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REAKASH – An inspiring woman changing the face of politics in Edmonton, Canada.

« When I am elected as the MP, I will be the first black woman elected to a federal position in Alberta, ever ».

I would love to hear about you, your background, where you’re from, how you grew up. Start from the beginning.

I guess for some reason it always goes back to my daddy. He’s a very strong man. My parents moved from Jamaica to Canada. They wanted a place where we could thrive and have opportunities. I guess my dad was a feminist from when I was young. He didn’t know he was a feminist but he always taught us to develop ourselves on our own before we can start to try and mould ourselves around somebody else. So he always told us, we need to go to school, to get a good job and develop our skills. Of course my mom was on-board too but my dad was really the driving force behind that.

From what I know of the Caribbean in general, I might be mistaken but I feel that it’s rare for a man to be so feminist?

Yes it is. It is generally for sure. I think a lot of parents want their kids to succeed but usually there is also that push for getting hitched and having babies and doing all of that. That was never on my parents priority list and thankfully it isn’t now either because I would not be fulfilling that well. (Laugh) It was a unique experience and actually coming into university and high school and learning that other people weren’t raised that way was a shock to me. My parents moved to a small town, really small and I was the only black girl in my whole school (laugh). That was something.

Where was that?

Lacombe, Alberta. There were maybe 9000 people when we moved there and I think it was an excellent opportunity for me to start to develop who I am and my interests and my personality. My parents didn’t let me go to barn parties. They wanted me to study. Having the time and also finding my own groups of friends was really amazing. But I don’t think I was able to really articulate (I always felt out of place in my small town) what was different about me until I moved to Edmonton. I went to my first women studies class and I was like “why is my teacher telling me all of these things that I am feeling but don’t know how to say…”. To understand what it means to, I guess, act out gender and how I was going to act out my expression of gender and femininity. My expression was fairly independent and driven, ambitious, not really reliant on a partner until now.

I got involved in art & culture. I started volunteering for all of these different organizations like festivals in my city. I was on the executive of Greenpeace, just really starting to understand the way other people think and the way that I think and then I created my little bubble. Stepping outside of that bubble and understanding that the people outside of it aren’t bad, they just have had a difference experience.

A lot of the time, you just need to be exposed to certain ways of being and thinking so that you can make your own decisions. I think a lot of the time, within my activist arts & culture bubble, we think that the people outside the bubble are red necks, or stupid but it’s not true. We have to give people the opportunity to learn. When I started to realize that is when I started becoming more and more interested in politics because, it was an awesome way of starting conversations with people and understanding where people are coming from.

I think the most hilarious conversations, are the ones I have with people who are full conservative and I’m like “What are your values?” And they are like “You know I think we should be investing into clean forms of energy and I think we should be supporting people who are less fortunate”. And I’m like “Are you sure you’re conservative? (laugh) Can I show you the policies of the conservatives and the policies of the NDP’s, so you can make your own decision as to where your values align…” That’s pretty funny, those conversations are awesome and giving people the opportunity to not be judged and to just be comfortable talking about where they are coming from. That was a long explanation (laugh).

I’m interested to know what you studied and what you’re doing right now?

I studied communications at university, that’s my degree and I actually started off my degree in political science and then switched to communications. I felt it was a better use of my skill sets. And now I want to go back to a poli-sci degree so it’s full circle (laugh). The reason I got into politics actually is because my dad and I didn’t have a very good relationship when I was younger, we didn’t really have anything to talk about. We would just sort of sit around and want to interact but not really know how. And I know he watches a lot of Canadian broadcasting corporation ‘CBC’ and so I started watching the CBC as well. And then he loves politics so I thought I would look into politics and have conversations with my dad. He could teach me things and from that it sort of just spiraled. I just got so deep into all these things. Politics is not just people sitting in Parliament. Every single ones of these bills directly impacts how we live our lives and it forms our environment. I just became so interested in both sides of it. So I’m interested in the policy and then also interested in the fact that « why does nobody else my age care about this stuff ? ».

How old are you?

I’m actually 21.

So basically you got interested in politics as a way to get closer to your dad and it kind of all started there?

Then I started volunteering on different political campaigns. I was doing communications on another municipal campaign and then there is a woman, she was the member of the legislative assembly, so she’s an MLA in my area and I was so interested in her because she was passionate about environmental law (she’s a lawyer) and she was just such a strong female voice in Edmonton. So she asked me to be on her executive. And I said yes! We helped her make decisions; we helped her be the leader in her campaign.

