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Dream Big: Working in the Heart of Democracy

By: Bibi Hakim

Vice President Kamala Harris said on inauguration day, "I may be the first, but I will not be the last" as she was sworn into the White House as the first Black and South Asian woman to hold the vice presidency role in the United States of America. While I might not have been the first Indo-Caribbean woman to serve in the Federal Ministers Office in the Parliament of Canada, I am most certainly the only Indo-Caribbean woman at the federal level serving under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

My name is Bibi Hakim and if you asked me 10 years ago if I would have ever imagined myself working in the heart of Canada’s democracy as an advisor to the Minister and Prime Minister, I would have probably told you that I dreamed of being Canada’s first elected woman and woman of colour to be our Prime Minister. I have had this dream since I was in elementary school. I learned about the parliamentary system for what it was, an elected body of people representing different areas coming together to find solutions for the greater good of our collective community — most certainly not partisan politics. 

I've grown comfortable with a question that is most often asked of me and has caused me some discomfort early on in my career: what is a brown girl like yourself doing here? Or better yet — how did you make it here? Simply put, I was participating in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award program in Canada where I spent a week away from home travelling to our nation's capital to learn about our democracy and parliamentary system. Here I was able to sit in the House of Commons and walk on the floor of the Senate of Canada; meeting members of Parliament, Senators and other dignitaries including the Prime Minister of Canada. I had the opportunity to have a private meeting with my Member of Parliament and the Prime Minister where they were both curious to know where and what I was going to be pursuing for university. The Prime Minister asked if I would ever consider politics and public policy to which I responded, "is that even a degree?" Four years and a pandemic later, I would find myself graduating from the University of Ottawa with a joint honours in Political Science and Public Administration degree where I would focus on international relations and mental health policies (or lack of mental health support) in Canada, interned for a Member of Parliament, worked for the United Nations, became Executive Assistant to a rookie Member of Parliament and personally selected to work in the Ministers Office at Global Affairs Canada in Parliamentary Affairs and Issues Management.

I was encouraged by the Prime Minister to chase my dream and pursue something I never knew I was good at, politics and public policy. To say my path was easy is just an understatement. My time walking the halls of centre block, the buildings otherwise known as our Parliament, were up and down. While I have been a part of very cool events such as welcoming out olympians, Heads of State, I would be remiss if I did not mention the days I wanted to give up or the day that I was body checked across a hallway and into a wall by the then Leader of the Opposition, or another time where a member of the opposition threw his name tag at my face. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the way some people belittled me and excluded me out of spaces. 

In interviews, I am asked “what does it mean to be a South Asian or a brown woman working in government”? It's complicated. On one hand, it's truly an honour to be in this space knowing that I am serving my country and making a difference in millions of lives across Canada. I am extremely proud of my work and advocacy for mental health because it has led to the following accomplishments:

  1. The first federal mental health in Canada

  2. A dedicated department under Health Canada

  3. 198.6 billion dollars of the next 10 years to support our health care system and new funding specifically for mental health services across Canada

  4. 1.8 million dollars for the South Asian community in Peel for mental health resources and mental health prevention literacy

  5. 2.9 million dollars in international development funding to support Guyana with endeavours to address mental health.

I am the first and only Guyanese ministerial staffer at Global Affairs Canada at the time that Canada was hosting CARICOM. 

To say that I have been able to advise the Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Development and Pacific Economic Development, International Development Minister, Minister of Transport, Senior members of the Prime Ministers Office and even the Prime Minister is a world I never imagined would ever be possible for a little brown girl like me. 

On the flip side, to answer what it means to be a brown woman and Indo-Caribbean in this space is difficult. It's difficult because many will mistake your identity because they do not understand what pre-set box you belong in, it's almost like they have forgotten that intersectionality exists. At times, people have made unfair assumptions about me, the origins of my name and my identity. Other times I was denied opportunity without a fair chance to fight for them. You need to be resilient and be okay with having to fight for your seat at the table. While attending the first ever Indo-Caribbean Leadership Summit, a speaker put into words what many can’t understand. To be Indo-Caribbean and a brown person in spaces is magical, because we can buss it down on the dance floor at one hour and be ready to present in boardrooms and defend in court the next. You are special.

I have attended galas, diplomatic balls, parliamentary receptions, state receptions and hosted dinner with the Royal Family. I have been awarded the highest accolades that a young person can receive in Canada. I have encouraged, shaped and changed Canada's domestic policies, and some aspects of foreign policy in the realm of international development. While I have been unsure of where this journey would have taken me, I know for certain that my dream of becoming Canada’s first elected woman and woman of colour to be Prime Minister is in reach and certainly possible. I am here because of the grit that has been passed down to me from generation to generation. 

I want to close by speaking directly to the Indo-Caribbean youth that may come across this blog. The journey to wherever you want to go and to whatever you want to be in life will be hard. If I decided to quit when things got rough I wouldn't have been able to advocate for our community. Take up space and use your voice to advocate for the change you wish to see. While I may be the first Guyanese gyal to be seated in the highest position to advise Ministers in the Prime Ministers Cabinet, I will not and should not be the last. Dream big and do it with pride!

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