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It can be done here, too -- but when?

Visible-minority leaders must be community builders

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How long until we see Canada's "Obama"?

"It doesn't matter if you're black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or native American, or young or old, or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you're willing to try."

Barack Obama spoke those words in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, before a crowd of thousands in Chicago, shortly after he was re-elected as president of the United States of America.

I suspect many Canadians believe those words should apply to our country as well. Yet they have elected a man who is a visible minority twice, while all of our prime ministers has been white (shout out to Kim Campbell). How long will it be before we see a Canadian Obama?

Four and a half years ago, I had a chance to meet the man as he campaigned against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. My adopted uncle managed to get me into a meeting Obama held in Sioux Falls with the tribal leaders of South Dakota. I expected to meet the "rock star." Instead, my life was changed. Until that time, I was skeptical of how far an indigenous person or member of a visible minority could go in North America. I feared the only success stories were of the "sellout" and "token" variety.

Then I watched Obama walk into a room full of skeptical Native American leaders and win them over. They had been promised the world by federal politicians before and had been disappointed. They looked at him, unimpressed, with their arms crossed. Obama spoke on three themes: tribal sovereignty, health care and economic development. He waved his hands like Obi-Wan Kenobi. By the time he finished, the tribal leaders had uncrossed their arms and were smiling. I thought to myself, "Holy cow, this guy is going to win." Not as a "sellout" or a "token" but rather because he's better at the game of politics than anyone else in the field. He showed me while there are many obstacles facing indigenous people and other minorities in North America, through hard word, dedication and education, we can rise to the highest ranks in this society.

There is something remarkable about role models: They bring the abstract and theoretical down into the realm of the tangible. The conversation changes from "What if?" to "He or she did it; so can I."

So, he's done it. When will one of us? When will an indigenous person or member of a visible minority move into 24 Sussex Drive?

The data suggests that day may not be far off. A review of election results from 1993 to 2008 by political scientist Jerome Black shows the percentage of members of Parliament who are visible minorities is trending upwards, though it still lags behind the percentage of the general population.

In the current Parliament, there are 28 visible-minority MPs and seven aboriginal MPs. The governing Conservatives and opposition New Democratic Party are tied in terms of inclusion. Each party has 16 visible-minority and aboriginal MPs. The Conservatives are more inclusive in terms of leadership positions, with three visible minorities and two aboriginals in cabinet.

One of the key political insights gleaned from Obama's victory is that parties must tap into the changing demographics in North America, that they must work hard to appeal to people of all walks of life and all communities. Obama did enough during his presidency to appeal to women, gays, Latinos and native Americans. Then his political machine sifted through piles of data to identify those voters and brought them out to the polls. The Obama coalition coalesced around three stages: policy, metrics and the "ground game" (or "getting out the vote").

Canada's population growth now comes from immigrants and aboriginals. Manitoba's political parties seem to realize this. In the last provincial election, all three parties fielded Filipino candidates in the Tyndall Park riding. In the northern riding of Keewatinook (formerly Rupertsland), not only has an aboriginal person, Eric Robinson, carried the riding since 1993, all of his opponents in recent memory have been aboriginal as well. Candidates who speak the language and share the cultural experiences of constituents succeed.

Yet for someone from a diverse cultural background to get elected prime minister, they will have to appeal far beyond their own community. They will have to build a coalition of communities, just like Obama did. In his first campaign, he showed us it can be done. This time around, he showed us how.

Wab Kinew is the director of indigenous inclusion at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2012 A6

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