The Ward 12 by-election is hotly contested by more than 30 candidates, and we wanted to hear a woman’s perspective on the key issues in this election. So we asked Nisha Patel, a young woman who lives in Ward 12, to speak to her views on issues, barriers, and potential solutions for involving more women in politics in her community. A proud first-generation Canadian, Nisha’s parents come from Gujarat, India, and she and her family have maintained close ties to the Indian communities in Edmonton. A grad of the University of Alberta, she currently works as a municipal intern at Strathcona County.
Let’s talk about your connection to the by-election. Do you live in Ward 12?
I do. I’ve lived in the ward my whole life and for me, that seat was incredibly important. It was the first time I saw a politician who came from an Indian background elected on City Council, which is really interesting. I think it’s a testament to the strength of the cultural community and the ward. There are so many candidates running from so many different backgrounds. It is almost as though we’re starting to see the seat as being something that can be represented more ethnically and more diversely.
Where did you develop your passion for political involvement?
Growing up in Edmonton, my parents weren’t involved in municipal politics, but they’re interested in issues that surround them. In high school, I joined a competitive debate team. Being a competitor means that you have to be more aware of issues that surround you and I got hooked. I ended up doing it through university as well. That’s where I started being more involved in what was going on in my ward and municipal elections. Out of any other government level, that’s the level that interested me the most because I think that municipal government has a unique ability to solve people’s problems and look after the needs that are the most pressing for them.
Why do you think it’s important for women to vote?
For me, voting represents the meanest form of involvement. I think it’s the smallest step toward getting people involved and it is a step that we’re missing. Voting often leads to other degrees of involvement. If we can get enough women to vote, then we can start working on getting more women involved in policy making, planning, or volunteering around campaigns. I think it is incredibly important because we don’t know the conversations and issues we’re missing when women aren’t at the table. If we allow conversation to be controlled or directed by the same demographic of people—either by race, ethnicity, gender, or interests—we don’t have a holistic view of what’s important.
What are some of the most important issues you think need to be addressed in Ward 12?
For Ward 12 especially, accessible, timely, and affordable transit is huge, because there are so many economic opportunities throughout Edmonton that can help women become more independent and be financially empowered. But they need to be able to travel to these jobs affordably in order to make it worth their while. Affordable housing is incredibly important. Affordable childcare because a lot of women are leaders in their family, but do also need to work outside the home. They are big decision makers: consumers who buy all the products for their family. They’re the ones making a lot of important decisions. But they aren’t able to make meaningful decisions if they don’t have financial empowerment. I also think it is important to have adequate mental health services and counselling services, because we are dealing with so many different cultures from around the world. A lot of them have stigmas against mental health and mental wellness. Women need to be able to access resources to deal with those issues because they are leaders in their own family. They are depended on by so many.
What are some barriers women face in this community?
I think the biggest barrier is time. Women are often doing the emotional labour at work and at home. They take care of households. They often work extra hours or they’re part-time workers who work shift work while still trying to take care of kids, or family, or look after the needs of the husband who might be out working even longer than them. There is also this mindset that unless you can give a lot of time and solid commitment, you’re not able to be involved in stuff like politics. I think that’s another barrier as well. The idea that unless you are someone who is important already, or someone who has a lot of connections, or who has a lot of money or wealth that you can’t get involved. I think this is an incorrect idea, of course. I think people should try to look at it more flexibly. Any time they can contribute is important; there’s no pressure.
How do you think the City could help in removing some of those barriers and facilitate more time?
I think at the core of it is the idea that being a healthy and responsible member of your community means that you are involved by default or that you engage by default. A lot of people who come here, they’re are so busy working and working to live and trying to get by that they don’t consider community engagement as part of their overall health and happiness or their overall lifestyle.
Changing those attitudes starts with things like mentorship programs. Not just at a leadership level—not just the council mentorship program, for instance. Mentorship at the community level. Mentorship within cultural communities. I think supporting those types of initiatives is incredibly important. Women often have to be encouraged multiple times to run or get involved, versus men who are almost expected to be involved and therefore don’t need as much of a push. I think it is also important to offer flexible opportunities for volunteering, so that you might be able to help out two hours a month with your kid’s bake sale, for example. Those opportunities should try to be fostered because we can’t always commit long term: the idea of commitment is often quite terrifying.
I also think that when possible, we should combine volunteering with skill development or educational opportunities. Maybe you volunteer to help a newcomer purchase household supplies—something like that. There is an exchange of values there: you get to learn how to interact with someone else, and they benefit from your time as well. I think skill sharing amongst cultural communities is incredibly important, because there are individuals who have gone through the learning process of moving to a new country who can offer the best advice. These are just some of the ideas that I have.
What would you like the outcome of this by-election to be?
I want to see a candidate who genuinely cares about seeing every member of the community uplifted, not just a certain sector. I think that every candidate at the base level wants to do that, but there are some things you can’t replicate. The fact that there’s only a handful of women running amongst all these people who put their foot forward means that I want to support a progressive woman, because I think it’s about time. Some people want to argue that. People who have the most merit or people who have worked the hardest should be able to have that seat. Again, we don’t know what we are missing because we do not have enough women on council. Having a strong woman coming from Ward 12 when women’s issues are so much more diverse here than many other wards in the city is incredibly important to me. At the most basic level, I want to see women on council. I think especially in this short election term, why not try to do it now? Why not try to get the ball rolling now? Then we might just see even more female representation in 2017.