This article was originally published on SenCA Plus.
1. Who inspired you to get involved in public life?
Initially, public life was an accident of timing and opportunity. More precisely, it involved a lack of opportunity. I studied in India and Germany, and I arrived in Canada as a German language instructor. It was difficult finding work, and with my young daughter to care for, I had to reevaluate my professional aspirations. I began volunteering with my children’s schools, and that led to a job opportunity with St. Stephen’s Community House in Toronto. This was my first Canadian work experience as well as my entry into the non-profit sector – its remarkable work, its many frustrations, and its critical role in the lives of immigrants to Canada. My dedicated colleagues at St. Stephen’s played a large part in shaping my future path into deeper public life. A leader I would meet several years later is another personal inspiration. While his roots are in the business community, David Pecaut taught me much about organizing for public good and about involving people from all walks of life in a way that creates value for everyone.
2. What do you think are the biggest public policy issues facing Canada today?
One major issue that has ripple effects across other areas of public policy is equality of opportunity. Equal opportunity is about fairness in society, and about the ability to live a decent life and position one’s children for the same or even greater success. Without equality of opportunity, no amount of hard work can translate into a decent life. It leaves segments of the population without good options, without meaningful links to their communities, and without a sense of having a stake in public life. To take the pulse of this issue in Canada, we can look at indicators of economic and social wellbeing, such as income. Income is either not improving, or not improving at the same pace, for some groups including certain visible minority and immigrant groups, and certain First Nations communities.
3. Why should more Canadians care about what happens in the Senate?
Quite simply, Senate business is the business of all Canadians. It has real consequences, because Senate business shapes public policy, as well as public attitudes and ideas. The quality of inquiry and debate that defines the work of the Senate has made a deep impression on me since I took office in the spring. A first major piece of legislation during my early weeks was the bill on assisted dying. I heard my fellow Senators ask sincere questions of expert witnesses, voice thoughtful arguments, and propose new ideas which resulted in amendments to the law. The end result was a stronger piece of legislation, and deeper engagement by the public, government, and media on complex issues. I think Canadians would benefit greatly from increased awareness of Senate work, and we Senators can do a better job translating “sober second thought” into a public conversation.
4. What legislative or committee work are you most proud of participating in to date?
As a new senator, I can primarily only look forward to the work to come. But in my early days, one committee whose work I am proud to have been involved in is the Senate Committee on Human Rights. This committee undertook consultations in Montreal and Toronto to understand the quality of Syrian refugee integration, and how the federal government could better support this newcomer community. Following discussions with community stakeholders, the committee members observed several urgent areas in which the federal government could speed up the integration of Syrian refugees into Canadian society. A piece of proposed legislation I am proud of contributing towards is a bill that seeks to amend the Citizenship Act. As sponsor of the bill, I delivered a speech to give voice to the arguments in favour of the bill, which I believe will restore the equality of Canadian citizens and provide a quick, clear pathway to citizenship.
5. What is a hidden gem in your region that more Canadians need to know about?
I hope that everyone who visits Toronto has a chance to stroll through Kensington Market. In 2014, I had the opportunity to select one neighbourhood to showcase to German President Joachim Gauck on a stopover in Toronto to learn about Canada’s success with immigration and integration. Kensington Market was the obvious choice. It has long been an arrival neighbourhood, and then a launch pad, for wave after wave of immigrants to Toronto. Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Jamaican, Somali and many other newcomers have passed through the neighbourhood and left their mark – building homes and commerce and adding layers of culture that give this central gem its modern vibrancy. Today, the neighbourhood is a delicious confection of politics, tech, arts, entrepreneurship and cuisine. The energy past is perfectly present.
6. Can you name a guilty pleasure song / album that always makes you smile and why?
Simon and Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound. When I was studying in Germany, it was my first time away from home. I was desperately homesick. My secret weapon was my favourite song at the time, Homeward Bound. To help myself cope with missing home, and to help my fledgling German, I translated the song into German and sang it over and over.
7. What is the last book you read or movie you saw which you recommended to someone else and why?
A recent film that I highly recommend is Queen of Katwe by director (and my cousin) Mira Nair. I have closely followed Mira’s work over the years, and her latest film may be one of my favourites. It tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a rising chess star from Kampala’s Katwe neighbourhood, portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o. It is a beautiful story of personal achievement told by a powerful cast, without any of the stale pathos or appropriated narratives that characterize so many films set in Africa.
8. What sports team (amateur/professional) do you support?
I cheer for our Canadian Olympic and Paralympic athletes. This year during the Rio Olympic Games, I discovered along with the rest of the world another team deserving the same support and encouragement we channel to our national teams: The first ever Refugee Olympic Team and Independent Paralympic Athletes Team. These athletes are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iran, South Sudan, and Syria, but competed in Rio under the Olympic flag. Their courage, talent, and spirit should be a call to action to the rest of us. Refugees everywhere can achieve their potential if given the opportunity.
9. Why are you proud to be Canadian?
I was born into one passport, married into another, but my Canadian passport was my full choice, and the one I worked the hardest to get. This country has given me its protection and its opportunities. In return, I am committed to making it a better and better place so that it continues to be a land of protection and opportunity for future Canadians. This is why I am eternally proud to be Canadian. Not only for what Canada has given me and countless others, but because it is a work in progress. I and all Canadians can be active participants in shaping our country.
Source: SenCA Plus