Canada Votes Part 2: Asian Canadian candidates look to make a difference in the community

Today’s political climate within this digital age can feel turbulent to the point of overwhelming.

With this tweet and that headline vying for your attention, it’s easy to feel desensitized, apathetic, or frankly, cynical about politics.

But amidst the online shouting matches, sometimes we need to be reminded of the actual human beings behind the party colours and take a pause to listen to what they have to say.

In Part One, we spoke with Asian Canadian candidates running for office about the importance of young civic engagement and the empowerment of Asian representation in Canadian politics.

On this Canadian election day, we want to highlight — despite platform differences — the unifying reason for why these candidates keep doing what they do: the people they’re serving.

Cold Tea Collective asked local Asian Canadian candidates about what motivated them to get involved in politics and what aspect of their work keeps them going. Their stories emphasize the “public” in public service and are a reminder that citizens are both the central reasons and forces for social and political change.

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Practising your right to vote has never been more important than now. Millennials make up the largest voting bloc for the first time and it’s an opportunity for Asian Canadian millennials to come together and make their voices heard.

Use the Vote Compass if you’re unsure of your political standing, and go vote today!

JENNY KWAN, NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY

What first inspired you to run for office?

I immigrated here to Canada with my family back in 1976 and I was just a little girl then. Through that experience as an immigrant child, I watched how my parents struggled. None of them spoke English, they struggled to find work. My mom had to go to the workforce for the first time as a farmworker working for $10 a day. It was tough as a new immigrant kid trying to navigate my surroundings in a new environment. Growing up in that situation, not unlike today where people are struggling to find housing, it was the same for us as well.

Growing up in that environment I always wondered how Canada was better, it was supposed to be better. That’s what we believed, that’s what we were told. But the struggles were very real to me. I was growing up in all of that and for the longest time, I thought that our struggles were because we were Chinese. I didn’t understand as a child that it wasn’t necessarily an ethnicity issue but rather a socioeconomic issue. It wasn’t just because we were Chinese – there were all sorts of people struggling from low income families. That took me many years to figure out.

When I finally did I was working as an advocate in the Downtown Eastside community. The year that I decided to run for federal office was the year the national affordable housing platform was cancelled. In the community of the folks that I was trying to help, housing was a major issue as it was for my own family growing up. Gentrification was also a very big issue and it prompted people to ask, “why don’t you run for public office?” And I still remember saying, “I’m not interested in running for politics.” I said politicians don’t do anything and I was not interested. It was my mentor then, Jim Green, who said, “Jenny, you’re a great advocate, you fight for people on the ground all the time, wouldn’t it be something if you got to the decision-making table and brought the voices of the people to the decision-making table to try to affect change that way.” At the end of it, I thought he was right and that I would throw my name into the electoral process and I ran for the first time in 1993 for city council and was subsequently elected.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your candidacy or your time in office so far?

There’s so many! We do a lot of work behind the scenes at the constituency office helping with individual issues. Whether it’s helping people find affordable housing or trying to help seniors navigate through the bureaucracy of government. Those rewarding moments are when I can help a constituent. Help them have their rights respected or find housing. During this campaign, there was a family I spoke with, a woman who was pregnant and had a young child who was homeless. She was at a shelter desperate to get into a home so when her baby arrives she would have a stable environment for her family. I tried to help her secure a home and was able to line her up with a housing provider to help her secure permanent affordable housing. I got to tell you, that always makes me feel that the value of this work is beyond measure. That you made a difference in someone’s life. We do cases like that all the time at the constituency office. 

Bringing it into a larger context, when we do individual advocacy some of these cases have larger policy implications. On many occasions, I have worked with individuals like that and have pushed the policy issues. In the case of caregivers, people who come to Canada who are primarily racialized women who take care of Canadian families and children, all while their loved ones are left behind. Our immigration policy is such that it makes it hard for those caregivers to bring those families here with them. I’ve met families who’ve been separated from their loved ones for more than a decade. This immigration policy has broken up families. By doing individual advocacy I was able to affect policy changes for the better, for the people. And that’s some of the most rewarding work.

