Trailblazer into Government: The First Black Woman Cabinet Minister
INTRODUCTION: Zanana Akande was elected to the Ontario legislature in September 1990 and became the first Black woman cabinet minister in Canada.
In the interview, Sue talks to Zanana about her path to power, her accomplishments and her disappointments in office. It covers Zanana’s fascinating youth growing up in Toronto, her initiative to start the first journal by women of colour called Tiger Lily and her work to achieve the groundbreaking employment equity legislation in Ontario.
Sue Colley: I’m talking today with Zanana Akande, who is the trailblazer of Black women in Ontario, having become the first Black woman minister in Canada. So would you like to introduce yourself, Zanana, please?
Zanana Akande: Well, I’m Zanana Akande. I was elected to the Ontario legislature in 1990, September 1990. And apparently, it was trailblazing in that I was the first Black woman to be elected to the Ontario legislature and found out after that I was the first woman to become a Cabinet Minister anywhere in Canada, which was a surprise to me, because I actually thought that Rosemary Brown had been named a Cabinet Minister in BC, and was surprised to find that she had not, such a talented and bright woman. So there it was.
Sue Colley: That’s great, thank you. What do you think were the origins of this fantastic, trailblazing career that you had?
Zanana Akande: One would love to have a story that said that was built up to I decided when I was 12 that I was going to run for government but that’s not true. Actually, I had worked in many people’s elections. I had campaigned for them or counted votes, or been there when they took votes and it was generally the NDP long before it was even named the NDP. And I found that their politics and my beliefs seem to run neck and neck. And so I stayed with it.
I’ve been on committees for the New Democratic Party and actually was serving on a committee when I was asked to run. I had been asked before and said no. I was a school principal when I decided to run and I decided to run only because I looked at their platform when they asked me. And I thought there are three issues on there that I can speak to.
I wasn’t thinking in terms of I’m sure I’m going to win, it was nothing like that. But they had anticipated that I would run in an area that had a larger black community. And I said, “No, I’m going to run here where I live or I won’t run at all” because I wasn’t too great about fly-in candidates.
So that’s really the beginning. I really had a belief in politics. My father is from the Barbados and he was always very determined about teaching us about politics and about the way the world worked according to him. And how our involvement was one of the rights for which we had fought. And so therefore, we should take advantage of it and be involved. But my involvement never included in my expectations, running, never did.
Sue Colley: So that’s interesting. So were you born in Barbados or were you born in Canada?
Zanana Akande: No, I was born right here in Toronto, in Kensington actually.
Sue Colley: Oh right. So you grew up in the market.
Zanana Akande: I grew up in the market, in and around the market, those are my roots. In fact, my parents are from St. Lucia and Barbados, and both of them had taught and been in education in Barbados. So of course, their influence was ever there.
They were members of the Liberal Party way back then and later changed, I might say, moved into something that was more reflective of their beliefs. And I went to school here, Harbord Collegiate, U of T. I was ever so grateful that we had a first class university right around the corner. So it became not only convenient, but it became the base.
Sue Colley: So when did you first get involved in politics would you say? What was it through the NDP, or were there issues and movements that you were involved in?
Zanana Akande: I went to high school with Stephen Lewis. And even before that, my parents and I lived across the road from Stuart Smith, who was later proclaimed a communist and so the views and the discussions in my home and the talks that we, as children, would have with Stuart Smith. I was a friend of his daughter and they lived right across the road from us after I moved. And so it all contributed to my interest in politics.
And the fact that we were taught to trace our benefits, that’s what my father used to say, trace your benefits to the political party that’s giving you, that’s speaking for you, that’s giving them to you, and I’m still teaching kids to trace the benefits, but now they’re my grandchildren. Some of them are too young to teach, but the older ones get my message, they may not agree with it. But it teaches you to look to who is supporting you from your position, and so that kind of thing never leaves you, I think, if it’s given to you early enough and if you see the truth of it.
