‘Is Ontario ready for a Muslim premier?’ Liberal leadership hopeful says yes, even though racism remains ‘a sad reality’

By Robert Benzie

As published in the Toronto Star

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Yasir Naqvi is confronting the potential for racial or religious prejudice in the contest to become the Ontario Liberal Party’s next leader.

A top Ontario Liberal leadership candidate is confronting the potential for any racial or religious prejudice in the contest.

In an op-ed published Tuesday in the Star, Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi spoke out against Islamophobia as his party selects its next leader Dec. 2.

“‘Is Ontario ready for a Muslim immigrant premier?’ It’s a question asked many ways since I joined the race to lead the Ontario Liberal Party,” wrote Naqvi, a former attorney general and one-time party president.

“‘Can he really win a general election?’ Will he represent ‘regular’ Ontarians, too? ‘What about that sharia law stuff?’” he continued.

“These backroom whispers and dog whistles remain a sad reality in Ontario politics and not just from xenophobic tabloids or social feeds.”

But Naqvi — who represents Ottawa Centre, the riding that includes Parliament Hill — said he’s been heartened by the response as he criss-crosses Ontario.

“Thankfully, it is not something I hear from hard-working Ontarians and grassroots Liberals as I travel across our province. They get that we are a province of immigrants of all faiths and backgrounds,” he wrote.

Indeed, three of the five candidates seeking the Liberal leadership are people of colour: Naqvi and MPPs Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands), who arrived in Ontario from the U.S. as an infant, and Adil Shamji (Don Valley East), whose parents emigrated from Uganda.

The other two candidates are Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, the daughter of Polish immigrants, and Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith (Beaches-East York).

Naqvi, who moved from Pakistan to Niagara Falls as a teenager in the late 1980s, noted “one out of every three Ontarians was born outside of Canada.”

Even though Ontario is a diverse province, politics remains largely dominated by white males and there has never been a non-white premier.

There have been 26 premiers — 25 of them men and one woman, Kathleen Wynne.

“I’ve worked three times as hard to get to where I am today,” wrote Naqvi, adding he’s “still more likely to be ‘randomly screened’ at the airport” than many other passengers.

“But I am not unique. If you are an immigrant, a person of colour, a woman, live with a disability, come from a working-class background, or are part of the LGBTQ+ community, you can relate.”

In what could be interpreted as a critique of both Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, scions of wealthy and politically active families, Naqvi recounted his more prosaic upbringing.

“My parents didn’t bequeath me a million-dollar business or a political dynasty,” he wrote, remembering his mother and father — “lawyers who couldn’t practise — struggled to build a home from scratch.”

Recalling he “was a brown kid with a thick accent, just trying to make friends and fit in,” Naqvi said when he entered politics he “was called ‘too Muslim’ by some and ‘not Muslim enough’ by others.”

But he argued his own political success — including, in 2016, becoming the first Muslim and first person of colour to be provincial attorney general — proves Ontario is a more tolerant place than it once was.

“So, is Ontario ready for a Muslim premier? An immigrant premier? A brown premier? Yes. Let’s do this, together.”

The Liberals, buoyed by byelection victories last Thursday in Scarborough-Guildwood and Kanata-Carleton, are trying to rebuild after losing power to Ford’s Tories in 2018.

Party members will vote for a new leader Nov. 25-26 with the winner being announced a week later at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The final day candidates for register to join the contest — by paying a $100,000 entry fee plus a $25,000 refundable deposit to the party — is Sept. 5.