HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER • FATHER • EQUALITY ADVOCATE • COMMUNITY BUILDER
I’m Arif Virani, the Member of Parliament for our community of Parkdale-High Park.
In 2015, you got to know me as a local father, community member, and human rights lawyer who was running for the first time for elected office. It was an uphill battle. But working together—as a team, and as a community—we succeeded in bringing change to Ottawa after a decade of Stephen Harper. And this year, in 2019, I was incredibly fortunate to earn the support of our community once again for a second term.
But like many Canadians, my story begins far away from our neighbourhood here in Toronto.
I come from an Ismaili Muslim family—our roots are in Gujarat, in Northern India. My great grandparents and grandparents migrated from India to East Africa in search of a better life, and better opportunities. For the most part, they found success in Uganda for nearly three generations.
But all of that ground to a dramatic halt in 1971, when a military coup led by the dictator Idi Amin turned life on its head for all of us. People were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and killed. Friends of my father disappeared. Within a matter of months, 70,000 Ugandan Asians, like me and my family, were told to get out of the only country we had ever known.
Canada, under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau, opened its doors to us. I, my sister, and my parents were among 7,000 Ugandan Asian refugees that touched down at Mirabel Airport in Montreal in the Fall of 1972. I was 11 months old at the time. Our first home in Canada was the YMCA on Peel St. in downtown Montreal.
All that I know about those early days, I’ve learned from my parents—they talked about their experience with Quebec winter (of course), and about the challenges of settling in a new country—but most of all, they told me about the warm welcome we received. From people offering us clothes, helping my parents with job searches, offering to babysit their apparently cute chubby little 11-month-old son, and introducing my father to Canada’s favourite pastime, hockey, at the Fabulous Forum in Montreal.
We moved from Montreal to Toronto in 1974—my first home in this city was Flemingdon Park, across the street from the Ontario Science Centre. Things were tough, but my parents instilled in me and my sister one simple lesson—Canada is a country of opportunity, if you work hard and study hard, there is no limit to what you can achieve here.
In 1976, we moved to the Peanut Plaza area of Willowdale and I did my best to heed my parents’ advice—hard work, student loans, and an entrance scholarship got me to McGill University in Montreal. But my heart was always set on law—on working to break down the barriers we had faced, as Brown-skinned, Muslim South Asians, and others continue to face, on integrating and succeeding here in Canada.
I ended up at U of T’s law school, graduating as valedictorian. Since then, I have dedicated my professional life to advocating for human rights, both at home, with the Quebec and Canadian Human Rights Commissions; as well as abroad, working on caste discrimination in India, and as a War Crimes Prosecutor with the UN Tribunal on the Rwandan Genocide. My career as a lawyer led to me spending 12 years practising constitutional law—defending the Charter rights I hold dear and, most importantly, every Canadian’s right to equality and access to justice.
Along the way, I built a family with my amazing wife Suchita. She’s a public health nurse who has spent her career working here at home and abroad on educating people about public health and risk prevention. We worked hard and saved to put a down payment on our home in Roncesvalles Village.
We now have two little boys–Nitin, who is now 5, and Zakir, aged 8. They go to school right here in our community. Nitin loves the movie Cars, and anything to do with soccer; and his older brother Zakir is into drawing, slurping ramen noodles, and all things related to the Raptors.
It is for them that I originally decided to run for office in 2014—I no longer recognized Canada as it had evolved under ten years of Stephen Harper, and I grew tired of simply complaining about it.
If you turn your mind back four years ago, we had stagnant growth and Stephen Harper promising more austerity; we had growing income inequality, impoverished seniors and boutique income tax credits; four years ago we had an inward focus, where Canada was renouncing global responsibility and global leadership on the migrant crisis; we had the politics of division, where Indigenous persons, racialized persons, LGBTQ2S Canadians, and women were on the outside looking in; and most shockingly, we had a government under Stephen Harper that denied the evidence about climate change and muzzled scientists.
I’m very proud of what our Liberal government has been able to do in four years to reverse that legacy. Under Prime Minister Trudeau, we have committed to investing in infrastructure and the economy—as a result, we have had some of the best growth in the entire G7, and the lowest unemployment rate in 41 years!
We have lowered taxes on middle-income Canadians, and raised them on the top 1%; we lowered the age of retirement and increased the GIS for low-income seniors; and we stopped sending child benefits cheques to millionaires. We now send more money to those that need it the most, and it is all tax-free—these simple changes mean we have been able to lift 825,000 Canadians out of poverty.
We have restored Canadian leadership—most notably in our response to the global refugee crisis, where we provided safe haven to 58,000 Syrian refugees in our first year in office alone. We have expanded our immigration numbers across the board, for refugees, family sponsorship, and economic migrants, because we know this not only the morally right thing to do, it is critical to growing our economy.
