Will we ever have a black prime minister?


On the anniversary of Barack Obama’s election, Wendy Mesley posed the above question on the National tonight. The segment isn’t separately online yet, but can be seen at the 35 minute mark of the National here. Mesley acknowledges it’s not an entirely fair comparison—demographics are different here than in the United States—but the discussion that follows is likely relevant nonetheless.

By the Public Policy Forum’s last check, Parliament was 92.2% white. The examples of non-white politicians even running for the leadership of a federal party are few and far between (Hedy Fry was briefly in the Liberal race in 2006, the last black politician to pursue national leadership might be Howard McCurdy for the NDP in 1989). For argument’s sake, Noah Richler posited a year ago that Canada’s Barack Obama moment won’t come until Canada elects an Aboriginal prime minister.

Of course, you could set race aside and wonder when the Canadian public will elect its first female prime minister vote sufficiently for the candidates of a party led by a woman so that that woman becomes prime minister.


Will we ever have a black prime minister?

  1. Interesting thought. I agree with you, I'm desperate for some more female leadership on the federal scene.

  2. I'd like to think that the Canadian public is more concerned with electing the most competent candidate for the job than electing members of various victim classes.

    If one is genuinely not hung up on race, then why would the skin-colour of the Prime Minister be relevant in any way??

    • Exactly. Focus on electing the best person for the job and one day the right person at the right time will happen to be a non-white male.

      And then we'll elect that person. No problem, no fuss, no big deal (except for the media, which will go crazy and analyze the meaning of it endlessly while ignoring issues that actually matter).

    • If one is genuinely not hung up on race, then why would the skin-colour of the Prime Minister be relevant in any way??

      Good question. The very significant deviation from demographics tells us that a lot of people are still hung up on white men for some reason, but does not tell us why.

      • Given that white men have generally been the ones seeking the leadership of one of the two major parties, I don't think your conclusion follows.

        • I was referring to the demographics of Parliament, which set the stage for the demographics of who seeks leadership of the parties. It all goes together.

          • Again, it depends on the statistics of who seeks to get elected to Parliament. It's a big leap from demographic imbalance to causative bigotry.

          • Ah, the Lawrence Summers argument – women and nonwhites deselect themselves and this is not a sign that there is anything amiss. Men get both the math gene and the parliament gene.

          • I don't think you're being fair to Lawrence Summers. He was making a thoughtful point, and the knee-jerk feminists crucified him for it.

          • Catherine's point remains. Is it that non-whites and women are less interested in politics or is it that getting elected is much more difficult for them?

          • I don’t think women are underrepresented in politics because women don’t have the ‘politics’ gene. I think it’s more likely a matter of culture. Unlike mathematics, if you don’t fit the culture, it’s very hard to make much headway as a politician, especially in a highly partisan system.

            With math, what Summers was saying is that men tend to have more variability in mathematical ability, not that men are on average better. Thus there are fatter tails on both ends of the spectrum for men, leading to more exceptional male than female mathematicians. Totally anecdotally, I feel that if anything, women are better at math on average than men.

          • Culture? What do you mean by that?

    • "I'd like to think that the Canadian public is more concerned with electing the most competent candidate for the job than electing members of various victim classes."

      Victim Classes?!?! Boy you Reformers sure have a way with words, huh?

      • So he considers women to be victims? We have victim genes, perhaps?

  3. I can see an Indo-Canadian being elected prime minister by 2030. This group is very active in the CPC, LPC and NDP.

    • What's even more remarkable about your statement is that you think the NDP could win, period.

      • It doesn't seem likely, and there's all sorts of adjustments the NDs would have to make first, but who knows? Surely Canadians cannot remain forever gullible to the ongoing Libservative scam.

        • Back about 1965 there was a Canadian musical trio called "The Brothers in Law" whose song "Average Canadians" contained the lines:

          We have two major parties, they're both well known by name
          It doesn't matter which you choose, they're really just the same

          I guess the Libservative party was alive even then!

          • I remember my dad had the Brothers in Law albums (I think they were all Mounties – perhaps former). Very topical and funny if my memories are correct.

          • They were indeed policemen, from Windsor Ont and they wrote and performed topical, satirical ditties, some of which stand up pretty well 44 years later. I've still got the albums, but they don't account for much in this digital world.
            Thanks for the post. I'm glad someone else remembers them!