And moving into two other things, I remember when I was on the United Way board, and I met some people who were very involved also in politics from other parties. And I have worked in other people’s elections too, who weren’t Democrats. I’ve worked in Liberals’ elections, certainly women, Black women, who attempted to be elected in the provincial government.
I’ve worked in the Bev Salmon election, who ran municipally. You do those things, which are helpful and I thought that having our faces and the realms in politics, no matter what party and our opinions would be a beneficial thing. And so of course, I put my elbows to the job.
Sue Colley: So what about the Congress of Black women then? Was that one of the first organizations that you were involved in with Black women?
Zanana Akande: I think it was, I think I was involved in the Congress, even before I was involved with the Canadian Negro Women’s Club. The Congress, it was formed later, at least in my knowledge, it was and I became involved because there were people that I met and that I knew were involved and they invited me to come and to experience what it was like. And it was comfortable to have a group to discuss things, who saw things from your own framework, and who were dedicated to moving the issues along.
It was helpful to you because sometimes and especially when I was younger, there were relatively few blacks. It’s not like it is today. I mean, at one point, we all knew each other or knew of each other. And somebody would say, “Oh, so and so on Euclid Street.” And you’d say, “Oh yeah, the such and such family”, because there were so few of us. And sometimes in a situation like that, when you’re spending most of your time with people other than black people, you begin to feel, well, maybe my view is extreme. Maybe I have to be more patient about my expectations and about my demands.
And that patience sometimes takes a hold of you in a way that you begin, to not accept, but to allow things that you ordinarily you’d say, “Well, just a minute”, because you’re there, and you’re by yourself, and who wants to make this speech at a party? Who wants to be the one to call everybody’s attention?
And so you acquiesce to things that after a while you say, “I don’t believe I allow people to say that.” I mean, not direct insults, but what passes as humour sometimes is somewhat aggravating. So being with the Congress of Black women allowed discussions and somebody said, “You know”, and even if you weren’t discussing that particular point, it would raise an issue.
And you’d say, “I felt exactly the same way.” I remember saying to people, “This is so comforting” because I spend my days, my weeks and see relatively few black people in that situation. And here, we’re talking about things that I’ve thought about and put to the back of my mind. So it was comforting.
And then they did other things that seemed to move the ticket along. They had programs where they spoke about issues, they sponsored speakers coming in. It was, in fact, very comforting. And I think rather my first move into a sisterhood that looked like me.
Sue Colley: Fantastic, yeah. Do you remember any sort of actions or campaigns they undertook?
Zanana Akande: I don’t remember any real campaigns. I would know that they had speakers, often from the States, who would come and speak to various issues. And I also remember that they’d have socials and they always turned into discussions. I mean, you can’t get 10 black women together, let alone more than that without there being some discussion about something that’s happened somewhere to somebody, and it was healthy. I must say that it’s extremely healthy. I had found the same health with groups of women around different issues.
But around groups of black women, I found that helped, that feeling that you’re not strange, you’re not super sensitive. You are normal, this is average. And more than that, you’re quite right to feel it’s inappropriate. And we’ve had the same experiences as women, haven’t we? We’ve accepted things for years, and then later took a look at it.
And I remember the first time I read the Sisterhood is Powerful. And I kept saying, “Yes, yes”. My husband said, “I really say that you should put that book down.” But there is an identification with that, isn’t there, with certain things? And the same was happening to me with the Congress of Black women. I found it interesting.
Sue Colley: That’s good. Oh, great. Now, what about Tiger Lily? This is another project with women of colour, wasn’t it?
Zanana Akande: Well, Anne Wallace was one of the women that was asked to come to speak to us at the Congress. And she had published other things before and written. She was fantastic and very, very interesting and we became friends.
And also at that time, there was Gloria Fallick and I met her there at the Congress and we all started to talk and discuss, and the very issues that I’ve just been referring to before and said, you know, “We should put out a women’s magazine.” I said, “well, there’s a million of them.” There weren’t as many as there are now, but there were women’s magazines.