And she is now; she’s the leader of the NDP in Alberta. This was a couple of years ago. This is when I started getting passionate about it. Then after that, she asked me to start working in her constituency office doing communications and casework there.

I was only working for a few hours that day, it was my first day of work and there’s a man, his name is Tyson. He was hired by the party to come and find possible candidates for the area. He asked to meet with me. My friends said he wanted to help point out other candidates. We sat down and he was like : « I want you to run ». And I was like « no way ». He told me to think about it. So I took some time to think about it. I’ve always wanted to run, to be a politician on the level of interacting with people and representing them and their interests. That is something that has been really important to me. My plan was to, move to Ottawa, work on parliament hill and maybe when I was 45 I’d run for government and the fact that the NDP wanted to encourage me as young black woman to tackle my dreams right now not wait 20 years was amazing. So I decided I was going to do it. I talked to a lot of people and they told me to pursue my dreams.

What are you running for?

I’m running to be a member of parliament. Each area in Canada has a representative. I would be the federal representative for Edmonton Centre in Alberta, Canada

So, you’re a young 21-year-old black woman running? How do you feel about that? Do you feel like you have this weight on your shoulders to represent black women? Or are you just living the experience.

I think it’s a great question. I think it’s really dangerous when people choose one person and have them represent their entire group. For me, I represent my own personal experience and there is a lot of overlap between my experience and other people’s experiences who are maybe first generation Canadians like I am, because we’re minorities, or because I’m young, or whatever…

All of those things that make up my identity will overlap with other people and things that make up their identities. So I think I can represent a wide experience. I can represent a lot different people who are living in Canada and maybe feel like their views aren’t being heard, that their views are more marginalized.

My family has been adopting children since I was really young. I have 7 siblings. 2 of them are from the aboriginal community. The aboriginal community in Canada is very discriminated against. The government deals with them in this sort of parental way. The federal Harper government deals with them in a way that is at times patronizing. And it’s really important to me that we respectfully engage with aboriginal communities on the level of two equals rather than parent and child. « Oh we’re going to take care of you » or « we know what’s best for you », I don’t think that is a very respectful way of having relations with the aboriginal community and I don’t think it’s effective.

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I want to come back on what you were saying about the aboriginal population in Canada and the stigma that it bares. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that. If you could tell me more about that…

I won’t go too far into history. There were a lot of different tribes within Canada before the Europeans came. When the Europeans came they basically stole the land, which is something that happened to a lot of aboriginal communities in different parts of the world. So the part of Canada’s history, which is extremely unfortunate and sad, is that catholic schools and the government teamed up to create what we call ‘residential schools’ and they forced aboriginal children out of their family homes and into these schools. In these schools they were abused, mentally and physically, sexually even. They weren’t allowed to speak their original language and they weren’t allowed to interact with their parents on a regular basis. There is a whole generation of aboriginal people who were disconnected from their history and abused mentally. Then after the residential schools were shut down (the last one was shut down in 1996), not so long ago. There is an intergenerational effect, aboriginal people were disconnected from who they were, from their identity and Canadian culture began to think badly about them. They were discriminated against; they still are very much discriminated against. They aren’t treated with respect. They are barred from a lot of media; from being in workplaces…it has really affected the way that their culture has developed.

So how do they live, if there is so much discrimination?

There are a lot of aboriginal people who are forging a new life but also taking into account their old traditions. A lot of them are learning their original language. They are educating themselves in that way but they are also going to university and finding jobs. There is definitely a resurgence of aboriginal culture in Canada. The government also put them onto these things we call reserves. They told them they had to live in these specific areas and they weren’t allowed to come into the city.

Are you serious? And this is still going on today?

Yes. A lot of aboriginals still live on reserves. When they move into the city they have a really hard time accessing resources.

For example, if they want to come live in the city it’s difficult for them? 

It is difficult because, I guess it’s systemic racism. So that is definitely the struggle in Canada. They represent 4% of the population in 2011.

You have siblings that have been adopted. How was it growing up in such an environment?

Both my parents are from families of fifteen. So they are one out of fifteen children. When they came over form Jamaica, they really wanted to have a lot of kids. But they could see that certain populations and certain people were really struggling and that some children had no home. So they took it upon themselves to enter the foster care system. They just started bringing people into our home. My whole life there was people of different ages coming into the house. My two eldest adopted siblings are actually of Malaysian descent and the two youngest are of aboriginal descent and then four of us are from Jamaican descent. I grew up in this wildly multicultural family.

How did you experience this personally?