HARJIT SAJJAN, LIBERAL

What first inspired you to run for office?

I came to Canada when I was five years old, and through the years, I saw the challenges within the community, but also the tremendous opportunity that it had – and community plays a very important role in how you can develop your beliefs and your confidence.

I’ve been in the military and, especially when I was a police officer, I saw families that weren’t able to have enough time with their kids. And so when I had the opportunity to run, this was one of the biggest things that motivated me to be a protector as a leader. To be a protector in your community making sure that you give confidence to people. But also making sure a strong voice was heard. And I’m a firm believer that if we give families an opportunity to raise their kids right those kids are going to succeed, and when they succeed, that means communities and the nation succeeds.

I thought, what a great opportunity to be able to give back to your community and in a tangible way. And so that’s why I decided to run. I remember meeting a single mom that was able to go back to school because she was able to put a daughter in daycare, get better skills training, and get a better education, which allowed her to get a better job so she can look after her daughter better. Those are the things that matter to me because if you give somebody an opportunity, they will succeed. So that’s one of the big reasons. It all comes back down to the youth and I get really passionate and excited about it. Because I know what it means to give someone confidence and opportunities because it was given to me once. And so I look at it as my responsibility to give back in my way.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your candidacy or your time in office so far?

Just one particular moment? I feel that the reason I started to get into politics is to inspire the younger generation. When I go to a lot of youth events, I talk to people and give them my full attention and try to inspire them, get them excited, build their confidence up. And then they go off and do their thing and I get to meet them four years later doing what excites them. I’ve been really proud that I’ve used my position to be able to inspire. My number one responsibility is getting more people excited about succeeding and helping them define what success means for themselves. 

JAEDEN DELA TORRE, New Democratic Party

What first inspired you to run for office?

When I was younger, I didn’t really know where I stood on the political spectrum or knew how to ascribe those values to a certain wing, but when I started door-canvassing for the 2017 election, that’s when I started to realize my values – that sparked my interest in politics.

In politics, you don’t always see what happens on the doorstep – you don’t see what happens on the ground. I was shy and afraid that people would slam the door on me, but as I talked to more people and as they opened up to me, that’s when it clicked, this is the career I want to be in – how can I be a part of something that impacts everyday people? I was seeing how a lazy, corrupt, or indifferent government had an impact on people. At first, I thought it was just sad, but then I was hearing more of the same story and realized it wasn’t just affecting one person but many more.

I talked to someone else a little older than me, and how he said he had to work two jobs to afford school, and it hit me – that’s going to me in a couple of years. He said how he barely had any time for himself, he was either in school or working. Just hearing him jokingly say, “hey enjoy your youth while you can,” it just hit a little too close to home. Just hearing that social aftereffect and seeing how my future would pan out, it had that emotional impact. It made me feel like I had to get involved because I saw firsthand how politics were affecting people.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your candidacy or your time in office so far?

One moment that stood out to me from door-canvasing: a woman in her early thirties with her cute two kids opened the door, and I could tell she was in a rush or busy, and she said, “you’re a volunteer with the NDP right?” And I said “yes,” and she just said, “thank you,” out of nowhere. She said, “I’m a single mom with two kids, and I live in a little basement suite that costs two times what I make.” She was saying how necessary it was for her to afford childcare, how bad she felt dropping her kids off at her parents given there wasn’t a place in her area for childcare. And the only thing I could say was sorry, I didn’t know what to say to that.