And she said no, that focuses on the issues of women of colour. And we talked about what would we call it and how would we do. And I think it was Gloria Fallick, who came up with the idea that Tiger Lily is a flower that grows everywhere, except in white. And we thought that’s significant, we’ll do that. So we called it tiger lily and Anne was really the leader in that because this was a familiar territory, she knew about publishing, she knew how to go about it.
And we started talking about different people that we could get to write certain things or to deal with certain topics. And I remember, Arun Mukherjee, who was teaching up at York University and Dora Nip, who is now, I think she’s with OHRC, various people that we would have contribute to the magazine, so that it wasn’t just our writing.
But every time I wrote for the magazine, I wrote about education. After all, I was a teacher and a consultant and a principal. So, I mean, those were issues that not only I was familiar with, but that I was angry about, and the some of the situations that I’d run into in education. But Gloria was working with the municipal government, when North York was separate and she had a lot of interest in perspectives about employment and she was from the States. So she also had a wider vision in terms of comparing.
And Anne had lived in several different places, in England and Europe, other parts of Europe and here in Canada, and she was a real go-getter and knew so many things about so many things. So it worked out well. It wasn’t long enough, I couldn’t stay with the magazine.
As a matter of fact, I forgot about the fact that since it was a non-profit magazine, I hadn’t realized that it would be an issue and it was brought up in the House. I don’t know if you recall and it was examined by the Commissioner to see whether it was okay for me to have it – to be associated with it.
Sue Colley: Oh, OK. So I didn’t realize the timing went into your being? Oh, it did. OK. I thought it was [unintelligible]. Of course, there were quite a few issues, weren’t there?
Zanana Akande: Yes, there were.
Sue Colley: It’s so good we have those issues. I don’t know if we have them all but we have a number of them on the website and it’s really interesting. So I’m glad to have those. And I guess you’ve kept in touch with those women, have you?
Zanana Akande: Well, unfortunately, Gloria Fallick died a few years ago, here. I cannot trace Anne and she went to Europe and she may well be dead. I cannot trace her. And of course with Gloria, Gloria has a daughter here and my son and her daughter knew each other but Anne has no children. And so I have not been able to find her. I would expect that she may well be gone too because Anne was a bit older than we were, not much but somewhat.
Sue Colley: Yeah. Well, anyway, great work. It is wonderful.
Zanana Akande: It was fun. It was really fun. It was therapeutic.
Sue Colley: Oh, yes. It must have been actually and it must have felt creative to pull together all those. It was a creative body of work, wasn’t it?
Zanana Akande: It was and we weren’t looking at it so much. People said, “Now that was your tremendous business.” And I thought, “We never thought of that.” I mean, we were at the stage, maybe Anne, thank God we had her. But every time someone wrote for us, I remember Dora Nips’ article and I remember Arun – every different person of colour who wrote for us, it was something else for you to look at to consider.
And to think, “Oh, my God, you know, they have that thought too”, or, “Geez, I never thought of it that way,” and to consider the perspectives that were not being reflected in the mainstream.
And I thought, “What a loss, what a loss for them not to have the value of seeing the various perspectives that were out there, but not being milked, not being reflected.” And I’ve always thought that the differences in groups is really the major advantage of having groups. I mean, I always told my husband, where two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary. And I feel that particularly when you’re in a group. You find some groups that they’re all, yes, we all think the same way. And you think, “Oh, I have to get out of here.”
Sue Colley: Yes, I know what you mean. I’m not sure I always agree. But actually, that’s very interesting, because how would you compare that to today then, do you think? I didn’t ask you this question but it comes up naturally, that you are at that point in your life experiencing all these aha moments about understanding, how you’re thinking and activity, and everything is not being reflected in the mainstream. We all think that continues, doesn’t it.
Zanana Akande: Well, it does continue. And it’s funny, because there are more magazines, there are more articles. And you can look through the paper and you see the reflection of various views, and the articles and what’s printed in some of the papers. But there are also those issues that the mainstream reflects the old standard point of view.
