Winnipeg’s communities are rapidly becoming more diverse – yet until very recently their elected representatives have not reflected this shift. This began to change in 2019, when voters elected their first three black MLAs to office as part of Manitoba’s 42nd Legislature.
With decades of experience in public service, rookie politician Audrey Gordon, representative for Southdale, was the first ever black female MLA to be sworn in. This is her story.
After spending 35 years in public service in Manitoba, Audrey Gordon is set to take up office in the Legislature for the first time this fall.
I was born in Jamaica, in the parish of Saint Ann. I lived there in the early, early years of my life, but I’ve been in Winnipeg since I was five years-old. I come from a family of five brothers and two sisters, so I’m child number seven of eight. We immigrated here in the early ‘70s when the federal government was looking at family reunification and bringing families together. My parents had a choice of either immigrating to England or Winnipeg.
You know, my mother is very religious, my father is not, so I had the benefit of two very different perspectives on how to live, which shaped me quite a lot. My father was a strong, strong promoter of education. Even when we were living in Jamaica, we were considered middle to upper class because my parents worked very, very hard to be able to afford us an exceptional education. My father would say to us: no one can ever take from you what you know in your head. I must say that I was quite rebellious in my earlier years and just thought that all of this was foolishness.
For 25 years I worked for the Manitoba government in lots of different departments but primarily in labour and immigration, working in the Departments of Workplace Safety and Health, Employment Standards, but primarily in the immigration division. I’ve worked as a manager, I’ve worked as a director. I’ve also travelled to Ottawa with colleagues to help negotiate agreements so I understand how the federal government works.
My first foray into politics came when the deputy minister of labour asked me to be his assistant. And he actually had to ask me three times! Because I thought: Oh, I’m not going over to that building. But, the third time I said yes and went to work there for what was supposed to be six months and ended up staying for three and a half years. (*laughs*) Then I left and worked with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, worked up north with First Nations communities doing kidney disease screening and pursuing my passion working with seniors, since many seniors are experiencing end stage renal disease. And that’s when I thought to myself, you know what, this health care system needs fixing – and so I said, I’m going to run for election.
And so I ran in 2016 and lost, and then the opportunity came up again this year in a riding with no incumbent due to the re-drawing of electoral boundaries, and so I ran again and here I am: the proud MLA for Southdale.
I know that a lot of people that are minorities, particularly black persons, have run as candidates before in provincial elections. This election was different because of the riding boundaries being redrawn – it made it the right time for me to run.
I do very strongly believe that if you grow up in an environment where you never see someone that looks like you in a position of significance, you develop a feeling, sub-consciously or whatever, that you cannot be there. It’s out of your reach. For example, I remember when I was growing up, in school I never saw a black teacher, so I never considered becoming a teacher. We start out with our children at a very young age saying you can be anything you want to be, and we tell them about the Little Engine that Could and read them those stories, but it doesn’t take long before the system wears you down to the point that you forget all about it.
Even though I only spent a short time growing up in Jamaica, I go back every year, so my connection to my heritage is always there. Having worked up north and with marginalized communities in Winnipeg and elsewhere, I always bring to public policy discussions or any discussions about government and social programs a lens of compassion that some people might not have. It comes from having a real lived experience you know, of what it’s like to come to a new country where you might not know the language or cultural expectations. The nuances of what you say, what you don’t say – what you do, what you don’t do. It can be hard!
And then there’s how, for some people, being a visible minority or newcomer you can often feel alone. You can be in a room full of people but still feel alone. Having gone through that myself, it’s really shaped the way I move through the world and think about things, and I’ve actually seen the benefit in that. I try to always be considerate of how a minority might be experiencing something that I or everyone sees as the norm. I think my lived experience has really shaped me in that way.
The Legislative Building in central Winnipeg is the home of Manitoba’s 57 elected provincial lawmakers. November will mark the first time black MLAs will take up seats in the province’s legislative chambers in Manitoba’s 149 year history.
All of my family is abroad, either in the US or Canada, and a few are in England, but my husband still has deep roots in Jamaica. We’ve both been here now over 40 years. We say in Jamaica that you can take the person out of the island but you can’t take the island out of the person – my husband’s a little like that (*laughs*) so I balance him out. But we both recognize that this is home. And we love Canada, for the rights and freedoms we have. We love it.
But it’s strange, you know … sometimes we both feel as if we owe our homeland something. Whether it’s going back to help out by building a school, or sponsoring children’s education – there’s always a sense of giving back to our homeland. And what I find interesting is that there’s a lot of interest from first generation Canadian children born to Jamaican parents living here, and I’m seeing more and more of these children wanting to be involved in their parents’ homeland, and I’m connected to that. I’m the bridge for my children in that way.
I disliked the school system a lot when I was younger. I would say that my first experience with racism and discrimination was there – I don’t know if I would have called it that at the time, but oh boy I sure felt that. Very much the experience of feeling lesser than the majority. Me and my sister and my brother went through a full assessment for classroom placements when we got here, we always got pulled out of our main class to go be in different, special classrooms. We were always feeling that we weren’t like everyone else.
