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Rahim Mohamed: Political tokenism isn't the answer to diversification
The Liberals' ethnic-organization-to-parliament pipeline seems to be broken.
By: Rahim Mohamed
Minister of Housing and Diversity Ahmed Hussen landed in hot water yet again amidst revelations that he shelled out over $90,000 in constituency funds to a foodie communications firm (which I guess is an actual thing) run by the sister of his director of policy.
The news about Hussen’s business dealings with the Toronto-based Munch More Media (you really can’t make this stuff up) put the prime minister — surely by now an expert in conflict-of-interest law himself — in a tough spot. When asked about the situation last week, Trudeau answered, “The minister is making sure he’s answering all questions on this and we’re making sure all the rules are followed” — a flimsy non-response that reads like it was spat out of the beta version of ChatGPT.
This, of course, isn’t Hussen’s first ill-fated dalliance with a comms shop. Just last year, his ministry awarded a $133,000 grant to the Montreal-based Community Media Advocacy Centre (CMAC) to build an anti-racism strategy for the broadcasting sector. The grant was later pulled after it was revealed that CMAC senior consultant Laith Marouf had authored a series of anti-Semitic social media posts that would make Mel Gibson blush. Hussen told parliament last fall that he learned about Marouf’s problematic social media activity a month before the story broke. Hussen’s mishandling of the Marouf affair drew widespread criticism, extending to the Liberal caucus: Jewish-Canadian Mont Royal MP Anthony Housefather blasted Hussen for not cutting funding to CMAC sooner.
Hussen’s second monumental fuck up in less than a year has many observers asking what, exactly, a Trudeau cabinet minister has to do to get fired (outside of standing up to the boss, of course). The better question may be how someone so clearly not up to the task landed a cabinet portfolio in the first place. In other words, where the heck did Justin Trudeau even find a dud like Hussen?
The answer implicates yet another set of pernicious political “gatekeepers”: Canada’s highly influential ethnic lobby organizations.
Before becoming the first Somali-Canadian to be elected to parliament in 2015, Hussen cut his teeth as president of the Canadian Somali Congress (CSC). He’s one of several Trudeau caucus members who’ve previously served stints with ethnic organizations. Another is ex-president of the Canadian Arab Federation (CAF) and current Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, who’s likewise been in the headlines lately for being bad at his job.
Whilst the Saudi Arabia-born Alghabra can always be counted on to deliver a winsome Christmas video, his acumen in managing the manifold transportation-related crises that have happened under his watch leaves much to be desired. Alghabra, who has stood by idly as chaotic scenes ripped straight from Die Hard 2 continue to play out in our major airports, was reportedly not even in contact with Via Rail executives during a holiday travel crisis that left hundreds of train passengers stranded on blocked rails. I suppose Alghabra was too busy clearing Canada’s airspace for Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick to take the call from the panicked execs.
The abysmal ministerial track records of Hussen and Alghabra, respectively, show that the “ethnic lobby executive to Trudeau cabinet member” pipeline could use some retooling (to put it gently).
The worst part of this all is that the Canadian public, none the wiser to the dynamics behind federal candidate recruitment, tunes in to the latest scandal hitting these ministers and see Black and brown ministers sucking at their jobs. Ethnic lobby-fueled tokenism in the Trudeau cabinet is, paradoxically, hurting the cause of Canada’s ethnic minority communities.
And even when they’re not sending their “best and brightest” to Ottawa, these well-connected groups are all-too-often jeopardizing Canada’s diplomatic relationships by embracing hardline positions. Case in point is the CAF, whose mounting anti-Semitism has driven even ex-president Alghabra to distance himself from the organization. (The Harper government pulled the CAF’s funding in 2009 following a string of anti-Israel statements made by the group’s leadership).