But the marvellous thing about today is that nobody or at least no one that I know well is shy about saying, “Well, I don’t think that.” That may be what he thinks or that may be the way it’s put there but I’m quite prepared to contradict it and feel comfortable about it. And I think that comfort level has been fought for by various people. And by the realities of our lives, I’m here because I’m here. I adjust to certain things because I can’t change them. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to push and to change them so that my kids and my kids’ kids aren’t going to have to live according to a mold that they’ve outgrown and they’ve outlasted and should be broken anyway.
So it’s not denying others of their opinion, it’s making sure that the breadth of opinions is reflected in what we say and what we do. And that’s still a fight, but we’ll continue to do it. And it’s interesting, because no matter how wide you think, oh boy, that’s it. And if you rest for two minutes, it goes right back to that narrow view and you think, here we go again, and you have to wedge it over.
Sue Colley: Right. It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?
Zanana Akande: It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work. It is.
Sue Colley: So, did this also naturally lead into your interest and keenness on the employment equity issue, would you say, or did that come after government or in government?
Zanana Akande: Well, I know it was the last act, I thought, when I did employment equity. That was one of the three things that really influenced my decision to run. I said, “Well, let me see the platform when they asked me, what’s the platform?” I looked at it and there were three things that really said, “Well, I can speak to these issues.” That was long term care. Because as I’ve said, so often, old women are poor women. They come in and out of the work situation because of children, because of parents who have to be taken care of, for various reasons.
And in my time, not so much today, we’re working at a much, much lower salary and even sometimes doing the same job. I was teaching at that time, early days. The women and the men earned different salaries for the same job when I started. So for various reasons, old women are poor women. Their husbands die and they take their pensions with them, there weren’t the changes in legislation that allowed for some of that carryover as it is today. It’s terrible. So long term care was one of the reasons and it’s strange, because look at how it’s come up in our view today, right in our faces. The second thing that I was really interested was education and that’s integrated services for children. Immediately before I ran, I was on Charles Beer’s Committee. Charles Beer was the Minister of Community and Social Services, the very ministry that I took over. And he had initiated a committee of people outside and inside the government to look at continuous services for children, so that you didn’t have health, blocking here and then have to wait for social services to come in, if the child needed that and it’s separate from education.
So I was interested in that, and especially in education, because I thought that some children were being treated unfairly, unwisely in a way that was less than appropriate. And that would disservice them and Canada all at the same time. So I was very interested in that.
And the last was employment equity, because I would have hoped that it would not have been necessary. I mean, because we all went to school together, and we all lived together, and we’re friends. But when it came to employment, it turned out to be very necessary and very qualified people were not able to get the jobs for which they applied.
And people told you, I mean, when I left grade 13, I thought I’ll work for a year and then go to university because we had no money and they had no student loans at that time. And I was told by an insurance firm, “We’ve never had a black person work here”, just like that. Just like that. And I thought, “Oh, my God.” It was the reality and there were several instances of that, that wasn’t minor, that was nothing.
Sue Colley: Well, yeah, but it must have been undermining.
Zanana Akande: Oh, it’s very undermining. Yeah, I had come out of what was considered because at that time, they evaluated schools. So Harbord Collegiate had the highest scholastic standing in Canada and weren’t we proud of that? And Jarvis was second. And I remember feeling like, “Oh, my God. They’re rejecting me.”
And it wasn’t so I hadn’t heard about it before. It wasn’t as though my family and other people talk about it but I was still affronted. Like what are they talking about? It’s happening to me and it happens in many ways. Or you go into a job and never move.
It’s still that way at the civil servants in Ontario. They’ve done a report and we’re waiting for it to come out. It just sits there. So I thought employment equity was extremely important. And those things were why I moved in that employment equity way. I was determined that when governments get elected, the most important thing in their mind is the next election.