I very much felt like an outsider – not smart enough, not funky enough. Whereas in Jamaica, when we would go back with my parents, everyone would be amazed that we were in Canada, and they would remember our beautiful house, our car. And now here we are in this different country and, we’re poor here! Even the job my dad did in Jamaica – he was a maitre d’ in one of the top hotels. It was huge there, but here, that’s looked at as a low-end service job. It was a shock.
Then there was the workplace. The first job I ever had was at local fast food place. It was just being built and everyone at our high school applied, and they’d be walking around the hallways talking about how they got their calls for orientation and whatever, and I’m thinking to myself: where’s my call? Well I got my call right before they opened – I didn’t get an interview or an opportunity to prove myself because they stuck me clearing tables in the dining room right away.
And I talk about this with my sons quite a bit, and how sometimes your worst experiences turn out to be your best. Because I was stuck in the dining room, I developed an ease of interacting with people and I had mapped out all the orders by gender and knew exactly when peak rush hour times happened. I was clearing tables in the dining room but I was accumulating all this information. So one day, the main cashier got sick and the manager said: can you attempt cash? So I got behind the till and I was able to basically expedite the orders to the cooks before customers even placed their orders because I had studied everything so intently from the dining room. After that I began to win all the employee of the month awards!
That’s just one example of how, as a newcomer, you almost feel like you always have to prove yourself. I remember being in my psychology class for my undergrad degree, and the professor shared an article called ‘Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege”. I remember reading it and thinking that this is so good, everyone should read this article, because there’s so much truth here! Reading that article made me think back to my time at the fast food place because I wasn’t even given an opportunity in the beginning.
So what I see with the three black MLAs that were elected this time is that we’ve broken through – we’ve made it possible for people in the community to say to their children: yeah, you can really do that too! And then there’s the part that I really think Manitoba lags, they really do. We need to do some serious catch-up. We really need to reflect the population that we serve. Not just in politics, but in all the different arenas – on boards, as hospital executives, in the private sector. I don’t know that I would get involved with a company that doesn’t believe in that.
Audrey Gordon celebrates Fall Supper with members of St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in her Southdale riding on October 26. Gordon has had a lifelong passion of working with seniors. Photo: Audrey Gordon/Twitter
I’ll give you a really good example: I go to Springs Church and Pastor Leon would say the same thing – it used to be very Caucasian, very white. But then he started traveling all over the country and the world doing outreach, and so when people from Africa and elsewhere started immigrating here, they immediately wanted to go to Springs, because they knew of him. Then the congregation began changing really quickly. It’s very clear throughout the church family, you can serve wherever you want: behind the camera, in the praise and worship team, in the lounge, in the parking lot. You can just see people of all backgrounds are integrated in every part of that church. So when you go there, you feel good. You see yourself on stage or in the parking lot, and you feel welcomed. It’s great.
When I’m at the Legislative Building, all the cleaning staff talk to me. All the women with the hijabs, they remember me from having been there before in other roles, and they’re just so happy for me now. And I have this conversation with my kids too – I say, you know you can go from being a janitor to being the prime minister of Canada. And they laugh – but you can! And that’s what the three black MLAs are saying to those individuals that feel there’s a glass ceiling within the system keeping them down, and to newcomers too.
However – and this is important – it’s about being prepared when that opportunity comes, not just throwing yourself out there and expecting something to happen. I’ve got 35 years of public service and I’ve got the credentials; that’s what I would say when I went door knocking during the election campaign. I wasn’t selling my race. No, I’m selling my experience, my background, my credentials, my understanding of the community’s needs, and how I can be of value to you in the Manitoba Legislature. I just happen to be a woman that’s black. So yes, I can say I’m the first black MLA that was sworn in, but it’s not about that. No one in my riding is going to care if I can’t do my job. And so I think it’s very, very important that we’ve made these inroads, and I really do hope a lot more people are interested in getting involved in politics as a result.
We’re definitely becoming more ethnically diverse, and we’re becoming more diverse in our needs, and our need for diversity in the responses and solutions required to meet our needs. One of the answers to solving a lot of the challenges that face us comes from having people with a diversity of ideas in places and positions of significance – where policies are being developed and where legislation is being drafted. We need people there with lots of different ideas!
I was interviewed for a book one time that this gentleman was writing out of Toronto and I said to him, you know, one of the things that troubles me is that when we think about diversity, we tend to just think about diversity in terms of race, and I don’t see it that way. It is race, yes, but it’s also perspectives and diversity of views and how you solve a problem.
If I had to give five year-old Audrey some advice on how to handle creating a life for herself in a new place … Oh boy. Someone asked me when I was sitting on a panel at a women’s conference one time, do you have any regrets. I said immediately without even having to think about it, that I regret that I didn’t recognize the value of a good education at a younger age. I’m not saying that education is all of it, but it is a great equalizer.
The other thing I would say is recognize the opportunities for growth and development that occur in one place that may not necessarily happen somewhere else. Each job or situation provides its own unique chances for growth.
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