At 26, Kushagr Sharma is the youngest candidate in his ward vying for a seat on Mississauga’s city council. His age is part of the reason he decided to run for public office.
“I think the City of Mississauga needs younger faces. We need more youth in politics, and that’s what my motto is: young leadership. That’s what I want to bring to city hall,” said Sharma, a lawyer and former legislative adviser with the Ontario Legislature.
Sharma is not the only young candidate hoping to diversify the makeup of Mississauga city council. Brennan Bempong, 25, says the current council is dominated by older Caucasian councillors. Both candidates believe being young allows them to work harder and overcome obstacles that make it challenging to break into municipal politics and tilt the odds in favour of older, established candidates.
Currently, all 12 Mississauga city councillors are older and white. Meanwhile, 57.2 per cent of the city’s population is racialized, according to Statistics Canada.
Bempong, a Ward 10 candidate and health-care worker, says the current council does not reflect the community. “There’s only one voice on council and it’s the same voice it has always been despite how the city has changed.
“Older, rich Caucasians make up council; the only disparity is male and female,” Bempong said. “It’s time for the council to reflect how Mississauga has changed. I’m not even talking about people of colour but people from all walks of life. Diversity is not just racially but also age, gender, social and economic status, upbringing and religion. Mississauga is missing that.”
Sharma says diversity is an integral part of democracy. “Democracy works best when there are different views, voices and opinions we hear. When we get different ideas, that’s how we progress, once we hear from all members of society,”
“It’s become an echo chamber,” Bempong said.
Both candidates say despite being young, they have worked hard to get where they are and will continue to do so throughout the campaign — and if elected.
Sharma says even if being the youngest is a setback, he is using it to his advantage.
Young candidates are hoping to diversify the makeup of Mississauga city council currently dominated by older Caucasian councillors. The candidates believe being young allows them to work harder
“I can put in the extra hours, work the extra mile and afford to lose less sleep in a way,” Sharma said.
Bempong says age doesn’t dictate how experienced someone can be. “There’s a lot of things that I, at 25, am able to do that people in their 60s are unable to understand, which goes both ways. The person in their 20s will be able to represent and connect with more people because they are able to relate to what is going on with technological advances, mental health and housing.”
Bempong does hang onto the old-school method of door-to-door canvassing. It’s still the best way to reach people, he said.
“Public officials are not someone who is above you, but works for you,” he said. People are surprised when Bempong appears canvassing at their door a second time.
“Public officials are supposed to be in your face and someone you know, not someone you should be grateful for coming to your house,” Bempong added.
Only a small group of people are “stuck in their ways” and not willing to talk to him, Bempong noted.
Sharma has been surprised by the response to his campaign; he didn’t expect this much love and attention from people. “A lot of different types of people have said it’s nice to see a younger face,” he said.
When Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie saluted Sharma for his campaign for councillor at an event, he said it was a positive experience — not just for him but for his young volunteers as well.
“When you get someone like that encouraging you — we are getting recognition for our work and getting acknowledged by someone with experience — that’s such a confidence booster,” Sharma said.
While the mayor gave Sharma’s team confidence, Bempong says more accessibility is needed for people to get involved in politics. “A lot of it has been learning on my feet. Once I win, I’m going to make it easier for people,” he promised.
If elected, Bempong said he’ll try to change the status quo, which is geared toward incumbents keeping their position. For example, only sitting incumbents get to decide if a ward-wide debate will be held.
“When you have the same voice for too long, complacency sets in, no matter what. If you start to do something for more than 10 years, you start to get comfortable,” Bempong said.
Both candidates encourage everyone to practise their right to vote in Ontario’s municipal elections on Monday, Oct. 24.
“This election is the most important election for our citizens,” Sharma said. “It affects everything you do every day — water, waste collection, roads, lighting, it’s all regional.”
Bempong says too many people don’t vote because they don’t think anything will change. “That doesn’t fix the problem,” he said. “By ignoring it, the problem won’t go away. It will just consume you and defeat you.
“Leadership comes in all shapes and forms. It doesn’t matter the person’s age, race or how they present themselves. Listen to what they have to say.”
Nairah Ahmed / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer