New equity director hopes to encourage greater diversity on regional council ahead of fall election

“In an ideal world, we would lose our jobs,” says Fauzia Baig, the region’s first director of equity, diversity and inclusion

Fauzia Baig says the Region of Waterloo, like most municipalities, has reached a tipping point in its understanding that the ways it delivers services often don’t meet the needs of all communities.

The region’s first director of equity, diversity and inclusion hopes to change that.

Baig says her role will be to learn more about the barriers, gaps and issues that prevent equitable access to services while offering solutions “in a really targeted way.”

The conversations that have already taken place point to an immediate need to improve how the municipality runs its programs to serve a more diverse population and, in turn, change the look of the organization, Baig says.

Fair hiring and recruitment will be one of his team’s main areas of focus in the coming months, but the larger focus will be to “emphasize the journey towards social justice.”

“How do we as an organization and community work toward truth and reconciliation, how do we address systemic barriers…that lead to racism and bring equity back into the workplace?

“In an ideal world, we would lose our jobs,” says Baig.

The EDI team’s efforts to open doors to a more diverse workforce apply to elected officials as well.

The white elephant in the room, of course, is a lack of minority representation on the regional council where every elected member runs as white.

It’s something Baig acknowledges as problematic, not just in terms of optics, but because the regional council has not been free of racial controversy in recent years.

In 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Councilor Les Armstrong posted a video on his Twitter account that appeared to support extremist views under the “White Lives Matter” banner.

The Mayor of Wilmot Township apologized, but was further chastised by members of the Aboriginal community the same year for expressing his desire to retain a standing statue of Sir John A. McDonald as part of the road project of the Prime Minister next to the Castle Kilbride museum.

Incidents like this highlight the need for opportunity-aligned change to make more diverse voices part of the solution, Baig says.

She knows the region can do a better job of encouraging people of color to take political roles.

One of his team’s goals may be to find ways to close these gaps.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community that there needs to be better representation at the decision-making table, but what does that look like, how do we get there?” she says.

“There are a lot of great community organizations out there that are bringing people in, connecting them, and providing these mentorships and opportunities. He’s looking for ways to elevate those opportunities, grow and build on them,” she said.

The Toronto native, who arrived in the region as a student, has worked for the region since 2007, primarily in public health, but also with roles in community services, housing and Ontario Works.

She joined the OAC office last year as an equity and anti-racism advisor.

Now as Director of the EDI Office, Baig will work alongside a yet to be named Director of Reconciliation to help implement changes aimed at improving the lives of the local Indigenous community and to “advance the region’s journey towards truth and reconciliation”.

The role stems from recommendations from the region’s Anti-Racism Advisory Task Force and a two-year, $15 million investment in a new equity fund, part of which will fund the team’s work EDI.

The region spent $3.1 million on the portfolio last year and carried over the rest this year with a $1.7 million budget allocated to Baig’s 12-member team.

Although Baig acknowledges that the region has already done “a lot of good things” to address some of these issues, she said there is always room for improvement.

Childcare is an example of how the region is adapting to the way it delivers services.

Director of Children’s Services, Barb Cardow recently presented a child care strategy that highlights ways the region can improve its provision of licensed child care spaces to meet the needs of marginalized communities.

She points to the registration system as one of the “critical gaps” that can make it difficult for some Indigenous, Black and racialized families to access child care.

Cardow told the council earlier this month that the system unintentionally benefits “more educated, English-speaking” families because they can get on the program’s waiting lists earlier.

Once a proposed $10-a-day childcare plan kicks in, it could make that problem even worse as demand for childcare grows, she said.

If enrollment practices are not changed before this expected increase, “there is a risk that families who already have fewer choices will be left out of the child care system altogether,” Cardow warned.

Another recent example of how the region is striving to achieve equitable access came with the rollout of the COVID vaccine in the region.

Baig was part of the team that looked for ways to get the vaccine to marginalized areas and break down language barriers.

This involved engaging with over 300 community leaders, knocking on doors in priority neighborhoods and bringing the vaccination bus to underserved neighborhoods to increase vaccine access and uptake.

“What we’ve heard loud and clear is that translated communications are key to overcoming some of the barriers to access, but taking it a step further is ensuring it gets into the hands of people who need it,” Baig said.

She said her first priority would be to implement some of the key recommendations coming out of the region’s anti-racism task force, as well as some of the community’s calls to action.

A recent call to action is a recommendation to council next week that staff continue to partner with the Coalition of Muslim Women of Kitchener Waterloo, Muslim Women of Cambridge and area municipalities to collaborate on a coordinated strategy to combat Islamophobia.

It includes calls to implement anti-Islamophobia training for regional staff and to strengthen enforcement when someone acts in a threatening, racist or otherwise offensive way on regional property.

When asked if investing in the equity office could pay off in terms of attracting newcomers to the region to fill critical positions where there are labor shortages, Baig said that whenever a community thrives and its residents thrive, there is a benefit, “whether it’s economic, whether it’s social, whether it’s environmental.

“I think when we focus on what people need and make sure they’re able to reach their maximum potential, don’t face undue hardship, thrive really… returns are perceived in a way that is usually not measured.

“I know there are definitely things we need to work on, but there’s so much potential and there’s so much commitment in this community to do things better,” she said. “You will see that it continues to amplify.”

Elna M. Lemons