  4. We've already had an Indo-Canadian premier … Ujjal Dosanjh as a New Democrat in BC. And there have been two Liberal PEI premiers of Lebanese descent.

    • Yes, I would not be surprised to see an Indo-Canadian Prime Minister very soon.

  5. Didn't we already have a female prime minister, Kim Campbell?

    I guess she wasn't really elected though, was she?

    • Well, her party elected her. I think that said a lot.

  6. Well, the population of the US is about 13% black. The population of Canada is 2.5% black, 5.4% First Nations, and visible minorities as a whole made up 16% of the Canadian population as of the 2006 census. So the situations are far from equal; a better question for Canada if you want to run a comparison in that way would be whether any of the major parties has an Indian (as in, actually from India) or Chinese person as leader of the party. I don't expect so, partly because bilingualism will make it more difficult for anyone here, particularly if they're from an immigrant family.

    Personally, I'm not inclined to vote for anyone on a basis other than their qualifications and policies, but I'd be pleased to see more people other than white males getting prominent positions. Come on, do you all really think Harper and Ignatieff are, of all Canadians, the two people in Canada most qualified to be PM?

    If Ignatieff doesn't work out, I could see Dosanjh taking a shot at the Liberal leadership. Wouldn't be at all surprised (although not pleased, given my views of legacy politics) if Olivia Chow tried to lead the NDP after Jack.

    • Speaking from personal experience, the bilingualism hoop does make it more difficult for many first generation new Canadians to be completely fluent in both official languauges.

      • And speaking as a first generation canadian, I completely disagree. If anything, it is much easier for our demographic to pick up another language. As a rule, most of us already speak two languages. In Quebec, most of us will speak three out of sheer necessity (mother tongue, french to survive high school and english to be able to work).

        • It is possible that Quebec is unique, and those who come from a European country may have an advantage. I suspect however that you are not Asian Canadian. The language of my home, as is often the case, is neither of Canada's official languages, nor Indo-European. Indeed, both my wife and I speak a number of languages (and in my case this includes both of Canada's official languages) but that does not detract whatsoever from my view that a large portion of first generation Canadians will have difficulty reaching the necessary level of fluency in English, and more particularly – in French. So many people in the Ottawa/Montreal region draw their assumptions of a "bilingual Canada based on what they see around them. Those of us who come from outside this small geographical island have different experiences.

          • "It is possible that Quebec (or should I say Montreal?) is unique, and those who come from a European country may also have an advantage. I suspect however that you are not Asian Canadian. "

            TwoYen, you misunderstand. I am not of European descent. In fact, I am speaking specifically of first generation canadians of non-anglophone or francophone origin. In Quebec, we are known for speaking at least three languages. The mother tongue (chinese, indian, armenian, lebanese, vietnamese, haitian, etc.), french AND english. Again, the first generation canadians are those born in Canada – in this instance, Quebec – in a home where either official languages are the NOT primary language spoken.

            All this to say, we have grown up in an environment where we are exposed to several different languages and picking up a new one is easier for us.

            I don't know what it is like for those who grow up outside of Quebec but for us, the bilingual requirement attached with being a successful politician in this country is usually not a problem.

          • I can say emphatically – in this regard, Quebec is most definitely a unique society. and, I would not be surprised if it is really Montreal that is the unique society.

            I was born in BC. Speaking French does not come easily, even to those of anglo descent, and it most definitely does not come easily to those of Asian heritage. My son did the prerequisite immersion French in elementary school but now that he's in his thirties, his Asian languages are far more fluent than his French..

          • As they would be if he doesn't really use his french.

            My point is that the language requirements in politics are not the real barrier for non-whites and women.

          • Thanks for the replies, it's good to get a perspective from people who aren't first-language francophones or anglophones. I think Montreal probably is exceptional in having many trilingual people, as in BC most immigrants would learn English but not French – but I doubt a large proportion of anglophones in BC retain fluent French either (given that there's not many occasions to use it), so you make a good point.

            It does suggest that our first non-white PM is more likely to be from Central Canada than the West.

    • do you all really think Harper and Ignatieff are, of all Canadians, the two people in Canada most qualified to be PM?

      Emphatically yes, because along with ability come equal parts of ready and willing.

    • Speaking of Dosanjh, does he speak French?

