Contribution from Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, Canadian Senator representing Nova Scotia.
'Belonging’ in Politics
When I announced that I was applying to represent Nova Scotia in the Senate of Canada, I was told that I did not belong in politics. When I requested a reference to support my application, one person responded that they did not see me as a political leader and would not provide a reference. Another contact said they could not support me in my political endeavor because they had never seen me active in politics. In both instances, these people had a traditional view of political engagement which did not include me. The message I received was loud and clear: I did not belong in politics.
Many women, especially those who are racialized and otherwise marginalized, are hearing similar messages rooted in racism, sexism, ableism and other biases associated with our identities. This overwhelming message of doubt impacts their self-worth and is often enough to create a barrier to entering politics. Women hear this narrative about who ‘belongs’ in politics in many ways: their soft demeanor is not fit for a politician; or their children need a mother at home. Sometimes it is about the unsuitability of their previous careers, often in fields dominated by women. Many people did not recognize the deeply political nature of my work. The foundation of my career in social work allows me to better understand the needs of our communities, and my own experiences allow me to navigate the social and political systems.
Instead of letting the messages of doubt to stop me, I used my frustration to fuel my determination. I had the support of many community members; however, some did not want to lose me at the local level. They recognized my civic engagement, but perhaps did not yet see the bigger picture; that I would use this position to uplift my community in ways that had not been available to me in my social work career. There are not many women of African descent in positions of power who stand as an example of women leading beyond the local level. My connection to communities across Nova Scotia is what drives me in politics. My civic engagement prepared me for politics, it did not exclude me from it.
I did not accept that common narrative of what constitutes ‘political’ or who looks like a politician. I created my own narrative.
My advice to women, racialized and marginalized people is to create your own narrative. Do not wait to be chosen. Place yourself in the running. Volunteer for team captain on your sports team. Get involved with your high school student council, and perhaps even run for President. Creating your own narrative prompts two shifts. First, you will shift your own self-image, that you have the capacity for these positions. Second, by occupying these positions, you will create a shift in your community’s narrative about who belongs in leadership.
This fall during the federal election, I encourage all voters to be critical of their unconscious biases about who belongs in politics. I ask voters to analyze how this bias influences their vote. Vote for a candidate who will represent your community well. Vote for a candidate whose civic engagement has prepared them for this position. Vote to change the Canadian narrative of who ‘belongs’ in politics.