By Prapti Bamaniya
Two Canadian cabinet ministers from opposing parties and different government levels came together at a democracy forum on Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) campus to discuss their roles as Black women in politics on Feb. 9.
Marci Ien, the federal Minister for Women and Gender Equality, was joined by Charmaine Williams, Ontario’s Associate Minister of Women’s Social and Economic Opportunity.
Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn moderated the conversation between the two women at the Sears Atrium.
The forum discussed their overlapping work and experiences as Black women politicians in their fight for racial equality and women’s rights.
Regg Cohn said he invited the two guests to “humanize politics.”
“They both have great life stories and what I think they do is try to break down partisan barriers and even regional rivalries between federal and provincial governments. I think that’s what we heard on stage,” Cohn said in an interview with The Eyeopener.
A handful of students, faculty and community members attended the forum, including TMU President Mohamed Lachemi and vice-president, equity and community inclusion Tanya De Mello.
At the forum, Ien and Williams said they initially met at a Black History Month event back in 2018, when Williams became the first Black woman to be elected to Brampton’s city council.
“When you’re a Black person, you identify as a Black person first; that’s how I see it”
In 2022, Williams became the first Black person to ever be appointed to the Progressive Conservative (PC) party’s cabinet.
Ien graduated from TMU’s radio and television arts program in 1991. She was pursuing journalism before she began her political career and remembered being in awe of Williams’ journey.
“It was beautiful and I still remember it, I thought, ‘who is this powerful woman?’ It has been such an honour just to follow [her] move and [her] progression,” said Ien at the forum.
Regg Cohn asked Ien and Williams how the two—despite being from opposing parties—get along.
When it comes to specific issues, Ien responded, partisanship rarely intrudes.
“You have to work together and do what is best for the people,” Ien said.
Williams shared a similar sentiment. “When you’re a Black person, you identify as a Black person first; that’s how I see it,” she said.
While both spoke to their “bigger picture” goals to fight gender-based violence in Canada, they shared the backlash and abuse they face as public figures.
“Black women, racialized women, nobody gets it like us,” said Ien.
She said she faced death threats as a journalist and, while dealing with the comments was difficult, it motivated her to become a politician. As a journalist, Ien said her opinions were often hushed and were the reason she received abuse.
“I got the ‘shut up and just read the teleprompter’ quite often…and that’s why the conversation about running was really important,” said Ien.
Vincia Herbert, an employee from the Midwives Collective of Toronto, came to see the forum because she said it was a chance to support Black women in leadership positions.
“You have to work together and do what is best for the people”
“It was a good opportunity to see different political parties,” she said. “Black women in charge of particular portfolios and pushing agendas forward that typically only get brought forward by white women or white men.”
TMU president Mohamed Lachemi said in an interview with The Eye that events engaging in conversations about inclusion, like this one, can be very powerful.
“It’s always good to bring this type of conversation to our campus,” he said.
Both Ien and Williams told The Eye they would happily come back to TMU for another forum.
“I think it’s been an important conversation and especially seeing women in the room and being able to talk about women in leadership,” said Williams.
“Hopefully, we can inspire another generation of leaders.”