Why did Ontario NDP’s leader let the Black caucus crumble?

Ontario’s first NDP Black caucus made history four years ago.

Now, it may be destined for the dustbin of history.

In 2018, five new Black MPPs proudly took their seats alongside NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, a culmination of years of political action and hailed as a turning point on diversity. Today, those ambitions are in disarray.

The Black caucus has lost two of its most prominent members in recent weeks — not done in by partisan rivals but undone and worn down by party infighting.

After one resignation and another defenestration, two more MPPs face almost impossible odds of re-election. All of which may leave just one of the founding five still standing, clinging to the last seat.

How did Horwath’s commitment to leading unravel?

There are many excuses, but one explanation: Not doing the right thing.

To understand the ups and downs of the Black caucus, you have to begin at the beginning. In 2019, Horwath proclaimed the party’s triumph by promising to lead the way:

“Black Canadian leaders must be at the table when every decision is made,” she announced. “It is the first time any party has elected enough Black members to form a caucus …

“The Ontario NDP MPP Black caucus will continue for generation after generation, growing after every election.”

For Kevin Yarde, perhaps the party’s best-known Black MPP, Horwath’s words sound like empty slogans after just one election cycle. A television personality familiar to longtime viewers, Yarde caught the ear of the legislature with his booming, broadcast-quality voice.

He also won support from all parties for his bill targeting auto insurance discrimination, which passed this month — a rare achievement for an opposition MPP, and a big win for his Brampton North riding, where rates are rising. Yarde won a standing ovation from MPPs of all parties Wednesday, but it was a painfully awkward moment for New Democrats.

Yarde was blindsided by an internal challenge for the NDP nomination this month, just weeks before the June 2 election. His loss to little-known challenger Sandeep Singh stunned the party — and the community.

“I would rather have had … 100,000 people in Brampton North determine my fate as opposed to 150 people at a riding association,” he told the Star later.

The Tories don’t allow incumbents to be unseated, nor do the Liberals. The NDP styles itself as the party of open democracy, but also diversity — and reconciling those two laudable goals takes lots of work.

It’s an open secret that nomination meetings are prone to wild swings in membership recruitment if you know how to game the system — sales over substance. Horwath has pledged to review the rules going forward, but too late to protect Yarde, Peel’s first Black MPP.

In the aftermath, Horwath lavished praise upon Yarde for his hard work. But instead of pulling out all of the stops — talking him up as a community role model — the leader remained above the fray.

“Our process is wide open and very democratic,” Horwath insisted. “As a leader, I really have nothing to do with that.”

By hiding behind the rules, Horwath missed the big picture — retreating into legalisms over leadership. The pained reaction from surviving members of the Black caucus was damning and telling.

“This week has been anything but OK. Leadership is ensuring someone who needs help gets it,” tweeted Laura Mae Lindo (Kitchener Centre).

“Exactly,” agreed Rima Berns-McGown (Beaches-East York). “If we are a team, then we support and lift each other up. If we don’t, there’s a deep, deep, systemic and structural problem.”

It wasn’t the first time the Black caucus had taken to Twitter to shine a light on the party’s blind spots. Back in January, Berns-McGown and others challenged Horwath’s insensitivity to the Jewish community in recruiting and saluting star candidate Steve Parrish, after the former Ajax mayor defied community protests by stubbornly defending a street sign he’d put up honouring the commander of a Nazi warship.

Berns-McGown, who is Jewish, said she paid a price for speaking out to the party’s leadership. Now, she is not running for re-election — another loss for the Black caucus.

“I felt there wasn’t enough appreciation or understanding for what I was trying to do. I felt blocked, to be honest,” she said in an interview. “They were never going to let me out of the penalty box.”

After the Parrish disaster (Horwath belatedly nixed his candidacy) came the loss of Yarde, and yet lessons weren’t learned: “What I can say is that I don’t think that they foresaw the fallout,” Berns-McGown said.

Like her, other Black caucus survivors say it’s not just about the NDP, but all major parties failing to represent — and reflect — community aspirations and frustrations. New Democrats have long claimed they would lead the way, but are now lagging.

Lindo, who chairs the Black caucus, told me she’s still “trying to figure out what this means … to grapple with the impact of having racialized people at that table.”

Why recruit Black people if you can’t also retain them? Or help them reflect their community?

“What happens to Black folks when they’re in these political spaces,” she mused, choosing her words carefully. “What happens when Black community members are elected in these systems that don’t necessarily create the space for us to centre community.”

When I first invited members of the Black caucus to the Ryerson Democracy Forum I host on campus, they had a powerful impact on students and faculty. Now, they are about to be down two members and possibly more.

Faisal Hussein (York South-Weston) faces a daunting challenge from Michael Ford, a city councillor and nephew of the premier with strong name recognition; Jill Andrew (St. Paul’s) is a longshot against Nathan Stall, a medical doctor whose commentary on COVID gave him a high profile in a traditional Liberal stronghold; the popular and highly respected Lindo faces a tough fight in her Kitchener riding, but has the best odds of survival.

Lindo insists she isn’t giving up on the internal and external battles, political and racial. A persuader who packs a powerful punch, Lindo is calling on more people to listen up, recalling how the “Democracy Forum took seriously what the Black caucus was trying to do.”

Even if others still don’t.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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