I kept thinking, when’s employment equity coming? So I sort of encouraged a group to become a little more aggressive. Rosario Marquese and Jenny Carter, a group of us, about seven of us, pushed and brought it to the caucus. And there were those who still resent us, I guess, or resent the fact that it was an issue and blame their losing the election on the passing of employment equity.
But I say it should have been done early, so that the next four years or five years, they would have gotten accustomed to it. But I’m very proud of that. I think that when you put it on the platform, certainly, you have to establish your priorities. But if people aren’t among them, why are you there?
Sue Colley: Very good point. Yes, exactly. So OK. Tell me, first of all, I want to talk more about the employment equity legislation. But tell us a little bit about the road to getting elected first.
Zanana Akande: As I said, they wanted me to run somewhere in Scarborough, and I said, “They won’t buy me”, I said. “I don’t know why.” And they asked why. And I said, “I have no idea why. But I can tell you that they won’t buy in.” And they were very persistent. They wanted to know and I wasn’t avoiding telling them. I was being sincere.
I said, “I do not know why. but they will not buy me. For some reason, I’m somewhat suspect, maybe because I wasn’t right from the islands, but there were others that weren’t. So I don’t know why.” And I said, “Besides which, I’m not keen on fly-in candidates. It looks like I’m searching for a vote rather than they want me to represent them.
So they acquiesced and they let me run where I live. And it was interesting, because you know how they say parties are not voted in, others are voted out. The liberals were having a lot of trouble because of the power they had given the apartment owners to raise rent over fixing a window or whatever, for relatively minor things.
And many of the community in Castlefield in the areas where there were many apartment livers there who had sold their homes and older people moved into those apartments. So the raising of rents was a very contentious area and they resented it. And I think it was unfair. I really did believe it’s unfair and they were angry for some reason with the PC. So it was a time of listening.
And I ran mainly on those three issues and tied them to the budget. But I found it down in the Annex, there were many students from the U of T that were living in there, and there were a lot of profs living in there. So there was a lot of support because we were certainly not encouraging or are espousing any idea about raising the tuition fees. We were going to keep those tuition fees as regular as possible.
There were women in the area and I had a lot of nerve. I used to say to them, “Many women are living one man away from welfare.” And they would look at me, like, I mean this is the area to talk about, but there are women who suffered, at that time, extreme circumstances, in wars over divorce that were unbelievable. And you thought, you might as well weigh in on the table, all they can do is be shocked and angry.
And I did speak a great deal about long term care, because it’s so funny that it’s come up again, and I think, oh, how strange, because I was really worried that our seniors were suffering. And that many of them were not on welfare in this area. But were living by the good aegis of their children.
Even though they had sponsored their development, I found that sort of scary. Some of them were rather uncomfortable about it and you need them in different places. And they’d say, “Oh yes, I live with my daughter” or whatever. So I thought I can speak to those issues. I feel comfortable speaking to those issues and other issues, too. And certainly the budget, the budget, the budget.
Sue Colley: It’s always hard running a campaign or being the candidate. It’s very stressful and lots of hype going on about whether you’re going to win or not and that kind of thing.
Zanana Akande: Mm-hmm. And my kids were – well, one daughter was 15, the other one was 20 and she was off at university until she came back for the summer and my son was in law school. So my son worked for me. I didn’t know, I thought he was volunteering. And he said, “Oh no, the campaign.” And I said, “Oh, are you getting paid?”
Working in the summer was a biggie in our family. But he said, “Well, I’m here. I think that I should.” So he had quit his job to come and work for me. And my daughter, the one that had come back from UBC. She was quite comical. She’s always quite comical.
One funny story is we were canvassing on Madison, I think it was Madison, and this woman came out, she was so excited when I rang the bell. She said, “I’m so excited. You’re a black woman and you’re running for election and I’m going to vote for you.” And she called her daughter and she said, “Come in, come in. Meet this woman.” She was just really excited. And my daughter left me on the porch and went down onto the sidewalk.
