FROM THE PRINT EDITION: A profile of Bay Ward candidate Oni Joseph

Photography by David Kawai

Poetry in Motion: Taking on all challengers in Bay Ward

Oni Joseph is perhaps best known for her skills as a slam poet. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a highly educated woman who has been championing her community for years, a woman who is confident she has got what it takes to beat out the big guns in the highly contested race for city councillor in Bay Ward.

To Joseph, the choice to run in Bay Ward seemed as natural as her boisterous laugh. “Bay Ward looks like me. I mean, many people in the ward are overweight, and I need to lose a few pounds. Linguistically, there are 13 languages, and I speak more than the one language. The makeup of Bay Ward — there are a lot of single-parent families, and I’m a single mom. I connect with many of the needs of the community.”

“And I’ve worked around the world,” Joseph adds. “I connect [in Bay Ward]. With all the work I do in the community, I find something of me in the members of the community whenever I go canvassing.” Joseph believes her global outlook is one that resonates with the ward’s high immigrant population.

The mother of three teenage boys (“triple trouble”), Joseph was born in Montreal and grew up in south Ottawa. Her resumé is somewhat dizzying: an accomplished arts educator and internationally recognized poet, she has used her poetry to teach in nearly every elementary school in the city — and at events around the world. Her 2006 book of poetry, Ghettostocracy, was named a Book of the Year by The Globe and Mail and is on the curriculum at a number of universities. She’s a dedicated advocate for such causes as HIV/AIDS prevention, Habitat for Humanity, and Haiti earthquake relief and has raised countless dollars over the years through community fundraisers. Her political experience includes time working on the campaigns of Sheila Copps, Ed Broadbent, Paul Dewar, and Alex Munter. She further boned up on her political knowledge through a year-long full-time leadership program through the City of Ottawa. And those are just the highlights.

Bay Ward is a busy race, with some big names — including incumbent Alex Cullen — running, but Joseph is confident she has got what it takes to get the vote. Indeed, Bay Ward has been a must-watch race since January, when Councillor Cullen became the first candidate to throw his hat into the ring in the mayoral race. That move sparked a flood of wannabes announcing plans to run for council in the vacant ward. But the tides changed in August with Cullen’s announcement that he was dropping out of the mayoral race and running for re-election in Bay Ward. Joseph says Cullen’s news caught her by surprise, since he had encouraged her to run and had been helping her through the process.

“Alex Cullen mentored me,” Joseph says. “He asked me to run, and he was really supportive. I spent over 40 hours in his office working and getting mentored.” She found out he was entering the council race when he called to tell her shortly before announcing the news publicly. According to Joseph, Cullen was clearly calling her to ask her to drop out of the race. “I’m not going to be bullied. The only reason Alex Cullen said he wanted to run was to beat [Terry] Kilrea. In those words. And wanting to beat someone at anything is not a reason to engage in the political process. It’s not a reason to get a job or do anything in life. If you’re going to get into politics, you have to care about the community. You’re going to have to want to improve the community. You have to create a platform, a vision. He’s been there for the past 10 years, and the only reason why he wants to run again is to beat someone? Go into the boxing ring for that.”

Joseph’s work in the community has given her an abiding passion for the issues. She supports moving forward with the downtown transit tunnel (Bay Ward has the highest transit use in the city). She also says that the city needs to do a better job of delivering services to the community, particularly the immigrant population, who, she says, are dealing with mental and physical health issues, isolation, and real frustration at accessing services that would help them thrive and contribute to the community.

Joseph also wants public housing improved. Among other things, she thinks council should increase funding by a minimum of $10 million a year to allow for repairs, stimulate new construction, and expand the availability of supportive housing for the chronically homeless and mentally ill. (In Joseph’s plan, the funding would come from savings generated by the uploading of provincial social services, a 10-year process that began in 2008.)

Overall, Joseph says, she’s in this race to continue to improve a community she loves. “I’m running to win. I want to get the job done. There are roughly 900,000 people living in Ottawa. A good five per cent are living in a marginalized way. It’s disgusting. It’s a shame. I love my city, I love Ottawa, but we can do better. We have to take care of that five per cent. And I would say three out of that five per cent live in my ward. I want to be Bay Ward’s voice at city hall.”