Uzoma Asagwara image via Punch
Uzoma Asagwara, born to Nigerian parents, was elected in September 2019, into the Manitoba Legislative Assembly to represent Union Station in Canada. The 35-year-old, who is the first black queer person to win a seat in the assembly, hails from Umuahia in Abia State, She tells ALEXANDER OKERE about her childhood, lifestyle and motivation.
What does your victory in the election mean to you?
Personally, it means a great deal. It equally means a great deal to my family, my friends and our community. We worked hard together to be successful and what was most important for me and most important for all of us was making sure that we did this in a way that we would be proud of, with integrity, so that other black people would know that they can aspire to this and be successful.
You are not just one of the three black persons to be elected in 150 years but also the first black queer to be elected. What significance does this have in your view?
It has a great deal of personal significance, considering that there is still a lot of stigma and barriers that LGBTQ (lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and Queer) people face. So, it is important that people know that you can live your life authentically, be a good person, work hard, serve the community and accomplish your dream. For instance, a lot of people, especially women, face a lot of barriers and that really can prevent people from living their best lives and being their best selves. So, I think it is really important that we can acknowledge those challenges and also let people know that being the best version of yourself and being a good person in this world can contribute to your being able to be successful.
Did you think that you would also make history?
I definitely did not have that in mind. When I first considered running, I actually didn’t know. But as soon as I realised that that has never happened, I began to understand how important it was that we were successful because it wasn’t that long ago in Manitoba that the first indigenous woman was elected into the Manitoba legislature.
You must have come a long way with your political campaign. What were the issues of interest to residents of Union District that motivated you to represent them?
So many people are struggling with challenges accessing good health care, affordable housing and good education, and everybody is worried about climate change. So, in Union District, particularly, a lot of these issues are experienced on a greater level. A lot of people in our community are living in poverty. So, these were issues we were hearing about every single day on the doorsteps. These are issues that our party has always worked hard to make sure we are taking a progressive and compassionate approach. I was proud to run under the New Democratic Party banner, knowing that these are important issues and always have been important for the NDP. The party was very supportive of my background as a registered psychiatrist nurse and as someone who has been working in our community for about 20 years.
How challenging was your campaign?
Running a campaign is very challenging. It is no small task and it requires a level of dedication and understanding of the issues. It requires relationship building skills and a level of commitment from everybody. We campaigned for well over seven months and that required a tremendous amount of work and resources and our approach was taking the grassroots, community approach and involving many people and as many voices as possible in order to be successful.
How did you feel when the election result started coming in?
I was really nervous because you would never know until the result finally comes in whether all your hard work will pay off. So, we were very nervous. We felt confident going into election night because we had done so much hard work and so we were feeling like we had reached as many people as we possibly could and we knew that no other candidate’s team would have outworked us. But when the result finally came in, I was overjoyed. I felt so much gratitude and so much joy that everybody’s hard work paid off.
What would you say increased your popularity and that of your party, which we understand was in the opposition?
I think my background and my career. People recognised these would be a very good fit in serving Union Station. Some people knew me based on my community work and my community involvement. Other people knew me because of my public service as a nurse, as an addiction specialist. When people combined all of those things and realised all of those things about me, people were excited.
Was it the first time you ever contested a legislative election?
Yes. It was my first time of running. There were other people who ran for the nomination in my party. We ran against three other candidates to win the nomination for the party and we won. I think that people could see based on those results, that we were serious and that we were going to be working very hard. We had people in our nomination meeting who had never voted in any electoral forum. We had a number of first-time voters, newcomers and refugees, a number of people who took part in the political process for the first time, which was a great thing for the party.
You have a Nigerian root. Can you tell us briefly about yourself?
I was born in Winnipeg. I’m a first-generation Canadian. My parents are from Umuahia (in Abia State) and they immigrated into Canada in the late 1970s. So, a lot of my community involvement actually comes from my parents’ example as organisers. They really instilled in all their children the importance of being involved in your community and in advocating for your community and that’s really where I think my passion for advocacy for community comes from.
Growing up under your parents, are there certain things they did you would say were typical of them as Nigerians?