We have sought to build bridges, not barriers, between communities, and prioritized protecting the most vulnerable. This includes investing $21 billion in Indigenous communities around the country and successfully lifting 87 long-term boil-water advisories on First Nation reserves so far; passing the first enhancements to the rights for persons with disabilities laws in Canada in over 30 years; enacting Canada’s first-ever National Housing Strategy to protect affordable housing; restoring funding that was cut to women’s groups, passing pay equity legislation, and fighting gender-based violence; and combatting discrimination against the LGBTQ2S community.
But there is nothing more critical than the step we have taken under Prime Minister Trudeau to put a price on pollution. We know the science is real, and that climate change is an existential threat to our nation and our planet—that is why we firmly believe that polluting can no longer be free. Among all of our 50 different initiatives to protect our environment, from land conservation to phasing out coal, from combatting plastic pollution to subsidizing zero-emission vehicles, our decision to put a price on carbon pollution is the single most critical policy, that will have the most impact. It is also, shockingly, the one our Conservative opponents have vowed to reverse first. I’m committed to not letting them do that, which is why I’m seeking your support once again to serve as the MP for our community.
Since I was elected, I’ve held 61 local town halls and roundtables throughout Parkdale-High Park on everything from climate change to women’s economic empowerment; from Indigenous reconciliation to supporting small business; from refugee resettlement to animal rights. I’ve also knocked on every single door in this riding (you’ve probably met me at your front door, often with one of my boys in tow!). I’ve heard from you about what’s going well, and things we need to improve. You’ve told me that you fear Trump-style populism is on the rise; and that we need to do everything in our power counter the austerity of Doug Ford and his complete withdrawal in the fight against climate change.
You have also raised specific local issues with me, and I’ve worked hard, as a Member of the government, to work with Ministers in our caucus to deliver results on your behalf:
• When the folks at Windermere United Church, who gave sanctuary for over one year to a Roma refugee family housed in their basement—a family that was subsequently unjustly deported by Stephen Harper—asked me to bring the Pusuma family back to Canada, I worked hard with Minister McCallum to do just that, within two months of taking office.
When the amazing film, TV, and video creators in our riding asked me to intervene, when the CRTC ruled that the major cable companies no longer needed to fund Bravofact and Muchfact, two start-up grant programs that help young filmmakers get their start in the industry, I did so, and the Minister of Heritage subsequently sent back that decision to the CRTC telling them it wasn’t good enough
• When pro-refugee advocates in our community stood up against anti-immigrant sentiment and demonstrated the best of what our country has to offer by privately sponsoring Syrians and helping them settle here in Canada, they asked me to do even more to empower the generosity of Canadians—I took that request directly to the Minister of Immigration, and we responded by quadrupling the number of privately sponsored refugees that enter in Canada each year, from 4500 per year to 18,000 per year
When environmental advocates and cyclists asked me for additional supports for active transport, I worked hard with the Minister of Infrastructure to ensure that we were supporting cycling infrastructure. Seven new bike share stations funded with federal dollars now exist in our community and we are expanding the cycling path on the West Toronto Railpath.
• When the community gathered in horror in the wake of the terrorist attacks at the Quebec Mosque in January 2017, I worked hard to gather community leaders, and form an inclusion network—dedicated to learning more about different races, religions and cultures in our community to combat discrimination and prejudice. This local work translated into national work—I’m proud to say that our Liberal government has committed to a new national anti-racism strategy, coupled with funding of over $45 million to combat racism and support multiculturalism.
• When I heard from residents of our community that they wanted to see more in the government’s commitment to reconciliation, I took that call to heart. Given the opportunity to serve as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Heritage, I had the chance to travel across our country and co-develop, with First Nations, Inuit and Metis leaders, Canada’s first-ever Indigenous Languages Act. This legislation is one critically important part of our government’s work to reverse the racist, colonial legacy of the residential school system, by restoring the vitality of Indigenous languages across Canada. It was an honour to do this work on behalf of my constituents here in Parkdale-High Park.
But I firmly believe that my work is not done in our community—and our work as a progressive Liberal government is not done for Canada. Housing affordability needs to be addressed; the path to reconciliation is not complete; climate change is an existential threat that no elected official in this country should dare to ignore; and I will not stand idly by and watch the politics of division and anti-immigrant sentiment, that is so rife in other parts of the world, take root here in Canada. The stakes are simply too high.
I look forward to continuing to work with the residents here in our community and my colleagues in Ottawa across all party lines to advance progressive policies.
© 2019 Arif Virani. All rights reserved.