Just four months after I was born, my home country, Kenya, repealed the one-party section of the constitution. This shift to a multi-party system meant that we were officially a democracy. In 2010, just after my 19th birthday, I moved to Canada alone because I felt that there was little opportunity for me to progress in Kenya, and I’ve been here ever since then, witnessing provincial, municipal and federal elections both here and in my former country as a keen observer.
This year, I turned 30 and finally became a Canadian citizen. And the federal election is also the first time that I will exercise my right to vote. This long wait has not been by choice but by circumstance. I came to this country as a teenager, and I have lived through financial insecurity, economic hardship, and housing insecurity. I have been without healthcare because of my immigration status. I have sat, marched, and stood still to participate in more protests than I can count.
And up until now, these experiences have been my politics.
When I speak with my friends and chosen family, made up of immigrants, naturalized Canadians, and Indigenous folks, these same stories and politics are shared. This tells me that so much of what we take into the polls — our biases, identities, and experiences — are a culmination of the intangible.
I am an immigrant who paid thousands of dollars to get a decent education from a Canadian university; I am a woman who has had to make the tough decision not to have children because of the lack of financial and community supports available to me; I am a Black woman who has had to navigate racism in the workplace; I am an entrepreneur whose business is purposely built on a foundation of radical inclusion; I am a person who lives with chronic pain and migraines and doesn’t have health insurance to cover the expensive prescriptions that I need to function daily.
These lived experiences are the reasons why I’m choosing to pay attention to campaign promises about immigration and post-secondary education, childcare and parental leave, anti-trans legislation, and universal healthcare.
The challenges facing young Canadian voters
My life experiences mean that I can’t ignore the fact that Justin Trudeau has yet to commit to ending the fight with Indigenous kids in court, or that Erin O’Toole believes Canadians should be proud to raise the flags that have been half-mast since spring because we have already appropriately mourned thousands of dead Indigenous children.
These experiences mean that I must take note when Maxime Bernier attempts to speak on my behalf to wrongfully claim that trans activists are “negate[ing] the existence of women….”
These experiences are also why I, and so many other young people like me, gravitate toward Jagmeet Singh and the NDP. Although considered the most progressive out of Canada’s major political parties, for me, the NDP is not nearly progressive enough. The party’s lack of clear and consistent messaging and failure to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the social and economic upheaval of the last 18 months leave much to be desired. But the party’s overall vision of what Canada can and should be — a forward-looking country that prioritizes affordability, climate justice, and health and childcare spending — most closely mirrors my own.
While I understand that my world and experiences have shaped my politics, I know that I cannot vote based on my immediate needs alone. As a first-time voter, I refuse to take this opportunity for granted. Although participating in the democratic process isn’t the only way to be civically engaged (in my opinion, community care and advocacy are almost, if not more, important than voting every few years), I know that my vote can help better the lives of the friends, family, and strangers who live on the margins, often unseen and unheard. This is something that I’ve always known and felt deeply, long before voting was even an option for me.
One of the most transformative experiences that shaped my politics happened in a university classroom at 19, when I first moved to Canada. Imagine my surprise and horror when first learning about the hundreds of years of neglect, starvation, genocide, child theft, and judicial silencing of Indigenous peoples for the first time.
Canada election: Record number of Indigenous candidates on the ballot
What’s worse still was the realization that this information wasn’t just new to me, it was also new to the Canadian-born students seated with me in class. In the span of a one-hour lecture, my belief as a person who chose to immigrate to Canada because of its promise as a safe, inclusive, and just place was shaken to the core. It broke my heart to come to terms with this, and without the ability to vote, I put all of my energy into showing up and fighting for Indigenous rights in any way that I could; from marching for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, to donating money and time to land and water defenders, I know how lucky I am to be here. Still, my being here doesn’t need to come at the expense of Indigenous sovereignty and justice.
As someone who came to Canada in search of better, I realize that there is a bigger and more pressing opportunity to look beyond my own self-interest and use my vote to create this better.
And knowing the obstacles that marginalized people have faced — and will face — long after this pandemic subsides, it’s my responsibility as a new Canadian citizen to vote in the interest of the many voices and causes that continue to be unheard and unconsidered.
Given the timing of this election and everything we’ve been through and witnessed over the last 18 months, I hope all Canadians who have the privilege to vote will do the same.
Sharon Nyangweso is the founder and CEO of QuakeLab, a full-stack inclusion and change management consultancy. She immigrated to Canada from Kenya in 2010 and worked with organizations in 11 different countries in varying roles including social advocacy and innovation before starting her own business.