Leaving Home and Running for Office: Shared Experiences Facing Immigrant Women

By Giselle General

Although I attended many leadership workshops throughout my life I didn’t seriously consider running for office until 2016, when I attended an eight-month-long campaign school. While I felt convinced and inspired, as the session went on, I began to feel more and more apprehensive.

Upon reflection, I think my apprehension stemmed from my identity as an immigrant, as well as being a woman. I wanted to put together a list of my challenges in the hope that women relate to my story and identify with shared experiences and obstacles so that we can work to overcome them.

Playing Catch-Up on Learning Canada’s History, Social Norms, and Political Environment

When I immigrated to Canada from the Philippines, I received a 20-page booklet as an introduction to the country. That is hardly enough information to learn about the specific area that someone would live in. When people discuss a time period when there was a massive change in policy or a political scandal from decades ago, I realized that I lack the context of what happened before I came here. There are many things that I just recently learned about, such as government boards, community leagues, urban planning, having natural areas protected, and the division of powers among levels of government and divisions within those governments, and many more.

People immigrate to Canada at different ages. The older you are, the less likely that learning all these will come from school. It can be daunting to grasp the reasons behind why things are the way they are. This can make someone feel less qualified to run.

Internalized Perspectives about Politics from One’s Country of Origin

I visited the Philippines last December 2018, and during a trip, our bus drove by a funeral procession for a local politician who was murdered for “political reasons”. Candidates, current politicians, their family members and allies, and even former politicians get murdered there on a regular basis. It is unspoken, but common knowledge, that politics can be a risk for the rest of one’s life.

During the campaign school in 2016, we listened to a politician convincing us that we need more women in office. From the crowd, I asked “Is it safe to run here? As in, is there a risk of me getting murdered, my family being kidnapped and found dead on the river?”. The politician was shocked and reassured me that it is safe to run here. A fellow participant approached me afterwards and said, “I haven’t even thought of that! All I’m afraid of are trolls on social media”. I said, “I know I’d never heard of a mayor being killed here but it happens often in other places. The usual suspects are either incumbents, influential crime organizations or corporations. Corruption kills.”

If before coming to Canada, that’s how politics is perceived by migrants, who may have fled their countries because of the violent political environment, why would they even consider running? Even here in Canada, there seems to be a consensus that politics can be evil or nasty, something to not be involved with, or be just angry about. Immigrants usually leave their country for a better life, and political life can’t really be described as such.

Strain on resources such as time, emotional labour and finances

Family ties to the country of origin is common for immigrants. Running for public office is a very demanding endeavour and being an elected official even more so. Demands for financial resources, time, and emotional support can pull a potential candidate in different directions, making running for public office seem less attainable.

Many election campaign tip sheets talked about finances.  One of the pieces of advice is to “save money a little at a time”, which can be a challenge for many migrants. A recent personal example: In January 2019, a cousin back home needed financial help for kidney surgery. I sent her $1,000 which covered only part of the medical costs. Just a few months before that, her child got severely ill and I sent $500. It’s money I’m willing to share, but it could have been my starting fund for a campaign. These decisions can be difficult to make and every year there is always a loved one in need.

Trauma

2016 was the final straw for me. I’m a sexual assault survivor, from a country where sexual assault is really not discussed, and victims are not supported. Given the misogynistic and sexually violent comments I heard during recent elections, I felt terror about the idea of running for public office. Could I handle online comments that remind me of one of the ways I got sexually assaulted?

Many migrants come with deep emotional scars and may get limited or no support to start healing. The pressure from having to survive, the conflicting need to assimilate and belonging while preserving one’s heritage, can leave no room to consider other ways to get involved. With trauma, other unhealthy behaviours can emerge, such as impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and excessive self-criticism.

I feel fortunate to have sought out help through resources available in this city. Now, I feel more emotionally equipped to handle the challenges of my personal life and future public life.

What can organizations and programs that aim to encourage women’s political involvement do in order to help address this?

When I attend workshops, many of my concerns touch on the four categories above so while they aim to be inspiring, feel just a little bit out of touch.

  1. Analyze oversimplified advice. “Don’t feed the trolls” and “save money a little bit at a time” are a few examples. When sharing these pieces of advice, it can be meaningful to ask a few questions.  Does this work for a refugee who still has family in their home country? How about the immigrant who has been under-employed during all her years living in Canada, despite her impressive foreign credentials that the schools here didn’t recognize? How about those from countries where everyone, from the president to the mayor, is corrupt? Does the advice on handling media work for ESL speakers, or who have unique names?  
  2. “You can’t be what you can’t see”: highlight people of colour who are great political leaders, even if they are holding office in other provinces or countries. I have only recently found out that there are a number of Filipino-Canadian politicians in other provinces, and that felt reassuring. In the campaign school, there was a panel with several women from different ethnic backgrounds, one of them was relatively young, and I found that inspiring as well. There are a number of Asian-Canadians holding office but are not as well-known in other parts of the country. At a different event, I learned about a city councillor who got elected within five years of immigrating to Canada.  
  3. Find ways to connect to people through their other identities. I am able to find many of these opportunities thanks to being a relatively social media savvy millennial. Continuing to post articles, event promotions, memes and videos online is an effective way to reach me. This means that reaching out to middle-aged and elderly migrants will take a different approach. These presentations and programs may have to be done at a newcomer centre, cultural centre, or seniors centre, where the audience will likely be born-and-raised and newcomers.