I think I didn’t understand at the time. When you’re in your own reality you just assume it’s the only reality. I loved having all of these siblings around. I think it became awkward in my early teens because I was a little brat and wanted more attention from my parents. I think that was a bit of a struggle but once I graduated high school, for the first time I realized my parents had been adopting and fostering kids my whole life. That’s crazy, not a lot of people do that. I didn’t realize that.

It really taught me how to be independent and have my own ambition and want to do things for me. Obviously my parents have a lot of love that they are giving and there are a lot of other children who need love, attention and support. I was able to find my own drive within myself to do the things I want to do. Not because my parents thought it’s great or because they think I should do it, but because it’s important to me. I found a bit of independence on that level. But also, learning to interact with people who are from so many different backgrounds and have such a different upbringing than me. Some of them came into our house when they were 12 or 13 so they had already lived their life to a certain extent. There is a lot of hardship they went through that they brought to the table. Learning to interact with them and respect them is definitely an asset for me in my adult life.

So…jumping to another question… When do you know if you’re nominated?

Right now I’m going for nomination for the NDP. Once I’m chosen to be the actual candidate then we will start to campaign on larger scale. It’s going to be a really wild ride and a lot of fun. They have to pick the nomination date, it’s probably going to be sometime in May. I’m starting to speak positively because it helps me. I say « when I am elected as the MP, I will be the first black woman elected to a federal position in Alberta, ever ». I really do believe we can make this happen and so these types of things are really important because I would like to raise the profile and instead of it being a local thing that happened I would like for the rest of the world to know that Alberta has never elected anybody like this. I really want to do it now. It’s time! Especially for people across Canada to know this is happening is really awesome.

I saw the video you participated in “Growing up black in Canada”. I’m interested to know how you identify yourself?

I identify myself first as a community builder. I’m so passionate about community. Community saves lives. There are a lot of people who feel disconnected and sometimes they make rash decisions based on the fact that they feel so disconnected from the people around them. The feel like they are alone. Second, I believe in equality and sharing stories, the value of human experience. The fact that another person has had a different experience than me is of value and they can give me so much knowledge. I just think there are a lot of people who are not represented. I would like to be that person who truly listens. Who truly sits down with different communities and says: « Hey, I know what it feels like to not be listened to, let’s talk about you. Let’s talk about how you feel, your vision of what you what Canada and Edmonton to look like. ». Yes, I am a black woman! That’s important to my identity and me but first and foremost I would like to be a good listener.

Are you aware that you’re probably going to be a symbol for many people? Within the party do you feel like there is a projection made on you?

I don’t think I have a satisfying answer. I guess I don’t have a problem with affirmative action. If you look at a school and say « Hey there are no aboriginal people here ». What can we do to encourage more aboriginal people to come here? To me, that’s a great idea. I don’t have a problem reaching out to people who maybe don’t feel like they have the tools or the support to do the things that haven’t been done. I do understand that at some level I’m going to be a symbol and I think it’s a lot of pressure. I think it’s important for me to always reach out to the people around me and again listen. I don’t want to misrepresent anybody. I don’t want to make anyone feel like I’m doing something that cannot be done. I want everyone to feel connected and feel like I’m not going to be the only one out there. This can be a symbol of the things we need to work on and the hard work we need to continue to do. I hope that answers your question.

Politically what changes would you like to see in Canada? What are you passionate about?

I love this question! There are 3 things that are very important to me and then other things that are also important to me.

The top of my list, as I’m sure you can deduce is aboriginal relation. Ensuring there are healthy relationships, conversations, respectful round table discussions where every part feels like they are being heard and that there is legislation that is being acted to support these communities in the way they want to be supported. In a way that is best for them to be supported. That’s really important to me. Getting rid of the misconceptions and the prejudice that exist within society.

Second on my list is environmental conservation. Investing in new forms of energy. Understanding that it’s not something that has to be out of sync with the economy. If we are investing in green jobs, those people will be making money, contributing to the economy, strengthening it and making it more diverse. That’s another thing that is really important to me.

The third thing, as a first generation Canadian, I really understand the struggles immigrants from various countries and refugees are having. Just recently the Harper government passed a bill that makes it more difficult for refugees to obtain healthcare. When they come over, they don’t have the opportunity to get affordable healthcare. That’s not OK with me. You’re coming from somewhere else, you have nowhere else to go and then you’re in a country that doesn’t feel like it’s welcoming you, what are you going to do? So immigration, refugee issues are very high on my list.

