voices are too often left off the decision-making table. When was the last time your candidate looked like you?

The reasons for low representation and engagement are many. Some immigrants come from a place where they didn’t grow up with democratic values or education. Others find it difficult to participate in a space that may seem unwelcoming to people of colour.

These candidates broke through those barriers — and have some key advice for why and how you should get involved with the electoral process, whether that means voting, volunteering, running for office, and more.

Now, go vote and make your voice heard!

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jenny Kwan, New Democratic Party

Why is it important for Asian Canadians, and particularly Asian millennials, to get involved in politics and be represented in government?

I remember when I first ran my parents were quite taken aback and were quite worried even, and thought that I shouldn’t run for office. I ran at 26 and was elected as the youngest city councillor in Vancouver’s history, but people had told me not to get involved in politics.

Our community, our elected officials at all levels of government, municipal, provincial, and federal, should reflect the faces of our community. We live in a multicultural society and yet, we don’t actually see that broad representation in our elected officials. 

All too often, millennials and people from ethnic minority communities don’t get involved in the electoral process for many reasons. It’s important for people to participate in this process because the decisions made at the table impact you directly. The Asian community may not be as engaged with the political process as they could be because they come from regimes that may not have democracy and don’t encourage people to be engaged.

For Asian millennials, I say to you, please get engaged because everything that happens in your life, politics has something to do with it. All the way from getting your garbage picked up, to education, to housing, to air quality, to access to medication, and more. As my mentor said to me, “If you’re not engaged then things will happen without your voice in it.” I come from a place where I think the voice of the people matters a lot, that’s what democracy is all about, the power of the people. 

If Asian Canadian youth reading this piece want to get involved in politics, what advice would you give them?

My advice would be this. Believe in yourself, that your voice matters and should be heard. A lot of people will say don’t get involved, it doesn’t matter. I will challenge that and say it does matter, it matters not just for you as an individual but it matters for all the people you love, your friends and family, and even people you don’t know. I have this philosophy that when we lift ourselves up, we lift up others as well. And when you lift others up, you lift yourself up. It goes full circle.

People used to say to me, “Jenny is very hardworking, she’s very smart, but she’s too young.” But what does my age have to do with it right? For young millennials and people starting out, don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’re too young and dismiss you and the power of your voice. I was elected as the youngest city councillor and it was through that process that people supported me and encouraged me that my voice was just as valid as anybody else’s. And I fought for that space to be heard and brought the voices of the people who were otherwise not heard, to the table.

What does the Asian community mean to you?

Here in Canada, the Asian community helped build this country. People died helping to build this country and the railway connecting us coast-to-coast. Back in the day, the Asian community suffered discrimination, racism, the worst jobs, the most dangerous jobs, and yet they persevered. In spite of all that hardship, we’ve become a successful community that is established here in Canada.

That said, we are also seeing a resurgence of racism in our communities. We are seeing it definitely in the Asian community and the Muslim community. I’ve always had hate mail and comments toward me, but always anonymous behind a phone or letter. A couple of years ago for the first time in my electoral life, I had white supremacists say to my face that they didn’t like the colour of my skin. We need to stand united against the forces of racism.

I feel so lucky and privileged that my natural heritage is Chinese and that I get the best of both worlds to be able to bring it into Canadian society. Canada is a country where we can celebrate the faces of the world, but never take it for granted, it was hard-fought and we had to work hard to make those gains. I would say that when we fight for human rights and equality and justice, it’s not just for Asian community members, it’s for all of us as a human race. When people attack the refugee community or the indigenous community, we need to stand up with them as allies. Economic and social justice should prevail for every one of us.

Harjit Sajjan, Liberal

Why is it important for Asian Canadians, and particularly Asian millennials, to get involved in politics and be represented in government?

It is very simple, we’re a part of Canadian society. This is our country and they need to have a voice, but we need to encourage them to have that voice and teach them how to get involved.

So I can say in our campaign alone, I use it as an opportunity to encourage a younger population to get involved and learn and to give our youth a voice. That way they get to see the process, see how things are going, and if you give them the opportunity, they will succeed.