  7. Canadians don't elect our Prime Minister. The leader of the party with the most seats given them under our antiquated First Past the Post electoral system becomes the PM. The members of the party are who elect the leader, most often under a more modern multi-ballot system than FPTP. Ranked ballots would be faster and more accurately reflect the votes of party members, but not as exciting for the media given the parties want the media to report on the conventions.

    Under this criteria, Canada already "elected" a woman prime minister when the Progressive Conservative party elected Kim Campbell to become our 19th Prime Minister in 1993. Her party was decimated the next election, but that isn't any more her fault than if they had won would be because of her. The leaders aren't the only (or most reasonable) reason why people vote for a given candidate to represent them in their riding.

    • You say antiquated like it's a bad thing.

      • In this case, I do. We have a parliamentary system that is so focused on parties (who becomes PM, whips, structure of committees, etc) and yet a voting system (FPTP) that only works well if there are only two candidates and no parties. It's kind of embarrassing to still be part of the group of 4 (Canada, US, UK and India) who haven't modernised yet.

  8. We had our Barack Obama over a hundred years ago: Wilfrid Laurier in 1896.

    • I was actually going to post that Canada's Barack Obama is on the 5 dollar bill.

      The whole French-Canadian/Quebec thing may have degenerated into self-parody now, but when he was elected the orange order was still huge and there was large scale screwing over of french voters. It was easily worse for him getting to power than it was for Obama, although the larger % French in Canada than blacks in the US helped.

      • Definitely some justification to the claim. Tolerance of difference in Canada has been so ingrained in many ways that we sometimes don't see and at other times sometimes assume that there could be no problems because we are so tolerant.

        The difference with the Laurier example however are greater than the comparisons. The population size of Quebec alone makes the comparison difficult. Before Confederation, we had a number of Quebec prime ministers such as Cartier, and Quebec leaders played an intricate and significant role in shaping the new nation and drafting the Constitution.

  9. With all due respect to Douglas and his achievements, he was never elected to his positions. So he is not really relevant to a discussion of Canadians electing a non- white male or a female.

  10. Aaron, or anyone else at Maclean's,

    Let's turn the lens around. Can any of you tell us how many black members there are in the Parliamentary Press Gallery? I don't know of any but obviously I wouldn't know them all.

    • Thank you. My impression is that msm and pols are two of the whitest professions in Canada yet they are orgs most likely to push multi-culti ideas. Holier-than-thou pols and journos should be looking at themselves first and not worry about what the rest of us are doing.

    • Good question.

  11. In 1964 my home town (in ontario) had the elected the only black mayor in the country. He was the best man for the job and aside from his three children was the only black in a town of 3300. He was elected not because he was black or in spite of it.

  12. Paul Martin is Metis, so we've already had an aboriginal PM.

  13. I suppose another question might lie in asking whether it matters much if a PM or Pres. is a member of a traditionally excluded/unrepresented group, in terms of the broader dynamics of things like race and gender. Would having a black Prime Minister meaningfully address obstacles faced by black Canadians in everyday life, for example?

    It's also a tricky question in Canada, partly because our history has leaned toward preserving various social and cultural identities (French, Aboriginal), rather than striving for their diminishment (i.e., assimilation, integration, that sort of thing).

    How do we preserve and celebrate cultural differences – which is generally a positive thing – yet seek to make those same differences (region, race, language, gender, etc…) irrelevant in arenas like employment and politics?

    There's a lot more to the Canadian paradox than asking when we'll see a woman or a non-white person as our Prime Minister.

    (p,s.: I know this has been noted, but Aaron: We don't elect the PM in this country!!! Surely we appreciate the need for accuracy and clarity about such things after last year's madness.)

    • "How do we preserve and celebrate cultural differences – which is generally a positive thing – yet seek to make those same differences (region, race, language, gender, etc…) irrelevant in arenas like employment and politics?"

      I don't know how you do this since humans are rather tribal but I do know our multi-culti policies now are not the way to do it. Accentuating our differences to bring us together is really not going to work, it is going to create ethnic ghettos across Canada with little understanding of others.

      • I don't necessarily disagree with you, but I'd like to point out that the seemingly "other" choice (integration, assimilation, etc) apparently doesn't work, either. Else why would the U.S. be talking about President Obama's historic presidency–the melting pot didn't turn everything into a serene shade of grey after all.

        • I grew up in Toronto and there has been a Chinatown there for over one hundred years. Some people like to group with others that are similar to them. And some people like to mix it up a bit, I live in neighbourhood now that is a regular UN of mixed nationalities and ethnic groups.