And when she was finished, I went down to join her and thanked the women. And I said to my daughter, I said, “You know, I really don’t want her to vote for me because I’m a black woman.” And my daughter who’s extremely comical, she just looked at me and she said, “Don’t worry, there’ll be just as many people who won’t vote for you for exactly the same reason.” So I thought, yeah. Yeah, she just put it right back into perspective. And I laughed and I thought, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Sue Colley: That’s funny. So what were the memorable moments you think of being in government?
Zanana Akande: The memorable moments? I think the passing of employment equity and the Premier – I remember one of the members went out and said to the Premier – he was waiting in the lounge. And of course they make the final speech. I don’t know how she put it but she came back and she said, “You’re going to make the final speech”, which I was not prepared for.
But anyway, I said, “What did you say? What did you do?” She said, “I just went out and told them that there are about 40 black people up in the stands.” And there were I looked up and I kept thinking, “Where are these people coming from?” and whatever. But it wasn’t making the final speech, it was getting passed. I just felt Oh, my God, we’ve got something. That was one.
The other was the initiation of the Black Secretariat, what it was called then with Juanita Westmoreland-Traore. I just thought she was fabulous and they had done such exquisite work to move that whole thing along and to inject a kind of reality into government. And to make the civil servants a little more aware that the positions they had inherited simply by not being a person of colour was not a position that they would have forever.
Unfortunately, they were followed by another party that turned it all back again but that was exciting to me. And the other was Steven Lewis’s report on education, by God, it was good. And it was written in 1992 and it’s unfortunate but if we pulled it out today and we put it on the table, it would still pertain, which doesn’t say much for education because he just saw through it and wrote it as he thought.
And I was so elated with that, and that the changes that they were able to make in the Ministry of Education. We had books and programs that people today reach for and pull material from. And that was all stopped officially with the next government, but the fact that it was there, oh, I was excited. Those were, I think, the three moments when I said, “God, this is worth it.”
Sue Colley: Wow. Fantastic. You’ve talked a bit about the kind of discrimination you faced in government. How did you fight that?
Zanana Akande: Well, it’s very hard to fight because no one sees themselves as being discriminating. And because government is so confining, I have to be truthful. I hated it. You’re not supposed to say this and you’re not supposed to say that and you endure things that you know are ridiculous. The press was unconscionable.
The press, they’d asked me where I lived and what I drove. And that was also be the subject of the banter back and forth in the house. And I thought, “Why do you care where I live and what car I’m driving? Isn’t this a little ridiculous?” And this has nothing to do with anything. I remember one day I finally said to the press, “I have been reading and I know that all the other ministers have lived in houses and drive cars. So why are you focusing on this?”
I really think the world had woken up and thought life has not evolved as it should have, because there’s this woman there. And it didn’t matter what they asked or why they asked it, you were not supposed to respond in kind. So I’ve often thought of that and it just choked me because I was accustomed to be more blunt than that and I wasn’t. They found every little – the magazine, I told you, that was non-profit and, of course, the lawyer, Evans, was the Commissioner at that time. Isn’t that funny?
Sue Colley: Great memory. I wouldn’t have remembered that.
Zanana Akande: Well, you didn’t have to go there. He said, “This is a non-profit magazine.” I said, “I know. We’re putting out our money to print the magazine, and then we’re breaking even, but we’re not making any money.” He said, “Well, this isn’t good.”
So then when that was over, they took me to rent review. And rent review usually takes a couple of months, maybe four before you have the hearing, if that long and they took two years. Two years. Because while they were there, they could dance it out and ask all stupid questions in the House. And then only to find that there was nothing there that I hadn’t been overcharging and etc., etc., etc., for two years.
That was the issue that made me decide to leave. Because I left early, I left about a year before. And that was the issue. I thought, “My children are not going to have to suffer the embarrassment of being nudged about something potentially illegal. Because the stereotype of our race was always, “Oh, there’s something going on here.” And so I said, “They’re not going to have to do that”. Their father had died after I was in government a year.