The simple answer to your question is, they’re Canadians. This is Canada, they’re part of this society. And they need to have a voice. But we need to encourage that. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for a very long time.

If Asian Canadian youth reading this piece want to get involved in politics, what advice would you give them?

So the one thing I always ask is: why? Because politics is not about getting into politics to do politicking. You get into politics because you want to change something, to achieve something. And so what is your “why”? For example, one of the things for me is that I want to encourage young Canadians to get involved, especially of all backgrounds. I feel very proud when I can be a champion for other communities. As a side note, a lot of people from other communities tell me they feel that they too can succeed because I’ve been given this responsibility as Minister of National Defense for the last four years. 

For people who are really interested in wanting to make a difference, know that you can make a difference. But answer the question of why you want to get in, because everything in life, and especially politics, has a lot of challenges. And when you have clarity on why you’re getting involved you’ll be able to figure out the “how” very easily and make that difference.

What does the Asian community mean to you?

My responsibility is to make sure that we create an environment so that they can actually succeed up to the highest levels. I want to make sure, especially in government, that our public service is a true reflection of Canadian society. When people want to want to make a difference, I want to try to get them to Ottawa. Imagine if your public service is a true reflection of Canadian society. It doesn’t matter what government comes in, right? Your public service that is permanently there, you’ll always have a really good positive viewpoint. But it takes a government to get that done. And one thing our party has done under Justin Trudeau’s leadership is to make sure that we take tangible steps for that inclusion. 

People may think that multiculturalism is strictly language skill or cultural understanding. No, it’s far beyond that. I’ve seen it in action, that’s what’s needed to get better policies as well.

I want to make sure that the public services are accessible to people that want to make a difference and mentor them on what you need to do to get into public life. Because I always say I’m here for a short time. I want to pass the baton on to somebody else. So that this can continue.

Helen Quan, Conservative

Why is it important for Asian Canadians, and particularly Asian millennials, to get involved in politics and be represented in government?

Every Canadian is entitled to vote as part of our democratic system. If we want our voices and opinions to be heard we have to participate in this system that will help shape the future of Canada. Many of our forebears risked life and limb, and signed up for active service – some of them knowing that they won’t return – just to speak against discrimination, for the right to vote, and to show our country that we deserve to be equally proud Canadians as much as anyone else is. The rest is history. 

One of them, Douglas Jung, a Conservative MP, was Canada’s first Member of Parliament of Asian and Chinese descent and first of visible minorities elected. He later famously went on to serve as a legal representative to the UN for Canada. The Conservatives (then known as the Progressive Conservatives) were also the first to embrace visible minorities into their party. A federal building in downtown Vancouver is named in his honour to remember what he did for all Canadians, not just Asian Canadians. We all have a say in our future. Let’s use our votes to speak for us, our families, and our friends!

If Asian Canadian youth reading this piece want to get involved in politics, what advice would you give them?

Do some research on the platforms of each party and make an informed decision as to which party you resonate the most with. Then decide whether you would like to support that party by reaching out to your local candidate and perhaps volunteer with their campaign. The door to my own campaign office is open. I’m always open to listening to the youth – they are our future, particularly in Vancouver-Kingsway.

What does the Asian community mean to you?
The Asian community represents one of the many diversities of Vancouver that also helped shaped the image of Vancouver and Canada today. To me, it also means home, friends, and family.

Rabaab Khehra, Green

If Asian Canadian youth reading this piece want to get involved in politics, what advice would you give them?

Be proud of who you are. There’s so much value in having two identities. Just know that there will be moments when people will say things about you that aren’t true, and it will challenge you, but don’t let it take you away from who you are. Be aware of who you are and stick to it. As long as you do, you’ll be ok. When I was younger I definitely struggled with being proud. 

Why is it important for Asian Canadians, and particularly Asian millennials, to get involved in politics and be represented in government?

We have the polarity in politics at the moment. You’re either this or that. You’re either supporting this policy or you’re a SJW. There’s no in-between, and I think it’s because, and I don’t want to justify radicalism, but it’s partly because there’s a lack of connectivity, a lack of knowledge among some people. 

