Educator representing the NDP in federal elections
September 7, 2019
Coming from a working-class background with an interest in how people are affected by the burden of social and economic inequalities, it’s easy to understand why university professor Dr. Barrington Walker Jr. is trying his hand at politics.
The Queen’s University historian is the New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate for Kingston and the Islands in next month’s federal elections.
Represented in the House of Commons since 1968, the federal electoral district covers part of Kingston and the Frontenac Islands in the St. Lawrence River.
The product of Jamaican immigrants who came to Canada at a time when there was an increase in sponsored relatives under then Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who announced multiculturalism as an official government policy, Walker said the NDP aligns with his beliefs.
The NDP emerged from the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) created in 1932 by J.S Woodsworth who was a powerful advocate for Ontario’s working class in the early 1900s.
“My parents came to Canada in 1969 and, like a lot of folks from their generation, that was the height of ‘Trudeaumania’,” Walker, who grew up in a union family, pointed out. “Late in high school and through my university years, I came to believe that the Liberal Party was not the right party to address all of the societal problems and challenges that I was seeing across the board. I think that what initially drew people in our community to that party was that they opened up the country to immigration and the whole piece around multiculturalism. What I think, however, that a lot of us realized was that not everybody has benefitted the way we thought we might have. There are some communities that are doing better than others and one of the reasons I support the NDP is because of their emphasis on working people and many of the issues that affect African-descended people like anti-Black racism and mass incarceration.”
As he canvasses the community, Walker said surging cost of living is the constituents’ main concern.
“They are very worried about the fact that wages have not kept up with expenses across the board,” he said. “These are pocket book issues that are affecting not only the people in my riding but all Canadians. You hear a lot of elites say the economy is in good shape, but most people aren’t feeling that. Many folks are struggling.”
Affordable education, upholding treaty rights, curtailing pipeline expansion and climate change are also high on his agenda.
Ontario NDP president and Kingston city councillor Mary Rita Holland gave Walker a ringing endorsement.
“He brings real passion for transformational change,” she pointed out. “He will use his skills and character to reach across the boundaries of lived experiences to make life better for all. Barrington wants us to feel hopeful about politics and he will continue to inspire us as he walks with us towards change.”
Historian Christo Aivalis said Walker is an excellent candidate for the riding.
“His familiarity with our community, his commitment to social justice and his knowledge of our country’s history are all assets that will serve him well, both on the campaign trail and on Parliament Hill,” said Aivalis whose doctoral dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP.
Involved in his local NDP Riding Association for a few years, Walker helped his wife – activist and prominent Kingston Indigenous community member Georgina Riel – during her campaign in the Loyalist-Cataraqui District in last year’s municipal elections. The couple has two children.
Graduating with honours from Pickering High School, he worked part-time jobs to put himself through university and overcame racism and bigotry to achieve the highest level of academic distinction.
Completing his undergraduate degree at York University in 1993 and his Master’s a year later at the University of Toronto (U of T), it took nine years to finish his Ph.D. at U of T.
“It was a bit of a needle in haystack project to find those things I needed and it took me quite a while to decide what I wanted to do and exactly how I wanted to do it,” said Walker who started his position at Queen’s a year before completing his Ph.D. in 2003.
Focussing on Black sleeping car porters when he started his dissertation, his attention switched to Canada’s criminal court records and an examination of the history of inequalities in Canada after a professor brought the case of Winnipegger David Hawes to his notice.
Accused of raping a White woman at Union Station, the porter was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1901 even though there was no evidence of penetration and violence.
“The more I thought about what this man had to endure, I figured there were other stories out there like his,” noted Walker who focusses on the histories of Blacks, race immigration and the law. “It was during the time of the Just Desserts shooting (a White woman was killed during a robbery at the mid-town Toronto café in April 1994) and there were all kinds of conversations swirling around Blackness and criminality in the city. I started to think about the historical roots of that conversation and it struck me that it wasn’t a new conversation. It was just that nobody had really done a lot of work on how far these conversations went in Canada.”
Planning to attend law school after starting university, a professor enticed Walker to change his career path.
“Law aligned with the things I am good at like reading, writing and being argumentative,” he said. “During my second year at York, I met a professor (Gerald Ginsburg) who was teaching West and African-American History and the light went on. He encouraged me to go to graduate school and think about becoming a professor which is something that had not dawned on me before. If I hadn’t met him, I don’t know if I would have had the confidence or the inclination to think that I could be a university professor.”
Walker is standing on the shoulders of many who offered their support as he climbed the academic ladder. They include Black Canadian scholars Timari Kitossa who is a Sociology professor at Brock University, Carl James and Michelle Johnson who are at York University and David Sealy who died within weeks of delivering his thesis in 2009 at the University of Toronto.
“David was one of my closest friends and one of the most brilliant people I have ever met,” said Walker.
Taking pride of place, however, are his parents Barrington Walker Sr. and Norma Walker who are both retired.
Raised in Montego Bay, the family patriarch landed on his feet with General Motors after McGraw-Edison pulled out of Canada in 1982 while his wife of 49 years was a health care practitioner.
“They were both unionized workers who instilled in me the importance of education and supported me in all of my endeavours,” Walker added.
His younger sister, Heather Walker, is a Toronto District School Board teacher.
Earlier this year, Walker delivered the James Talman Lecture. The annual series, bearing the name of Ontario’s second Archivist and Western University’s Chief Librarian, focusses on the province’s history, regional collections and innovative use of previously unstudied aspects of Canadian history.
The title of Walker’s presentation was, ‘The Honourable Leonard Braithwaite: The Imprint of a Black Canadian Legal Pioneer on the History of Modern Ontario’.
The first Black elected to a Canadian parliament, the powerful Law Society of Canada’s governing council, the Etobicoke Board of Education and the dissolved municipality’s city council as an alderman died seven years ago.
A prolific writer, Walker is currently working on two books – Colonizing Nation: A Canadian History of Race and Immigration and Dark Peril: Blacks and the Social Order in North America’s Urban Landscape, 1992-2012.
He’s also the co-founder and co-convener of the Arthur Lower Workshop Series in Canadian History which is a new forum for prominent and emerging scholars from across Canada and beyond to present advanced research to the department.