Another example is the fundamentalist World Sikh Organization (WSO), reported to be the driving force behind the contentious 2014 nomination of former Trudeau defense minister Harjit Sajjan. Sajjan’s family ties to the WSO sparked a “walkout” among moderate Sikh Liberal party members in B.C. (Sajjan is the son of long-serving WSO board member Kundan Sajjan). These ties resurfaced in the lead-up to Justin Trudeau’s disastrous 2018 state visit to India, when the top elected official in India’s Punjab province publicly accused Sajjan of being a Sikh separatist.
None of this is to say there’s an inherent trade-off between ethnic representation and competence in federal politics (there isn’t). Respected Trudeau defence minister and “all-round fixer” Anita Anand, who came up independently of ethnic lobby groups, is plenty proof of that.
Anand, born in Nova Scotia to Pubjabi and Sikh parents, would be a dream candidate for any party. With four post-secondary degrees under her belt (including a law degree from Oxford) and a formidable pre-political résumé that includes stints with high-powered corporate law firm Torys LLP and Yale Law School, Anand fended off multiple entreaties to jump into politics before finally agreeing to stand as a Liberal in 2019.
First appointed as federal minister of procurement, carrying out the critical portfolio through the first leg of the pandemic, Anand inherited a defence ministry in disarray (from Sajjan, to boot) shortly after the 2021 federal election. She’s since drawn widespread praise for being a steady hand through a lingering military sexual misconduct scandal, and the geopolitical fallout of Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine almost one year ago. Anand’s steely performance in the landmine-filled defence portfolio ought to make her one of the top contenders to succeed Justin Trudeau as the Liberal party’s next leader.
If the story of Anita Anand — an Oxford-bred overachiever turned rising political star — sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because of her myriad parallels with another political wunderkind: Britain’s incumbent Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (an Oxford man himself).
Indeed, candidate recruitment practices adopted by Sunak’s Conservative party in the early 2000s show a path for Canadian parties to run more Anitas and Rishis (and, conversely, fewer Ahmeds and Omars).
In the spring of 2006, then-leader David Cameron tasked the British Conservative party’s Central Office with drawing up a priority list, or “A-List” of 150 preferred candidates, stipulating that ethnic minorities must make up a “significant proportion” of this list. Local associations for 140 winnable seats were then required to choose their nominee from this list. The introduction of the “A-list” predictably drew pushback from grassroots party activists, who lashed out at Cameron for stripping local associations of their autonomy over candidate selection.
The pushback aside, the “A-List” undoubtedly played a critical role in drawing a wave of talented ethnic minorities into the Conservative party caucus. The 2010 election saw a fivefold increase in the number of Black and minority ethnic (BME) Conservative MPs in Britain’s parliament. One of the names on that year’s “A-List” was 38-year-old Priti Patel, who would go on to serve as Britain’s Home Secretary for a critical stretch between 2019 and 2022. (Patel was a close ally and right-hand of ex-PM Boris Johnson — whether that puts her in company with Hassen or Anand is a matter of opinion!)
While the Tory A-list was discontinued in late 2012, it undoubtedly played a major role in making the Conservative party more representative without sacrificing competence to the altar of diversity. Party chairman Grant Shapps told the media at the time, "I think we are now in a place where we have been selecting as a party a lot more women and more people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds, so we have in many ways crossed the Rubicon.”
The echo of the A-list would see such influential British minorities as James Cleverly (now Foreign Secretary), Kemi Badenoch (current Secretary of State for International Trade) and, of course, now-PM Rishi Sunak win elections under the Conservative banner. Today, Britain’s Conservative party boasts one of the most “strikingly multicultural” caucuses of any major political party in the West — and Conservatives of colour like the “anti-Woke” Badenoch are among the party’s fiercest critics of tokenism.
Ahmed Hussen’s stunning incompetence is the symptom of a larger problem. The outsize influence of Canada’s ethnic organizations is perpetuating tokenization, sabotaging diplomatic relationships and, above all, producing elected officials who are woefully bad at their jobs. Instead of outsourcing the cultivation of Black and brown political talent to ethnic lobby organizations that clearly aren’t up to the task, parties should take a more active role in this endeavour.
After all, equity in mediocrity is nothing to celebrate.
Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, and the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.
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