The NDP is advocating right now for a $15 an hour minimum wage and we’re advocating for a $15 per day for childcare. They actually put into use a similar program in Quebec and there are 70.000 women who ended up going back to work. This program really encourages equity between genders and that’s really important to me. Giving women or caregivers the chance to really pursue their dreams as well. They don’t necessarily need to feel tied down by their home obligations.

A lot of people don’t believe in politics anymore. A lot of young people are struggling with it. If you could speak to those young people, what would you say? Why is it important for them to be involved in politics?

There’s an assumption that because young people aren’t voting, that they are not getting involved and that’s very much not true. There are young people volunteering for different organizations, they are getting involved with their community, they are in arts and culture. They are disillusioned with what is going on right now with the government. This has been a cyclical process it didn’t happen over night. Young people stopped voting as often as the older generation. The government saw that young people were not voting so they don’t consider them voters and so they are not making legislation, which appeals to them. Once they stop appealing to the young people, then the young care even less. It’s a cycle. It’s gotten to a place where people my age don’t know what the NDP is, they don’t know who their member of the legislative assembly or their member of parliament is. They don’t care! They don’t want to care. They don’t feel connected with what is going on in politics and it is really sad because the Harper government, the conservatives, like the fact that young people don’t care. They can pass any legislation they want and nobody is going to interfere because « Oh it’s just politics ». When in fact all of these things impact our lives so much.

As an example: The other parties don’t really choose their candidates democratically; they just appoint a candidate for that area, people don’t have a choice. At the NDP, whether certain people in power like one candidate over another doesn’t matter, it’s all based on votes and who comes to the nomination meeting to choose the candidate. That’s the type of party that really inspires change for me because it’s truly grassroots. I know some people are very skeptical to believe this but if you come to a convention, to discussions about policy, everyone has their chance to speak. And the NDP advocates for proportional representation.

Another example: There is one seat in the green party in Canada that’s a member of parliament. If we had proportional representation there should be eleven seats for the green party because whomever you vote for, that vote goes directly to that person and puts them on the map. Then you can get a seat based on that. The system that we have right now is flawed; I would definitely concede to that.

Things need to change. For instance, the NDP would like to abolish the senate because it is made up of people who are chosen by people who are very powerful and then they get to have a say in our laws when we didn’t ask them to. These systems have been in place for how many hundreds of years and they haven’t changed but we’ve changed. Our technology has changed; a lot of the ways that we’re set up have changed. I think our politics need to reflect that as well and really tap into what young people want because we are the next generation. We are the ones who are going to be coming into these positions of power and that means we have to be educated, engaged and have a real investment in this country and a pride for Canada.

There is this new campaign in Edmonton it’s called ‘Make something Edmonton’ and I love this campaign because it’s so reflective of the culture here. If you want to create anything and you decide to create it, people will come support you, give you money, work on your project and they will give their skills and time. Edmonton is such a haven for doing what you want. If you can get over the cold and the oil culture then you can really thrive in Edmonton.

Nothing to do with what we’ve been discussing but I saw a picture of you on Facebook singing…?

Yes! I’m in a band. I sing. We are called “Winter Tribe”. We’ve only been together for about a year. We have done a few originals but we also do covers. There is only one song « Ordinary people ». We play funk, R&B. We’ve played some reggae at a Caribbean festival. I really love the energy within our band and the type of people that have come together. We just want to make music you know. It’s not about making money or being famous. It’s about having a desire to express something.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to talk about?

I think we’ve talked about most things. One thing that I hope comes through clearly is that I want every single Human that feels like they need to do something and that they can’t for whatever reason…well, I hope that they can feel like they can do all of the crazy things that they want to do and with research and hard work it can truly happen. I hope that anyone who is feeling disconnected can plug into your community and the ones around. Just reach out and take that step. It’s super scary and it sucks being rejected but it’s not the worst thing in the world, especially when there is potential to be accepted.

What’s your dream?

I have so many. A part of me wants to become a yoga teacher, travel the world and have no commitments. A part of me wants to move to a commune. A part of me wants to travel, sing and make music. A part of me wants to become Prime Minister. There are so many different paths we can take, that we can choose. My dreams shift as the political climate shifts, as my community has different goals. Right now, my dream and my goal is to become a member of parliament and really represent the people of Edmonton center (122000 people). Encourage them to have their voice heard.

Any last words to wrap it up?

I really appreciate what you’re doing. This is a project that is so important, the inspiration that you give people. The permission you’re giving people to just be happy is awesome.

Find her online: Reakash.ca


Instagram & Twitter: @reakash


Photo by: Emily Oud Photography

 Photo by: Emily Oud Photography