Ottawa has first Black councillor
June 6, 2019
Through a flood of emails last January, Rawlson King learned that Harvard-educated former Canadian diplomat Tobi Nussbaun was leaving Ottawa City Hall to become the National Capital Commission Chief Executive Officer.
Vacating his seat in Rideau-Rockliffe after being re-elected by a landslide in October meant that councillors could either appoint a new councillor or hold a by-election.
They chose the latter.
Among the emails encouraging King to contest the special election was one from a Black community member that grabbed his attention.
“You will run”, it simply said.
The Carleton University graduate did and won the 17-candidate race by 123 votes, making history as Ottawa’s first Black councillor.
The feat is extraordinary in that the first municipal election was held in the nation’s capital, known as Bytown until 1854, seven years earlier and that Toronto’s first Black alderman – William Hubbard served as Acting Mayor on several occasions – was elected in 1894.
“While I recognize the significance of the occasion, what is important from my standpoint is that there is now someone at that council table who will ensure that diverse communities get the kind of representation that they need and deserve,” said King who ran for councillor in 2010 and was unsuccessful in his bid to become a school trustee in last October’s municipal elections. “That has been absent for far too long.”
Without the funds to pay professionals and put out highly sophisticated ads, King ran a grassroots campaign that proved successful.
“My team did a lot of door knocking trying to get a sense of residents’ needs,” he noted. “We listened carefully to ensure that our platform reflected what they wanted to see which is safe, affordable and commutable communities. We called for a freeze on transit fares which is not only among the highest in Canada, but North America. That has contributed to falling ridership. We believe that if fares become more affordable, ridership will improve, along with revenue and overall service.We also talked about improving democracy, transparency and accountability around City Hall. Though the campaign was truncated, we aimed for a maximum buy-in from all residents. It was critical to have a broad base of support.”
King, who was recently appointed Co-Chair of the new Ottawa Police Service Community Equity Council, said having more diversity at the table for the Rideau-Rockliffe Ward that includes Overbrook, which is an under-served community, is essential.
“Politics is a mechanism for change,” he said. “There is activism that puts pressure on the political apparatus to effect change. You have to be part of that apparatus to have a say in changes. I learnt in university that politics has to do with the alleviation of scarce resources. If you are not at the table, you can’t have a say in where those resources should go. It is unacceptable that there is one in six children living in poverty in a Canadian ward in the nation’s capital. There should be more focus on poverty alleviation. There’s the advocacy and activism route, but that only goes so far. You have to be in that position where you can influence decisions.”
At around the same time King was contemplating throwing his hat into the race, Black leaders from across Canada were in Ottawa for the National Black Canadians Summit.
“I had a lot of positive interactions with several prominent people, including former Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean, Greg Fergus (he represents Hull-Aylmer in the House of Commons) and the recently elected councillor in Victoria (refugee-turned-politician Sharmarke Dubow was last January elected the first Black councillor in the city in 152 years),” he pointed out. “They provided positive feedback and that told me that I couldn’t back down. I had a lot of progressive people and voices participate in the campaign which contributed to my electoral success.”
Ewart Walters, a former Jamaican diplomat and publisher of the defunct ‘Spectrum’ community newspaper, said King is a rising star.
“I expect his star to get even brighter,” added the retired federal public servant. “People who put themselves out there to be voted into positions usually do so on the basis that they have a constituency. Black candidates don’t have ridings. Instead, they have communities that go beyond ridings. In order for Rawlson to be successful, he had to have put in a lot of work which he did.”
Wayne MacKinnon, who moved from New Glasgow to Ottawa in the early 1970s, finished third in the 1994 municipal elections in Southgate with 13.50 per cent of the votes.
He was optimistic that a Black candidate would eventually secure a council seat.
“Even though it took so long, I always thought it was quite possible,” said the former Ottawa Carleton Regional Housing Authority Community Development Officer. “Canada’s diversity is increasing and it’s critical that that diversity is reflected in the institutions of governance.”
King has been an Ottawa resident since 1995 when he graduated high school as an Ontario Scholar and entered Carleton University where he completed an undergraduate degree in Journalism & Law and a Master’s in Mass Communication.
He was the president of the Overbrook Community Association and treasurer of the Rideau-Rockcliffe Community Resource Centre, a $1.8 million facility that provides social services to Ward 13 residents. The young politician also successfully advocated to establish a new community hub in the former Rideau High.
“Me and my wife lived in a community that was partly gentrifying for young professionals and families,” said King who grew up reading ‘Share’ community newspaper at Lloyd’s Barbershop. “The challenge was that around the corner, there are high levels of abject poverty. I wanted to do something constructive after work and that’s the reason why I got involved in the community where there are a lot of issues.”
Born and raised in Toronto, the youngest of three children achieved his secondary school diploma at Bayview Glen. His parents – Rawlson (he was born in Aruba) and Louie King – were teachers in St. Vincent & the Grenadines.
They were unable to pursue that profession in Canada because of their foreign credentials.
His father – who was a principal – worked on the railway, while his mother went into banking.
“My mom worked in a factory and they made sacrifices for their children to secure a solid education and become active Canadians,” King, a former Gallery 101 board President, said.