Toronto school board trustee Ausma Malik is running for city council in 2018
One of the first hijab-wearing Muslim women to be elected to public office in Canada will sign her name to run in a downtown ward.
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When Ausma Malik considered running for Toronto city council, she thought about what it would be like to again knock on doors, wondering every time if when they open the person on the other side would pledge support or spew hateful barbs.
After being the target of a co-ordinated campaign of hate and Islamophobia during the 2014 election where she ran and decisively won a seat at the Toronto District School Board, Malik appears to be the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to be elected to public office in Canada.
Now, she’s set her sights on council.
When nominations open for the 2018 municipal election in May, Malik will sign her name to run in a downtown ward with the support of local progressive incumbents who say she is both competently qualified for the work and uniquely positioned for the job.
In a city where the majority of its 2.6 million residents — or just over 51 per cent — identify as a visible minority, according to the latest federal census data, the current 45-member council that represents them is only 11 per cent visible minorities.
“If you’re first of one kind of representation, you never want to be the last and I want there to be more — more young people, more women, more people of colour, Black, Indigenous people in leadership positions who are working for everybody,” Malik said in an interview. “I think that’s really exciting to me in putting myself forward for city council and hopefully to invite a new face of council in 2018.”
The 33-year-old condo dweller, wearing a plum purple hijab inside a Queen St. West coffee shop, flat white and croissant in front of her, notes other disparities — only a third of council members are women and just two are under the age of 35.
“When we don’t have those voices being represented at council, there is a huge gap and a distance between the reality that people are facing, the solutions that are possible at council and how those are actually realized and executed,” she says.
With a just-released decision on new ward boundaries creating four new wards, Malik says she plans to run in one half of a divided Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina), now represented by newcomer Councillor Joe Cressy — a fellow NDP voice who ran a joint campaign with Malik and friend Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) in 2014.
Beyond wanting progressive city-builders on council, Cressy said what Malik brings in terms of diversity is important: “We represent a city that when you look at us as city councillors we don’t reflect that city. So, how open are we? And how able are we to respond to issues that affect all religious and ethnic groups in our city if we don’t have a lived experience that can speak to them?”
Downtown Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), the only racialized woman on council and also the only openly LGBTQ member, said she too would welcome Malik in the chamber.
“She’s not just hard working, she’s also a person with incredible integrity,” Wong-Tam said.
Malik’s political sensibilities are rooted in student activism from her days at the University of Toronto and have been stoked through community outreach, working on education policy for the Ontario NDP, labour organizing at the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario and on staff at the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, Malik is the third of four children. Raised in Mississauga, she has lived downtown for more than a decade. She identifies as a proud feminist, Muslim and woman of colour and has become comfortable behind a microphone speaking out against misogyny, Islamophobia and racism as a private citizen and as a trustee.
She talks about the challenge of living in increasingly vertical communities and the pressure on both youth and seniors for whom the city is increasingly unaffordable. She just as easily pivots to her favourite Netflix shows and Slack channels she follows.
During the 2014 election, Malik was one of several candidates who was targeted by Islamophobic attacks that left her repeatedly explaining she does not support terrorist organizations or want sharia law. Flyers anonymously circulated in the ward accused her of backing both the Toronto 18 cell and Hezbollah.
“Is SHE the person you want to choose YOUR children’s curriculum?” one flyer read.
At the doors and during debates there were genuinely scary experiences that took a psychological toll, Malik said. She stopped canvassing alone and at one public event was ushered out a different door while an angry group that had been heckling her waited for her outside.
There was also the man she met one day while knocking on doors who approached and asked if she was Ausma Malik. Yes, she said, bracing herself for what would come next.
He’d been tearing down the hateful flyers around the community, he told her, pulling door hangers from his neighbours’ front doors. His family, he said, were Holocaust survivors and it reminded him of the stories they told him of anti-Semitism and what hate does.
“That act of generosity and that human connection and also knowing that people saw the campaign for what it was ... it was an amazing experience and affirming,” she says now.
In an open, nine-way race, more than 16,000 people picked Malik to be their trustee for Ward 10 (Trinity-Spadina). She won with 40 per cent of the vote.
Though in recent months she has given public talks on the hate-fuelled campaign against her, she said it took time to be ready to talk about it.
In one, she quoted Muhammad Ali: “There is no pleasure in fights, but some fights are a pleasure to win — this is one of them.”
She says she didn’t realize the larger significance of her win until later.
The Star reached out to several national Muslim associations and searched media clippings but was also unable to confirm if any other hijab-wearing women have been elected to public office. Several women who wear a hijab have run as candidates for political office and there are Muslim women who do not wear a hijab who have held provincial and federal seats across the country.
Council today is largely full of longtime politicians, some who have been seated for decades, and who have opposed electoral reform that advocates say would even the playing field.
Wong-Tam, who has herself been subjected to hate-filled letters and attacks as a councillor, said what happened to Malik on the campaign is something no one should face and that it can be a barrier to entry.
“I do think that it’s very important for people to recognize that it’s not easy for racialized communities to step forward and run for public office,” she said.
Kofi Hope, executive director for the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals and a community activist, met Malik more than a decade ago as students pushing back against race-based policing following what became known as the Summer of the Gun. He said Malik worked behind-the-scenes to organize and build support for those putting themselves in the spotlight on that debate.
“She’s a great leader because she’s also known how to be a great team player,” Hope said. “Being a change agent and a change maker and someone committed to social justice is her occupation, is part of her life, but politics is her calling.”
Malik avoids saying anything pointedly critical of the job Mayor John Tory is doing (Tory plans to run for a second term), saying only the mayor has a role to be “more bold” and to work for everyone. She said she is glad there are vocal progressive councillors currently pushing important issues.
“I’m committed to the city and to our neighbourhoods,” Malik says of her own ambitions. “I’m someone who will have the courage and commitment to honour their vote, to take my responsibility seriously.”
And she said: “I invite the conversations that I get to have on the doorstep.”