So I thought these are issues whereby I’m making my living with rental property and, of course, rental property, with the NDP was the atomic bomb. “Why do you have rental property? And I said, “Is the government going to provide enough spaces for people to live?” I mean, that whole thing to me was a mystery. And of course, there were others who also had been –
Sue Colley: – That’d be so intimidating.
Zanana Akande: It was persecuting. And if you look at any of us who have been in government, it’s always what do you own and where are you from. I think there are people who still believe that Blacks should be in circumstances, like they describe it up from slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or something.
I don’t know why they dwell but they always go for this. And it got tiresome, it got ridiculous. And it was a determination I had, I thought, “This is not for me. I should be outside of government screaming as I do now.” I should be one of those people out there saying, “Hey” –
Sue Colley: – On the other hand, it’s important, right, for black women to have their voices in politics. So what advice could you give?
Zanana Akande: Well, I think the advice that you decide who you are, and really know who you are, because it’s quite a different experience, go and visit. Go and see whether you’re a person who is successful at persuading others to do things and to think your way, while you play the role and get your satisfaction that way. Or are you one who needs to be vocal outside and say, “You know, this is not good enough. This is not apparent.”
You see, when we went to government, I think a lot of the people outside, thought that they’re there now, I can go home and rest. When I was working to get employment equity paths, I said to every Black person that I met, phoned, talked to, ran into, “You have got to have your mouth open and say, ‘This is what we need. We need employment equity.’ So that it’s outside and it’s inside.”
Now, I think that’s where my role is, I think that there are others though who are very good at pulling things together inside. And they are persuasive and they do their job effectively, and those people should go into government. But I think that you’re in politics, whether you’re elected or not.
Sue Colley: Well, that’s true. But, the conditions, your colleagues, whether they’re anti-racist or not, has a huge impact on your effectiveness.
Zanana Akande: It really does. It really does. So I think that we need people in both spheres, I think that Black women, all women, should go to government, that they should focus on their issues, that they should follow the line to the money. I mean, if you’re looking at education because you have children, or because you yourself think it’s the growth of the province or the country depends on it, then you look at people who are willing to support public education, because not everyone can afford to send their children to private school. And you focus on that. You don’t give your money to some other party.
If you’re looking at long term care and you think eventually, “Hey, not everyone’s going to be able to stay home.” But if we had services that helped us to be at home, we could do that. You look at what you want and then you look at the money that they’re giving for it and that influences you.
I try to encourage not only that women go into government, but that those who don’t go into government realize that they are the government. And that if they open their mouths, and they make the push and they write the article, and they phone their members, and they say, “This is good”, and they phone them when they done something well, as well as when they’ve done something ridiculous, then they’re still in government.
Sue Colley: That is a great lesson. My last question is what are the important lessons from your long history of activism and political acumen for today’s activists. But you’ve just said it all, haven’t you?
Zanana Akande: That’s exactly it.
Sue Colley: I don’t want to put words in your mouth.
Zanana Akande: No, but it is, it is. It’s the way I feel. It’s like when people say to me, “Well, I wouldn’t go into government.” I said, “You don’t have to go to government to be in government. You are the government and push.” The other thing is people say, “You know, those people are rich.” I say, “There are more poor people and middle class than there are wealthy. And so you can do more.”
I’m better at that. I don’t like the confining rules of government. And I will tell you, it may not be flattering for me, but I have to be truthful. I often resented the fact that we were told what to do, by people whose names have never been on the ballot.
And not, it was suggested, because I’m an expert and I know and then you discuss it and then we decide, it was you remember, you will do such and such. And I thought well, why? Give me more reasons than that. So it’s that kind of playing the game that it’s better suited for other people and I give them that.
Sue Colley: But that’s interesting, because don’t you think that’s a really male way of operating? Like if we had more women and more black women and more women of colour and Indigenous women in government or in power, you think we’d operate that way?
