This Saturday, labour representatives and community leaders will gather at the Halifax North Memorial Library for a Black Votes Matter strategy session. The campaign, organized by the Canadian Labour Congress and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, aims to turn the tide on the systemic inequities faced by African Canadians by getting black voters out to the polls this fall.
To explain what’s happening and why this event is important to all Canadians, The Coast spoke with the CLC’s executive vice-president Marie Clarke Walker.
What is Black Votes Matter?
“This comes out of the second African Canadian Summit that was held in Toronto on April 29. At that point we launched Black Votes Matter, and by "we" I say the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour, the coalition of Black Trade Unionists as well as African Canadian Legal Clinic. The first session was held in Toronto on June 13, and at that session people talked about the social and systemic barriers that affect our community, affect them in a negative way. Because of those barriers, many don't go out to vote. We have about 6,000 workers in Halifax who are African-Nova Scotian. They definitely wanted us to come out. We were worried a lot of them would be on the fence, around whether or not voting would make a difference. We also know that when you go to vote—whether it's in the federal, provincial or municipal elections—you're voting for the kind of society you want to live in. When you don't exercise that right, you basically have no right to complain. Over the last few years there has been serious voter turnout decline. It's really, really important that if you want to change anything, you need to make your voices heard.”
What are the issues facing black voters in this election?
“As a union movement, we have a responsibility to provide our members with tools and resources that they can use to improve their lives. One of those is voting. You need to be able to get out there and vote. The other thing around this election is that the rules have changed a little bit. People can't just take for granted that they're on the voter's list; they need to call, they need to check the website and they need to make sure. At the end of all this, the issues that come up in Halifax will be the issues that the people of Halifax will work on, but I can say to you that there's a myriad of issues that have been raised both in Toronto, Ottawa and other places across the country around the criminal justice system and the fact that black folks are over-represented in the prison system. The immigration system, the employment opportunities for folks, affordable housing, good jobs, good education, social services are all issues that are being raised. We also feel that the black vote is an important block of vote, and so you can only utilize that power if you utilize your vote. So we're asking people to go out there.”
What’s going to be taking place this weekend?
“There will be a two-hour session at Halifax North Memorial Library. Workers that will be there, and we've invited people from all the unions to come out, and talk about what their issues are and how best to mobilize to get everybody out to vote. This is not about telling people how to vote. This is not about party platforms. This is just about mobilizing so people get out there, cast their ballots and also know that they can ask any politicians from any party the questions around the issues that affect them, and hold them to task.”
Why are so many labour groups involved in organizing Black Votes Matter? It seems like an issue that stretches beyond that.
“It does stretch beyond that, but we also as a labour movement, have a responsibility to our members. We also have tools and resources that we can use to do the education and get them out. We've been doing this for a very, very long time. People who are union members also belong to communities, and they've asked for our help in trying to mobilize folks. For me, I'm a black leader. I'm the only black leader at the Canadian Labour Congress, the only black woman at the CLC. Within the labour movement, I’m the highest ranking black woman. So there is this feeling that people will listen to what I have to say. I'm going to try and encourage people just to get out there and do their civic duty and vote.”
There’s been an upswing lately in these sorts of campaigns to organize ignored communities—Black Votes Matter, Idle No More. Why do you think that is?
“I think that the people have been trampled on for such a long time and they're realizing that the elected officials, the people they've elected to do the things that benefit them, aren't doing that. So they're mobilizing right across this country to say ‘Hello, we're out here. We are the ones who vote you in, therefore you need to listen to us.' The other piece of this is we know that elections aren't the end-all-be-all. We know that it's about social change and in order to have that we need to be doing this work between elections. That's why you've seen a rise prior to the elections, but now that we're in the writ period, we want to make sure those voices are continuing to be heard. With this particular event in Halifax we are also targeting the aboriginal community, so we're hoping that they also come out in droves and talk about their needs, their issues and how we can help get that word out and get politicians to listen to them as well.”
Interview conducted and edited by Jacob Boon. Register for the Black Votes Matter strategy session here.