The Thoughtful Appointment of Jamil Jivani Breaks the Conservative Mold

I used to work with a colleague in government who, whenever the opportunity presented itself, would quip “you know, this is exactly what Liberals think we do.” He was referring to the fact that every political party has negative connotations associated with it. Common refrains are that the Conservatives only care about the rich, the New Democrats do not understand how business works, and Liberals think they know better than the average person.

Throughout the course of a governing term, political parties inevitably butt up against decisions that lean right into their negative attributes. Nuanced conversations about the role of government in providing student assistance are overshadowed by the old familiar talking point that “the Tories hate the poor” or that “they just do not care about students.”

On the contrary, every now and again, a political party breaks through that stereotypical mold they are cast in to reveal a more complex ideological movement. The Kathleen Wynne Liberals cut small business taxes more than once. The New Democrats supported a 2014 policy to tie the minimum wage to inflation instead of supporting endless arbitrary hikes. The regional, demographic, and social cleavages within a party movement can breed interesting results that can confuse the casual observer.

Last week, the Doug Ford government did just that. Enter Jamil Jivani. Jivani is an exception to the conservative rule. He is a lawyer, a community advocate, a founder of charities, an anti-racism advocate, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, an award-winning author, and a representative for marginalized communities. Most importantly, Jamil is an independent critical thinker. He is an eloquently spoken racialized conservative who can not only discuss complex topics with independent thoughts but also bring forward the views of racialized youth directly from our most disadvantaged communities to the province’s highest offices.

Jamil was appointed in December to serve as the province’s first-ever Advocate for Community Opportunities. Last week, Jamil was tapped to head the province’s new Council on Equality of Opportunity to study the social and economic issues impacting Ontario’s disadvantaged youth.

The council and the advocate position are not part of the typical conservative playbook. We should be asking ourselves, why not? How can Ontarians simultaneously believe that problems like poverty, racism, youth crime, and inequality are complex, but the solutions to those problems are ideologically monolithic and held only by the left? It does not compute, and Jamil is exactly the type of person who can show us why.

Given the movement south of the border, Ontarians are rightly waking up to the historic grievances the diversity of people within this great province hold. Despite the newfound awareness, they are not necessarily appreciating the diversity of views held within those groups of people. Once again, enter Jamil Jivani.

Earlier this year the conservative government was locked in a battle with the big four teachers’ unions. Primary among those issues was regulation 274, a rule that forced principals to overweight seniority in the hiring process. The conservatives argued it was a union gimmick, keeping young teachers out of the classroom. The NDP and Liberals argued it was the conservatives attempting to undercut the quality of education by kneecapping the benefits of unions.

Jamil took a different stance. In a National Post op-ed, he argued that regulation 274 prohibited racialized school districts from being able to value “cultural competencies or community relationships” in the hiring process. Conservatives have routinely beat the drum against policies that choose winners and losers, but Jamil showed the right wing that their traditional stance carried social benefits for a marginalized segment of society. In other words, a conservative approach held social appeal that could breed a broader coalition.

Similarly, Jamil appeared on the TVO program The Agenda two years ago to discuss his book Why Young Men? On the program, he referenced a study in South Side Chicago that showed violence in young people could be reduced significantly by providing youth access to part-time minimum wage employment. It wasn’t that the young workers were suddenly rich, but that the job gave them dignity, the hope of a future where they can earn more, a meaningful pathway to be part of society, and the realization that they too can provide for a family. Conservatives have always believed in the dignity of a job, but little did they know that the most disadvantaged in the province may hold the same belief.

Jamil has an opportunity to work with Premier Ford to change the conservative narrative in Ontario. When Ford opposed a $15 an hour minimum wage he did so because it upset the traditional conservative pro-business ideology. However, he did not just oppose the policy, but replaced it with the creation of a low-wage tax credit for minimum wage earners in part because it reflects the diverse social reality behind the conservative banner. The “For the People” slogan Ford was elected behind was designed to speak to everyone, rich or poor. Now, the premier is showing that it was not just a convenient idiom.

When my colleague used to say “this is exactly what Liberals think we do,” he was not referring to setting up an independent body to challenge the deepest-rooted social and economic prejudices in the province with a view to providing more opportunity for disadvantaged and racialized youth. He also was not referring to the appointment of Jamil Jivani.

Hopefully, if these issues are given the serious attention they deserve, we may be able to look back at this council and this appointment and recognize them as the start of a distinct and vibrant part of a broader reformed conservative movement. Selfishly, the party will be better for it. Thankfully, the people of Ontario — and that means all of the people — will be better for it too.

— Mitchell Davidson