As an immigrant black woman Mitzie Hunter, faced two strong obstacles: colour and gender. Hunter was born in Jamaica and she settled in Scarborough with her family. She quickly realized that education would be the key to success in her country. Hunter is an example of empowerment and determination. A woman that achieved a top position in her professional career and we, should be proud of her and take her as an example. Mitzie Hunter was elected as MPP for Scarborough—Guildwood in 2013; She is a former Ontario Minister of Education and she is well known for her activism in the community. This week she was the guest in “Here’s the Thing”, hosted by Manuel DaCosta, on Camões TV.
Manuel DaCosta: You have been a community activist for several years, getting involved in social issues that affect your community, including your work with Goodwill Industries. Are you focused mostly with the younger generation or do you get involved across the board?
Mitzie Hunter: I’m very passionate about young people and making sure that they have full opportunities. Since talking about advocacy, I’m currently working with our local city councillor, Paul Ainslie to bring about a community hub, so that young people have recreational spaces and even employment access through training in the skilled trades, because we know there is a shortage of skilled trades in Ontario and the unemployment rates for youth in Scarborough is quite high, so there’s huge potential there for them. Bringing training opportunities closer to where they live, so that they get access to those really good jobs is something I believe in and I want to work together with those in the industry to bring that about.
MDC: There are programs that could serve as models. We (Viana Roofing & Sheetmetal Inc) have been working at Regent Park for about 11 or 12 years, and as contractors one of the things that we have to do is to participate in an employment of young people that live in Regent Park and provide training, and skills during the time that were working on the project. We’ve been participating every year and it’s an eye opener to see how many young people come in and embrace a new trade. By the end, they understand that to earn a living is not always easy. it’s difficult, it needs a certain dedication and they’re much better for it. We, as contractors, are also much better for it because we understand how they live, we get to know them and the difficulties they experience. It could serve as model, for many other areas in the city and it’s something that doesn’t cost very much.
MH: actually, I think it really saves society a lot more when we give young people an opportunity. The mentorship and the apprenticeship training that they know they can do. They have the passion, they just need that guidance. I think those who are in the trades can make a tremendous difference by just bringing in some of these youth, giving them that opportunity and really changing their lives because once they learn that skill and that trade they will all be able to make better choices for themselves.
MDC: This program is watched mostly by immigrants and I always like to use people as yourself as an example of what immigrating to this country and becoming the person that you are today. Certainly, I’m sure there were challenges and difficulties. As an immigrant and a woman of colour what kind of challenges have you encountered that maybe a white woman would not have?
MH: That’s a really important question. Given your audience, I want to share my brother’s story. I have a young brother who also saw the importance of education and he played basketball, so he went to the USA on an NCAA Division One scholarship. He completed university and the first country to recruit him to play professionally in Europe was Portugal. So, he spent a number of years there, and really enjoyed the beautiful country and people. Once again it shows what can happen when you’re dedicated, and you work hard. I saw how hard he practiced, and as his older sister I insisted that he complete his university education. Back to your question. As a black woman, I always knew that I had to be excellent—you had to break the stereotypes. I remember I was the president of a technology association and I would speak all over the USA and Canada, and I was in the USA and a man come up to me and he said: “Mitzie, that was an amazing talk that you gave” and he also said, “You’re the most articulate black person I’ve ever seen.” Coming from Canada, I was so surprised that he said that. I was educated with, and I know so many people of so many backgrounds because Scarborough is such a diverse community. We all live together and everybody is articulate, so I thought: “Why is this so surprising to this individual?”. It really shows that you know you’re up against that stereotype.
MDC: In Canada most people are immigrants or descents of immigrants. Despite this, there is still some bias in the system that you might have felt sometime. Tell us about that.
MH: Statistically there’s a huge bias, because even when you have someone like myself or my young brother, who is an educated black person with a degree, we still earn less than our white counterparts. That’s built into the system and it’s something that we need to change. I’m very pleased to see some of the awareness that is now being built because of what happened last year, unfortunately with that terrible killing of George Floyd, that we all witnessed. We were all at home because of Covid, sort of watching the world and this happens on our screens. It really brought in to question our own systems, here in Canada, and where do we have to make them fair, and more equal and more just. So, everyone can have that opportunity and not be held back because of the color of their skin.
MDC: Gender equality, for women’s pay to be equal to men has been around for 70 years. Personally, I know a lot of very intelligent women that still earn less than their male counterparts, or even being treated at an equal level. There is still a huge gap between men and women, particularly, women of colour. I sometimes feel that we are regressing rather than progressing, do you feel that at all?