It’s the people that inspire me. I’m not doing this for fame. It’s the people and the stories that I hear and the families that come up to me after the debates who tell me about their kids who have someone to look up to. Or older seniors that come up that say that they’re sorry for leaving the world in this state but proud of the work that I’m doing and standing up for my generation. The interactions and people I meet keep me grounded. I want to help people. We’ve seen for far too long the effects of a lazy government. I don’t blame people for thinking this is a bad career, the whole point of being elected is having the honor to represent your constituents. I think it’s cowardly to see MPs falling short of their promises, that’s why I want to change that association with politics. I want people to know that I’m there for them, my constituents are like a big family. It’s public service. You sign up because you want to help. And sometimes it isn’t easy. People are going to scrutinize and hate you, but you do it to ensure that people’s lives are better for it.

HELEN QUAN, CONSERVATIVE

What first inspired you to run for office?

In a time of increasing unaffordability, I believe that the Conservative Party has a strong vision and their announced platform and plans have Canada and Canadians best interests in mind. The last four years have been anything but more affordable for anyone living in Vancouver-Kingsway. When they approached me to represent the Conservatives in Vancouver Kingsway, I said yes right away.

Being a single mom, a volunteer, and running a small business of my own, I believe that I will be able to make a difference here.  Too many people, especially the youth, are struggling to get ahead. I want to help them do just that. Who knows? The next big thing might even come from young people in this riding of Vancouver-Kingsway!

What has been the most rewarding moment of your candidacy or your time in office so far?

During my campaign I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many new people and learning about how rich in culture and uniquely diverse this riding is. From, Croatians to Chinese, Filipinos to Greeks to Hong Kongers, Italians and Polish to Taiwanese and Vietnamese, I learned so much about our community and it opened my eyes to not only the conveniences, but also the very real stories and concerns of the people living in Vancouver-Kingsway. It has inspired me, even more, to continue running for office so I can work hard to help them get ahead if I am elected as their MP. I’m grateful for my team of tireless volunteers who go knock on doors everyday too. The people of Vancouver-Kingsway have a bright future ahead of them and that is what keeps me going. Let’s make our bright future happen, together.

RABAAB KHEHRA, GREEN

What first inspired you to run for office?

I think it’s important for young voices to be heard, for young people to be involved in politics. Young people of colour especially aren’t heard enough. I’ve been interested in politics because I’ve always been passionate about social justice issues because they’re so connected to politics, they’re the ones making the policies that protect or discriminate against minorities. A lot of people would tell me to run for office to try to change policies and protect people who are discriminated against. I never thought I couldn’t do it. It just happened a friend of mine had a connection with the Green Party and connected me with somebody and I just did it. I thought it was really important to do this at 20 years old because I wanted to show people it could be done, especially women. The community I grew up in was predominately South Asian, and a lot of the girls I went to school with actually texted me saying they were so proud, it was nice to know that somebody who looks like you could be in a position of power. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young South Asian woman in politics. Just being able to be that woman, to show that women can do it. It’s quite nice, hearing that other women say, “you make me feel seen.”

There’s a quote, “my existence is resistance.” Just being who I am challenges the system I’m in.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your candidacy or your time in office so far?

I work with kids, and they mean a lot to me. I was invited to speak to an elementary school, L’ecole Gabrielle. I spoke to 50 to 60 nine to eleven-year-old kids, and when I was done, they asked so many questions. I genuinely felt like after they spoke to me, they were interested in politics.  We talked about issues like decriminalization of drugs, and we talked about it without feeling like it was a big deal. It felt like they knew they could get involved with politics, or have a right to vote, or become aware of issues like climate change and decriminalization. It felt super impactful. It was cool to think that one of those young girls in the room could be running for office one day.

ALICE WONG, Conservative

What first inspired you to run for office?

Service above self. This is what I believe in and aim to practice every day in what I do. Since coming to Canada almost 40 years ago and becoming a Canadian citizen in 1983; I appreciated the opportunity to earn my PhD, work in the education sector and hone my volunteerism. I decided to give back to the community that supported me and I still do today.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your candidacy or your time in office so far?

I am rewarded when people stop me at their doors or out on the street to thank me for the work I have done and service to the community for the past 11 years.

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