the devil who knows you

I found myself in a bit of a dilemma when I stepped up to my local polling station on Monday evening. For weeks I had been wrestling with how to manage my vote, wondering whether I should be thinking in terms of my community and my riding, or whether it would be best to focus overall, looking to party platforms and federal leadership and strategies. It’s a quandary that many found themselves in the thick of, I’m sure, and plenty will have also shared in another layer of complication –- one having to do with “ethnic enclaves” (let me say I hate this term), special needs, and representation.

Two summers ago when I was working the Caribana crowds as a canvasser for a then-fledgling Black Vote Canada campaign, one of my friends and co-canvassers explained how, to her, it was most important to have someone who represented her — really represented her –- as her MP or councilor. Someone with a shared ethnicity, shared cultural background, shared values, shared history, shared struggles, and a firm understanding of the priorities shared by her entire community. These elements outweighed the potential goods and qualifications of anyone else without a similar personal connection, and that, she explained, was why she wanted to do everything in her power to support people of colour –- and especially females of colour –- in their election struggles.

As I tried to wrap my head around her arguments, my thoughts inevitably turned to music. I’ve often had to justify my seemingly blind love for local music, fending off accusations of supporting some bands just for the sake of supporting Canadian product, explaining again and again just where I see diamonds peeking out from some of that roughness. I hadn’t and still don’t see anything wrong with supporting potential, with wilin’ out over what could be. What’s wrong with trying to create and maintain a healthy environment for the arts? Why should only the pre-approved hot shit get love? I’m all about process, all about the long-term. Every single dope artist you can think of totally and completely SUCKED at one point. Hip hop had to go through piles of shitty songs, parties and singles before the sounds and characters that we now recognize as genius could rise up and shine through. They needed a space. They needed that time. The most important thing is to create that climate, build that platform, and trust that good things will eventually flow.

Rewind. All too often the apathy and powerlessness people feel when it comes to elections has a lot to do with the disconnection (invisible and psychological or visible and socio-economic) between Jean Q. Publique and the group of people who tend to run for office. I remember growing up thinking that’s just the way things are, giving up before I’d had a chance to try. I didn’t see myself reflected in the media, in politics, in commerce, or in positions of power as a child, and so I kind of assumed that it just wasn’t my place to strive for these roles. White people run things, Portuguese people build and clean their houses –- that’s what it is.

My riding happens to have the largest immigrant population in the province, as well as the largest concentration of Luso-descendants (Portuguese, Brazilian, etc). My neighbours come from all over the world, and aside from sharing their garden-grown vegetables with one another every summer, they also happen to share a great many characteristics -– working-class, home-owning, under-educated, living in diaspora. Deportations have affected many families in this community in the last several years (including my own), and a lot of the older immigrants, having put in a good twenty to forty years of hard labour as part of the Canadian workforce, have got taxes and old-age pensions on the brain. Street violence is a problem, but it doesn’t weigh as heavy as this sense of abandonment, invisibility, disposability, plus a dash of I-never-believed-in-you-anyway. Unless you live in the area or one just like it, you could never possibly understand.

Standing in line Monday evening, waiting to mark up my ballot following a long day at work, I let all these arguments and vignettes swirl through my mind. It came down to two basic options for me: an NDP white man with an environmental agenda, or a slightly dopey pork-chop Liberal from a working-class, immigrant family. I thought hard about that old cliché -– how it’s better to choose the devil you know over the devil you don’t. The situation was flipped in this case, though, and I wondered:

Is it better to choose the devil who knows you over the devil who doesn’t?

All things considered, the historical-personal-party-political, I made my decision.

A few days later, I got this listserv message in my inbox:

List members: Some of you will recall that a 2000 report by Michael Ornstein entitled “Ethnoracial Inequality in Toronto: Analysis of the 1996 Census” cited the Portuguese as one of the groups experiencing extreme disadvantage in the educational system. Observed the author: “Almost seventy percent of the Portuguese aged 25 and older have not graduated from high school and more than half have not attended high school at all”(p 43). Additionally, the report notes that the situation of the Portuguese community involves a unique combination of factors including a high proportion of non-high school graduates and very few university graduates. It is also one of two groups of most concern with nearly 30 percent of young people who are not in school and not [in] high school…

I remember picking up that very report mid-way through my final year of university, and I remember exactly how it made me feel. None of the bits pertaining to my community were highlighted –- I had to stumble through the discoveries on my own, putting the pieces together, painting this disappointing, miserable portrait of my heritage. An updated version of the research was published just recently: “Ethno-Racial Groups in Toronto: 1971-2001 — A Demographic and Socio-Economic Profile”. I scrambled to scoop up a copy of the 2006 report just yesterday, and while I have yet to dig into its 180-odd pages, I already have these highlights to look forward to:

  • The proportion of persons 25-34 who have not completed high school is more than 30 percent for the Aboriginal, Portuguese, Iraqi, Afghan, “Other West Asian,” Sri Lankan, Tamil, Vietnamese, “Other Southeast Asian,” Ethiopian, Somali and Grenadian groups.
  • Among the European ethno-racial groups, the distribution of the proportion of high school graduates between 25 and 34 is fairly continuous, except for one outlier. Thirty-three percent of the Portuguese have not completed high school, twice the average for all other European groups. The Canadian, Romanian and Bosnian groups are the only other groups in which more than 20 percent of young people between 25 and 34 have not completed high school.
  • 13.3 percent of the members of European ethno-racial groups between 18 and 24 are not in school and have not completed high school and 50.3 percent are in school fulltime. Again the Portuguese group is unusual: 22.5 percent of Portuguese between 18 and 24 are not in school full-time and have not completed high school and just 37.9 percent are in school full-time.
  • Among members of the 48 European ethno-racial groups between the ages of 25 and 34, the Portuguese and Bosnian groups have the lowest proportions of university graduates, 11.6 and 9.4 percent respectively.
  • In 2001, about 85 percent of young people in all the Southern European groups had completed high school, except for 67 percent of the Portuguese;
  • The mean income of the men from Southern European groups, the former Yugoslavia and some countries of Eastern Europe ranges from $43,000 for the Portuguese and $45,600 for the Greeks to $54,200 for the Italian group and $57,500 for the Slovenians. The lower income of the Portuguese can be explained by their low level of educational attainment, and the very low proportion in professional jobs, just 5.2 percent, and very high proportion in unskilled manual jobs, 28.3 percent;
  • Another interesting set of comparisons is for Portuguese women and men whose income, on average, was 74.6 and 81.9 percent of the income of “Canadians”. These figures are unaffected by adjusting for age, but increase to 80.7 and 89.4 percent accounting for education. In other words, the below average education of the Portuguese helps to explain their lower incomes.

You can read the full shebang here if you like. Maybe we can compare notes later, for better or for worse…

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