Meet Jide Afolabi
The Ottawa man vying to be Ottawa's first black city Councillor
Ottawa, Canada’s capital city has never had a black city councilor – Jide Afolabi wants to change that.
To walk into Jide’s office, at the edge of Capital Ward in Ottawa, is to understand how little details can deliver on a promise – floor to ceiling wainscoting, glass doors, an out-sized window to let in a flood of sunlight. It is, perhaps, a testament to a life carefully crafted. The idea of careful crafting is all the more emphasized if one understands that 27 years ago, Jide was a teenager in Lagos, Nigeria, carrying multiple pails of water up flights of stairs so there’d be enough for drinking, cooking and washing.
It’s been a long journey from those humble beginnings to a law practice in Ottawa, and for many an immigrant, it would be the apex – the crowning culmination of a most unlikely story. It appears however, with his much-publicized run for City Council, that Jide is not quite done crafting yet. So, why would a young, bright and successful lawyer with his own thriving practice want to seemingly start all over again by getting into politics?
To have him tell it, a part of him has always been drawn to the importance of public service. He remembers being a kid, a young eight year old, glued to the television set because a budget speech was on. His dad wondered why he preferred a budget speech to cartoons, and although he couldn’t quite give an articulate reason, he knew the one was more important than the other. He knew there was some link between that budget speech and the dismal living conditions he saw around him daily. Years later, he would come to realize that the promise of that speech had been upended by endemic corruption.
Shortly after he completed high school, Jide’s family emigrated to Canada. By then, the kid inclined towards budget speeches had something related to occupy his attention – a deep-seated desire to excel, and in so doing to deliver on the promise of principled public service. That desire now sat alongside the reality of adjusting to life in a vastly different environment. Back in 1992, foreign high school graduates arriving at Canadian universities were in many instances required to complete an extra year of studies, turning a 4-year degree into 5 years. So it was that when Jide settled into life at Carleton University – walking the tunnels to class, and listening to the illuminating lectures of Professor George Roseme – it was to be a 5-year stint.
Convinced by then that a principled approach to public service could best be realized through a career in law, Jide had become determined to craft a speedy and successful path through his first degree. A ceaseless approach to studying got him on the Dean’s Honours List at Carleton, and got him through his 5-year degree in 3 short years. Without the funds to take LSAT preparatory courses, the same approach got him high marks in that all-important law school admission aptitude test. So, it was that 3 years after landing in Canada, Jide was off to the prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Three additional years later, with scholarships and academic accolades behind him, Jide had completed a second degree and found himself a student lawyer, articling at Blake, Cassels & Graydon. He had gone from pails of water to a 3-piece suits and a perch on Bay Street in six short years – learning to lead a radically different kind of life while staying essentially the same person.
After his year as a student lawyer, his next chapter in crafting a principled approach to public service would see him eschew Bay Street and the life of a corporate lawyer. Instead, he attended the London School of Economics, and then found his feet in Canada’s indigenous reconciliation project – becoming a negotiator on various self-government files in multiple provinces; focused on the what, when, how and how much of the recognition of indigenous jurisdictions by Canada. It is a project he believes expanded his horizon, opening him up to the vastness of Canada, and its unending potential for good.
After slightly more than ten years in Canada’s bureaucracy, Jide jumped at a chance to start his own law practice, dedicated to helping the average person sort out basic legal challenges. He did so just as the debate concerning the lack of diversity on Ottawa’s City Council began to gain traction. With the increased publicity of his law practice, it wasn’t long before he began to get the nudge to run for office, to “get involved” politically. Suddenly, the careful crafting of a principled approach to public service was no longer a private ideal, it had become the canvas on which many could paint their civic desires. The messages and hints bore similar themes – diversity in representation matters because it ensures persons with a broader variety of lived-experiences consider prevailing issues, and because the young need to see role models in action in order to truly grasp the ambit of their options.
Money plays the biggest, yet most silent role. You need to be in a position to put in thousands, and successfully acquire additional thousands from donors.
So it was that the lawyer again became a student – delving this time into municipal policy, and dedicating himself to discovering options for better communities and better cities. With the commencement of active campaigning in recent months, that dedication has had to expand from the cerebral to encompass the practical – fund raising, canvassing, community visibility, debate preparations. Asked what the biggest challenge faced by minority candidates might be, Jide is candid – “it’ll likely be difficult for candidates from minority and immigrant communities, for folks who are still getting established in the country, to finance their campaigns. Money plays the biggest, yet most silent role. You need to be in a position to put in thousands, and successfully acquire additional thousands from donors.”
Now, deep into a multi-month campaign, Jide has held his own in Capital Ward – a demanding urban area typified by leafy neighbourhoods and engaged residents. Armed with a very detailed plan, his new-found objective is to find allies and to carefully craft a new kind of city – a place, as he puts it, of “environmental leadership, vibrant and caring communities, and neighbourhoods that balance competing interests well”. If he is to make a success of it, he’ll have to draw on the totality of his experiences – from the hardships of fetching water daily to the intricacies of multi-party negotiations.
You can follow Jide and his journey on twitter at https://twitter.com/capitalwardjide