The last municipal elections took place in 2018. Since then, life in Waterloo Region has changed significantly.
While the pandemic severely limited movement, social justice movements such as Land Back, climate action and anti-racism continued to gain momentum. In light of the evolving needs of the region, two local organizations were created to address the need for more representative municipal governments.
The Kitchen Cabinet was started by Rebecca Petricevic to create a database of volunteers for women, trans* and non-binary candidates. Petricevic was inspired by a keynote given by Laura Mae Lindo, MPP of Kitchener-Centre, for the Waterloo Region Women’s Campaign School wherein Lindo noted that diverse perspectives are necessary to making better decisions.
For a Better Waterloo Region (FABWR) grew out of isolated conversations that converged with the efforts of some community members into an organization aiming for a progressive slate of candidates in the 2022 elections. Among the organizers are Paul Okoye and Andres Fuentes, both of whom have backgrounds in social justice.
Both groups hope to gather and provide resources for first-time candidates including, financial help, volunteers, guidance on running a campaign and more. Most importantly, they hope to give first-time candidates a fighting chance in the upcoming elections.
“Oftentimes, when people think of municipal and regional election, they don’t think of it as exciting as, as the federal and provincial space while in reality…the regional and municipal space have a significant bearing on how we engage in our day to day life [and] who we are as a community,” Okoye said. “[W]hat we’re hoping to do is translate sort of the energy behind progressive movements into in our community into actual political action.”
Running for council is not cheap. When Fuentes ran for council, he spent close to $7,000, others can spend nearly $50,000 or $60,000.
“And the other thing is to provide those resources…[newcomers don’t have] political connections, they don’t know how to organize volunteers, they don’t know how to fund raise, they haven’t been involved in political process before—and that can be very intimidating,” Fuentes said.
“When you look at running for city council, or regional council, it’s not free…There’s a reason why the council’s look as unrepresentative as they as they do across the region,” he said.
Still, the need for change in regional and city councils is dire as the current councils are not representative of the diversity of the region. As it grows, the governments that represent and make decisions for the region must also evolve. Petrocevic said the issues the region faces are complex and interconnected, diverse voices are needed at the table to have better decisions for the region at large.
“I think having more perspectives at any table is a good idea…I think it is absolutely necessary to get people who can hold each other accountable, who can hold our leaders accountable and who can create more discussion around what we as a community need,” she said. “I think that extends into our provincial election coming up as well.”
Representation is not only a matter of checking boxes—with diversity comes diversity of qualifications, life experiences, skills and more. Fuentes said having multiple with the same life experiences would result in very determined outcomes.
“We need a diversity, not just of qualification, but of life experiences, of ways of seeing the world. You know, it’s so easy to forget, if you’ve lived here all your life, that there’s a very different world out there, that people do things very differently,” he said. “Qualifications are one thing, but how you translate those qualifications to actual decisions is a whole other thing that we’re missing.”
Petricevic said gender is key in how people interact with each other. With the Kitchen Cabinet, she centres the gendered experience and its importance in the political sphere. While getting more women in politics is a valuable endeavour, Petricevic said it is important to expand that understanding of gender to include trans* and non-binary voices as well to ensure diverse and representative governments.
“Your gender absolutely impacts how you view the world and how the world reacts to you or how society reacts to you, as well…if we get people who have different gender identities, and gender experiences with gender in society, that can only lead to better policies really, more inclusive policies,” she said.
In order for change to happen, the issue of incumbency needs to be addressed. Fuentes said there are many reasons incumbency is so common in municipal governments including a lack of media coverage for elections, less marketing, fewer resources, lower voter turnout and the disproportional importance of name recognition.
“[N]ame recognition becomes even more important and…I think part of what we’re looking to do is hopefully to provide some of those resources like canvassing and that kind of thing to help,” he said. “There are some incumbents that basically don’t have to campaign to get reelected and it takes a lot of work to catch up.”
Okoye also said that incumbents have support systems already in place, whereas first-time candidates must build that system. As such FABWR works on helping build equity and coalescing progressive voices to support new candidates.
“[I]t becomes a dangerous David and Goliath story where someone who’s already has the entire system working for them is running against someone who’s new to the system,” he said.
Ultimately, FABWR aims to provide a foundation for newcomers in the political arena and have a slate of candidates that aligns with their vision and perspectives on issues the region is facing.
“We may not alter all of the powers that you would have but at least we give people a fighting chance to actually run and reasonably when they say that said we are also open to having immigrants who are aligned with our vision or one region as well. The goal again, is to get a slate of candidates who align with those issues and how we interact with those issues,” Okoye said.