People who aren’t connected in other cultures don’t see other cultures in an empathetic way. If you start connecting with more Asian people, maybe you can start to understand our humanity, that we have the same rights and feelings as you. This rhetoric around no immigrants or no refugees, they’re real people, and if you can connect that immigrant to a real person, to a face and a voice, then I think it changes things when you talk about numbers. 

I also want to add that it is my right to be whatever I want to be and I’m allowed to be a politician – just because I’m a person of colour it doesn’t mean this space isn’t for me. 

Especially as a politician, there’s a fear that I’ll hurt someone’s feelings. Whereas before I’ll be loud with my views. Now I’m trying to be kinder with my words. At the end of the day, it isn’t about creating more polarity, it’s about creating empathy. It doesn’t come at the price of sacrificing my loudness. 

What does the Asian community mean to you?

It’s changed a lot over the years. I was born in India, and when I came here I thought it was something I needed to hide. And when I did, it was met with, “oh wow you don’t have an accent you basically fit in,” and I was so proud of that. But over the years, I’ve become so proud of the fact that I was born in India and I’m able to bring a different perspective into the community. Being able to share that perspective has helped people understand poverty and different experiences. 

It helps my community to understand the idea of immigrants and wanting a better life. It puts into perspective that immigrants aren’t just the weird other – they’re just like us. My community gives me strength. They are the most accepting human beings. If you go to anyone’s house, they won’t let you leave until you’re fed. That sense of love and acceptance and connection can be lost because we live in such an individualistic world. 

Jaeden Dela Torre, NDP

Why is it important for Asian Canadians, and particularly Asian millennials, to get involved in politics and be represented in government?

We need more diversity in politics. Canada is a very multicultural country, and it’s one of the greatest points of pride in the country. But if we look at the House of Commons, there isn’t much diversity in there. It’s not enough, we need more. With my candidacy, I hope to inspire other Asian millennials to run.

I used to think I couldn’t do things or be certain people because I couldn’t see myself in them. For example, it’s kind of dumb, I wanted to be Harry Potter, but he didn’t look like me. I thought I couldn’t be him because I didn’t look like him. So, I would think I couldn’t do this or that because no one else I could see representing me is doing it. So I want to inspire others to see that politics isn’t just an old person’s club, it’s a field for diverse opinions. I want to encourage people that although it is a scary place, I want people to look up to me and see how I’ve paved the way for other young Asians. The whole point of my candidacy is to inspire other youth to be encouraged and get involved and get their voices out there. 

If Asian Canadian youth reading this piece want to get involved in politics, what advice would you give them?

I would say go for it. It’s a scary field, but I see people who want to do it but they don’t see someone they can relate to or they’re afraid of the attacks. But honestly, it’s going to be part of the job, but all you can do is stand tall and be the change that you want to see.

I tell them that if you don’t see any other Asians in your field, not just in politics, just think about all the other Asians who want to do it too but don’t have that person to look up to. Be the person they’re going to look up to. That’s what I hope to inspire given there’s a lot of Asian youth in this community.

The rewarding thing, in the end, is inspiring others regardless of what happens in the election – that someone can say, “Hey I never thought I’d see a young Filipino running, if he can do it anyone can.” That’s what I want to say to the Asian Canadian youth out there, is that if I can run, you can too – and you can probably do it better than me. Get involved and stand tall – you shouldn’t ever be ashamed of who you are. 

What does the Asian community mean to you?

I’m a lot younger than my opponents. I feel like younger people, especially Asians in the community can see themselves in me a lot more than my opponents. I can relate more to them. I work and am running at the same time and that can be relatable to a lot of young people living in Richmond who are also going to school and working – I don’t think my opponents can relate in the same way. 

Being raised in Richmond, this community feels very tight-knit. We can share the same stories and jokes and values. I know a lot of young people are scared about the future. We should be able to work together instead of against. There are a lot of pressures on young people these days, on top of anxiety and depression, and I don’t blame them for feeling these pressures because of the situation we’re in with income inequality, the climate crisis, housing affordability, we share these and we understand that. What I’m trying to get at is that I can understand that stress with them. I can understand this generation the best. 

Special thanks to Joanne Li for all her work on this piece. Stay tuned for Part 2!

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