          I don't believe any policy 'works'. Leave people alone and let them make their own arrangements instead of subjecting them to half baked ideas from social scientists who think the best way to bring people together is focus on differences and ignore similarities.

          • Please cite some of those social scientists. I read rather extensively for my post grad work on Canadian ethnicity, and cannot recall tripping across any scholars arguing that position.

  14. I should add that aboriginals are the one exception to the above. They are fragmented in some ways, but have a large infrastructure set up to lobby for all first nations. The Indian Act has created a monolithic voting bloc among aboriginals. Geography also means that there are 12 ridings where natives make up over 20% (and another 11 where they are 10-19% of the population) of the population. This is significant because it means there are some places where we might expect aboriginal MP's.

    Still, I don't think it is going to happen anytime soon. Comparatively few natives graduate from university, which is sort of a prerequisite to being PM. Moreover, an on-reserve native candidate would have to deal with the considerable resentment many have towards the special rights and privileges proferred to natives. An off-reserve native, by contrast, is going to be less likely to be able to tap into the networks needed to get elected as an MP.

    In a way this is similar to the dilemma facing African American presidential aspirants. A traditional black candidate like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson can get pigeonholed as being "the black candidate". Obama's unique background enabled him to get around this typecasting, while still winning support among black voters (something that might not have happened had he not moved to Chicago, married Michelle etc.).

    Canada's first aboriginal PM would likely be somebody who grew up in some affluent, tree-lined Toronto neighbourhood, but who moved up north to be a social worker or what-have-you.

  15. We also dont have a lot of the history (slavery, civil war etc) that form the backdrop to the american situation. Make no mistake canada is not a paradise devoid of racism. The tendancy in some quarters to view all muslims as terrorists is a most unfortunate instance of latent racism (he was accused by the RCMP or CSIS therefore he must be guilty right? After all they never make a mistake). I think the case can be made that racism is less pervasive than it is with our neighbour to the south.

  16. Check out rising star Greg Fergus. Former director of the Liberals. Very appealing character, has all the makings of a great political leader.

  17. Harper is a black PM in that, for him, white is black.

  18. And if some from any one of what could be conseidered under-represented groups decide they aren't going to wait to considered worthy of the majority's laying of hands then don't label them as rabble-rousers or malcontents or "uppity." They are just seeking their shot at part of what this great country has to offer like anyone else.

  19. I was lucky enough to grow up in the former riding of Hamilton-West which elected the great Lincoln Alexander, PC, CC, OOnt, CD, QC as Canada's first black Member of Parliament in 1968.

    Even Trudeau-loving people like my parents voted for Linc.

    I also know for a fact that Linc was someone who people in the community (that would be white people) saw as someone with a lot of promise and gave him the various chances that he needed to show what he could do and prove himself to a wider audience before getting elected.

    I think this gives an example of what members of various groups or backgrounds, whether female, of Indian ancestry or aboriginal or whatever need – just the belief by people that they can do it and an opportunity to show what they can do.

    It just requires that people overcome their reticence or what's that other word … oh yeah, prejudice and give an opportunity to someone who deserves it rather than depending on the old school ties, or club memberships or who served with whose father etc.

  20. Will we ever have a black prime minister?

    For that matter, will we ever have a Connecticut-born, Texas-bred cartoon cowboy for PM?

    I'm sick and tired of our media elite looking South and wondering (because they have nothing else to say) whether we're missing out on something or necessarily doing something wrong. It's stupid.

    Canada doesn't have the same demographic make-up as the US, but more importantly, doesn't have the same history. Really, the focus should be on the under-representation of women.

    • Why is it more important to focus on women over minorities (especially minority men, who I might remind you don’t have any privilege over women?)

  21. Who cares about a black PM!? Why not getting a woman?
    I'm no feminist but a woman would have a much better take on issues than a man.

    • Ahem, Eva, Canada has had a woman prime minister.

      For those who care. What a wonderful country we will have when discussions like this don't even matter.

    • " but a woman would have a much better take on issues than a man"

      Dare I ask the basis of this claim?

      (And I'm not suggesting the inverse is true.)

    • Really? I guess that you’ve never heard of Margaret Thatcher and her nasty neocon policies, then.

  22. I might be three years too late, but what’s this insinuation about Canada needing to elect its “first” female prime minister? Um, Kim Campbell anyone?

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