MH: Often, you just have to look around the room. Who is leading corporations? Who are on the boards of directors and the executive suites? Who are the CEOs? And not just private corporations but public sector corporations and nonprofits as well. When you look across society, you would think that leadership looks like men and does it have to be like that? No, it does not. So, we have to change that, and we have to make sure that our society is more reflective of everyone at all levels and all ranks. The pandemic has actually shone a light on those inequalities because when you look of who are the pandemic heroes—who are the essential workers? Who are the frontline workers? The exhausted women of this country—and also underpaid, even when they’re doing the same job. So, we have to fix that and close the gender wage gap, by paying women fairly—equal pay for equal work—and also making sure people of all backgrounds, black, indigenous and diverse range of people, are promoted and given opportunity to lead in all areas.
MDC: When you were in government with your Caucus, how were these issues looked at and why don’t we make more progress provincially and federally, if this situation is so important. Are women making enough noise to make change?
MH: I don’t think the onus is on women to make that noise. Women have surpassed men in graduate degrees from universities right now, so they’re highly educated and highly qualified. They need opportunities and to be given a chance to lead. Under the former Premier Kathleen Wynne, in 2013 I was invited to run for public office and to be part of her team and a year later after winning my second election in 2014, I was invited into Cabinet, to be the Associate Finance Minister in this province, to create a pension plan, for working Ontarians, which later led to the extension of the Canada Pension Plan and it hands benefits for all working Canadians. A remarkable opportunity given by Ontario’s first female Premier. What’s sad is that now, Canada only has one woman Premier, all of the rest are male. So, you’re right, in a sense that we can quickly lose the games that are made, if we don’t stay vigilant. We need women to see themselves as leaders in those roles and to seek those levels of office. Last year I ran for leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and there were three women that were part of the slate of candidates and it was very important that young women and women of colour could see themselves becoming the premier of this province and that there was nothing holding us back.
MDC: Is that one of the reasons you ran?
MH: It definitely is one of the reasons why I ran because I want every young person to see that they can do that, they can lead. They can be the Minister of Education and strive to lead a major party and become the Premier or Prime Minister of this country. When I speak to young people, I always say, “If you can see me you can be me,” because you can work hard, create your own path and go after these opportunities too.
MDC: Having been Minister of Education that implemented several policies, looking what’s happening now with this pandemic and how the Ministry has been run, how do you feel?
MH: It’s disappointing to me because when you look at the back to the school plan in the midst of the pandemic, the province of Ontario did not provide new funding for a safe return to school. By that I mean we could have invested in smaller classes sizes and that would mean that we would have to hire more teachers, so that students can learn in person in smaller and safer class sizes. We didn’t do that and the reluctance under Premier Doug Ford and his government to invest in public education is unfortunate and very sad. I’m the Finance Critic for the Liberal Party, so I look at the budgets and the numbers and I can see that there’s no new investments in education. The Government has six billion dollars in unspent reserve and much of that money comes from the federal government—92 cents from every dollar comes from the federal government for Covid response, so there is no excuse in not to invest in education, which is a provincial responsibility. It’s disappointing. At the same time, there are programs that I started that have continued and that is important to me. Programs such as Equity in Education, Financial Literacy is another one, I knew how important it was for young people, so making it mandatory in grade 10, was something that I started, and this government has actually continued that and even extended into other grades. I want to see more investments and I want to see education as a priority in funding. That is not happening over all and therefore is disappointing.
MDC: In another year and a half, we’re going to have elections. I’m sure recruiting has started and I’m hoping a few Portuguese people run because we certainly need some representation at Queen’s Park, What do you think is necessary for the Liberal Party to once again regain power?
MH: First of all, it’s going to be making sure that Ontarians know that there’s an alternative to what is happening right now in government, It’s been so disappointing for education, health care, long-term care and the elderly. Frankly, it’s disappointing in terms of how they’re responding to all aspects of the economy, to women, and those who want to get a hand up. There isn’t enough investment in skills development or training, in terms of the shifts that we’re seeing. So that is the message, that there’s an alternative and the Ontario Liberals are ready to lead and to return to some of those progressive policies that made a difference in people’s lives. We are looking for candidates, so if there are people out there that are interested, just go ontarioliberal.ca to find out how they can become involved and to really allow their voices to be heard and to not be ignored by the present government.