Zanana Akande: No, that’s a party I’d like to come to. That’s a party I’d like to come to. Because you know, that we would say, “Well, why? What are we doing that for? And how are you doing that?” And you’d come to some conclusion. And it’s true, because I remember when women began to be promoted in jobs and roles more frequently. At first, there were those women who operated just like the men, because that’s the only leadership they’d ever see. And you know, how they were regarded like let’s move them along.
And the others would be, “Well, wait a second” and they had a difficult time. And I think it’s true and maybe we shouldn’t relax so much because I think that as long as this movement of women is in its relatively new stages, 20-30 years is not old, it’s new. As long as it’s movement in women, we still have that push, push. What we have to guard against is our settling into allowing that group to take the leadership.
And as long as we have a memory, this is part of that memory of the times when it was not that way, when we were told what to do, when we disliked it, and we had to fight our way out of the paper bag. I think that we will not go into the paper bag. So I’m all for creating that memory.
Sue Colley: Yeah, fantastic. That’s fantastic, Zanana. Have we missed anything? Are there other things you’d like to add or embellish?
Zanana Akande: No, you’ve been very kind in listening to me this far. No, it’s been a great journey. It started with education. It’ll probably hopefully end that way, because there’s still a great deal of work to do in education. I think that it shows itself in the issues it has with race. Also, the issues it has with difference. And education is a field where they will make a decision or make a policy or write a law and figure it’s done. But you have to be very careful about the people that you hire to initiate the policy. And you have to be very careful about making sure that it continues to be done.
And I think that the reason I still hold so determinately to the importance of education; that it is an influencing tool that we can use to build our society in so many ways, if we only remember that that’s what you’re doing. I used to teach at the university, teachers who were learning to teach in special education situations, gifted as well as those who were challenged.
And I would say to them, you know, they give you a certificate, which says you’re a teacher, they should really give you a certificate that says you’re a paid influencer, because that’s what you’re doing. And you know, you’ve got to keep working at it, because otherwise, we’re going to go backwards. And I’m so afraid of that. Once you have grandchildren, you’re afraid of everything.
Sue Colley: That’s right. Well, we only have to look, I mean, at the States in the last several years has been so horrendous, isn’t it?
Zanana Akande: Yeah. I remember when I was a child, they used to have a paper, many of the black men were employed to be paid well as porters. And they’d go to to the States on the train and various other places and they’d bring back a paper called the Chicago Defender. And the Chicago Defender, when you get it, of course, you’re getting it late because it’s coming from there and it’s coming to Toronto, and they’d bring enough that certain people would pay them for the paper.
And you’d read the paper and they would talk about the lynchings in the south. And this was when I was a child and what happened with the unfairness of various situations. And you think, “Oh yeah, it’s bad, but it’s getting better. It’s bad, but it’s not so bad.” And you believe that because I guess you had to believe that.
But last year and the last few years, when it’s all become so evident, you suddenly realize that while we were not watching, these things were happening, and this group of people would flare up, and then they wouldn’t report it anymore. This other group of people would flare up, and they wouldn’t report that anymore. And you thought to yourself, it’s gone backwards. It’s gone backwards. Or maybe it never left. It was without a style for them to make that kind of noise.
So it gives you the impression that you’re not safe. You’re never safe, you’re never finished. This is never going to be over. This is a struggle that my children are waging, and their children will be waging and it’s going to go on forever. And I think that’s the new belief I have. I used to think it would get better, and then we could all relax. I don’t think so.
And I think the same is true, I hate to tell you this, of women. I think that there’s always going to be men and women who feel that our roles have changed too much. And too many of us are moving toward that change. And I think that maybe that’s what brings me to the fight is those double issues that we’re going to constantly have to watch; it’s never going to become automatic. We constantly have to watch that our space isn’t taken over again differently.
Sue Colley: Yeah, I know. I’m so glad you’re still at it, Zanana, it’s fantastic. As I said, a trailblazer to the end, I think.
Zanana Akande: Oh, I don’t know but, certainly, active because I have no choice. Really, we have no choice. We have no choice.
Sue Colley: That’s right, that’s right.