They certainly had very high standards in term of our education. I grew up knowing that I was going to get a university education, volunteer and contribute to the community. My mother, especially, instilled the importance of being strong, independent and capable in all of us, and making sure that we stood up and spoke up when we saw something wrong happening in the world. Those are values that I still work with today and share with other young people I meet and connect with.
Can you tell us more about your academic background?
I have a Bachelor of Science in Psychiatric Nursing. I completed a joint programme between the University of Winnipeg and the University in Brandon, both of which are in Manitoba. School was amazing and also challenging. I was a full-time basketball player, a full-time time student and also worked part-time. I had to balance part-time work, full-time as a student, full-time athletics throughout my years in the university. I was fortunate to have a great support system and did well academically and athletically. So, my experience overall was very positive.
Have you ever visited Nigeria?
Yes. The last time I was in Nigeria was, I think, in 2013. I would love to go back.
Did you get any information about the reaction from your community in Nigeria when you won the election?
Yes. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. The love and support I have been receiving from my community in Nigeria have been one of the brightest parts of the whole experience. It has been rewarding and uplifting, hearing from so many people what this means to them and I’m so proud to be a Nigerian and be able to help represent our community in such a way . I’m excited about what this means.
What other values did you learn from your mother that helped you to overcome challenges and achieve your goals?
My mum is an incredibly kind, compassionate and hard-working person. One of the things I most valued and learnt from her was her unwavering work ethics and her generosity and kindness to others. So, in times that were hard, when I wasn’t sure whether or not I could go out and keep knocking doors or doing what is necessary to be successful, I always thought about how hard my mother has always worked and her goodness and kindness have always come back to her. A lot of people that I met on the campaign trail, who came out and volunteered and who were supportive of me, did that because my mum had done something kind to them and their families. So, you will never know how generosity and kindness come back in a good way to you and your family and that was a lesson I certainly learnt from her.
It appears you chose to bear your Igbo name. Do you also speak the Igbo language?
My Igbo is terrible. I speak enough Igbo to get by, if I have to, like basic formalities and things like that. I wish I spoke our language. Maybe one day, if I have the time, I would definitely love such as much as I can. I love my name. It has meaning and I’ve always been proud of my name my entire life. I feel my parents chose the perfect name for me and I think it’s important for us to bear our names proudly because they do carry meaning and they reflect where we come from, which is a beautiful and dynamic place.
How did your experience as a community and mental health advocate prepare you for leadership at a higher level?
I had tremendous resource and tools as a result of my education cum work experience and definitely a greater understanding of what it means to be a service worker, what it means to work within a system that can do a lot of good or a lot of harm in people, especially people who are disenfranchised or marginalised within our community. And my work as an activist really prepared me for knowing how to build a relationship and work on a grassroots level in a very unique way. If you are going to work alongside many different communities and work collaboratively at all levels to get good work done. What motivates me to succeed is striving to be the best version of myself and striving to do so the best I possibly can for as long as I’m here.
How is the absence of a good number of young leaders in Nigerian politics affecting its development and future?
You need young, ambitious minds and ideas within spaces where policies and decisions are made. The youths of today and the youths of tomorrow have incredible ideas. They have resources, experience and prospective that can only help lead Nigeria in a direction that serves everybody in a positive manner. So, part of the responsibilities of the older generation is to create the space for young minds to be at the table and make them feel welcome and it will only benefit everyone if that happens.
In 2014, you founded the Queer People of Colour Winnipeg. Did a personal experience lead to that?
It did. It’s my experience, feeling like I lacked the community that really affirmed and represented my identity in Winnipeg. There were many of us who felt that way and realised that it was so important to have the space where we can share our experiences and learn and build a community. Folks who are LGBTQ have always existed and always will. Our experiences are valid and worthy of every dignity and respect and representation possible. It is always disappointing when I see discrimination against our community and negative comments against our community. But I know that part of challenging those really negative and unproductive attitudes is being a visible, vocal and positive representative in the world and letting people know that we can be exactly who we are and be successful.
What’s your favourite Nigerian food?
I love our Nigerian jollof rice. We make the best jollof rice in the world. I love fufu, pepper soup, especially in Winnipeg when it gets cold. Pepper soup on a cold day is amazing.
How do you relax?
I exercise. Taking care of my health is important to me. It helps me have energy and get rid of stress.
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