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BC Politics

The Pandemic Has Not Slowed Bowinn Ma Down

The MLA keeps busy serenading seniors, teaching evening origami, and taking on racism and Bryan Adams. Plus all that government stuff.

Christopher Cheung 16 Jun 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung writes about the sociology of the city for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him.

Even though she was mostly at the standing desk in her living room, B.C. MLA Bowinn Ma seemed to be popping up everywhere.

There she was in a virtual classroom, visiting Grade 11 students at Sutherland Secondary in her riding of North Vancouver-Lonsdale. There she was with Premier John Horgan in a virtual town hall on B.C.’s restart plan. There she was on a livestream, teaching an evening origami lesson.

There she was witnessing an Esémkwu, a blanketing ceremony carried out over Zoom by the Rivers family of the Squamish Nation for provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. (Ma had helped set up the meeting.)

Or maybe you saw the MLA serenading North Shore care homes. Together with North Vancouver Coun. Jordan Back on vocals and guitar, the duo made 10 stops on what they called their Social Distance Gratitude Tour.

One stop was the Lynn Valley Care Centre, home of B.C.’s first COVID-19 outbreak. On the set list were songs parodied by Ma. To the tune of “Country Roads”: “Almost heaven, North Vancouver / Seymour Mountains and far too many rivers.”

“During the summer when there isn’t a legislative session, that’s what I normally do: shift my focus to serving my community,” said Ma.

MLA work is a lot harder to do these days without face-to-face interaction. There’s a real risk of politicians “losing touch,” Ma said. She admits to not being very good at finding time to relax.

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A poster for the Social Distance Gratitude Tour. Photo: Bowinn Ma Facebook.

The pandemic has made us rely on online connection all the more and put extra pressure on transit users and people of colour. What does that mean for someone like Ma, already a very online MLA, the parliamentary secretary for TransLink and an Asian Canadian?

For starters, there’s the challenge of working from home. The desk in her living room, an antique piece she picked up from the Salvation Army, isn’t the right size. “It’s too short for me so I can’t actually sit at it,” she said. She fashioned it into a standing desk instead.

When the NDP caucus calls her for their semi-weekly meetings, it’s not the same as physically being at the legislature. Jumping from one call to another doesn’t beat the efficiency of being able to stroll into an office. “In Victoria,” said Ma, “I could do advocacy on a dozen issues in a day.” She may have a large online following, but Ma says her most powerful channel is having a seat in government.

She’s not the only politician worried about “losing touch.” Others have tried to connect with the people they represent in new ways. Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a “Cooking with Doug” video on how to make his “famous” cherry cheesecake. BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson shared a speeded up video of his daughter cutting his hair to a xylophone rendition of Rachmaninoff’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and challenged people to donate to the food bank.

But Ma has been making use of all the social media at her disposal ever since she was elected in 2017, winning a swing riding for the NDP. This is her first term as a public official — though she was a beloved president of the UBC engineers back in the day — and she’s already garnered a dedicated fan base.

Ma fans tend to be young, earnest and unashamedly geeky when it comes to certain social issues. Last year, when Ma rewrote the lyrics of “Hey Jude” in support of a polarizing B-Line bus proposal, one group sent her an enthusiastic video of the song being sung, complete with the model of a B-Line bus being waved around.

Ma’s appeal was summed up recently by Mo Amir, host of the This is Vancolour podcast, who interviewed her last month. Ma, he said, helps make politics “more accessible” and “more human,” especially for younger British Columbians.

Ma’s not afraid to speak bluntly, either. In that interview, she said she found “something” about BC Liberal Leader Wilkinson’s personality “distasteful and distrustful... a lot of [his policies] would harm the average British Columbian a lot.” Last year, Wilkinson called renting “a wacky time of life,” “fun,” “enjoyable” and a “rite of passage,” which many found elitist. Wilkinson later apologized.

Wilkinson has also accused the very online Ma and other NDP MLAs of having “unrestricted viciousness all over the web every day.” Ma retaliated by saying that the BC Liberals “raise it like their own shit don’t stink.”

Ma did have a minor tussle this month with some Twitter followers. She had tweeted, “Imagine for a moment that I lost #NorthVan-Lonsdale in 2017 and instead of Premier John Horgan at the helm, Christy Clark was in control of BC through COVID-19,” followed by a link to her donate page. There was a mixed response, and after 15 minutes, Ma deleted it saying that she wasn’t trying to imply Clark would have mishandled the pandemic and that she can “find a better way to express how grateful I am that John Horgan is premier.”

Ma, at 34, is the youngest MLA in the current 41st parliament. She was a project engineer at the Vancouver airport prior to her election. Those who don’t follow the legislature can catch her on social media advocating for child care or explaining why transit is a social justice issue in casual, clear language, often with sprinklings of jokes and emojis. Her bike, for example, was christened the BowinnMabile. A young woman who took a photo in front of legislature in a black skirt and white sneakers was told by someone that she looked very “Bowinn.”

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Photo: Bowinn Ma Twitter.

On the supporters who think she feels more like a real person than a politician, Ma reflected, “Maybe I’m just not a very good politician!”

She admits to not being very tuned in to politics in the past.

“It takes a lot of time and energy to focus on what’s going on in B.C. politics,” she said. “You can’t just read one article and suddenly understand what’s happening. Ten years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to name my MLA or MP. I remember thinking how polished these public personalities seemed and thinking that these were not people I could relate with. Now that I’m a politician, I realized, hey, politicians are actually real people! And I would love to connect with people in ways that I felt that I wasn’t able with politicians when I was younger.”

If it was hard paying attention to the news before, it was all the harder during the landslide of information that followed COVID-19.

“We were seeing press releases at least every hour,” said Ma.

She and her team had to sort through the health recommendations, the available social supports for British Columbians, daily virus updates at home and elsewhere and also, the regular running of government.

“Information was moving so quickly that we couldn’t wait for official summaries in order to update the website,” said Ma. “I needed to be absolutely confident about every piece of information that was going up... so that people could rely on it. It was as much for the public as it was for me and my staff to keep up to date.”

While many MLA websites only feature outside links to more information, Ma’s has become an emoji-guided reader’s digest of everything you need to know about life with COVID-19: if you need a prescription refill, no need for a doctor’s note; if you’re a renter, you shouldn’t be evicted; if you go to a farmers market, no samples.

At the start, her office sent out email bulletins almost daily. Even then, by the next morning the information “would already be out of date,” Ma said.

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The March 20 COVID-19 bulletin from Ma’s office.

Nonetheless, they tried to keep up and keep communication open. Ma is available on three live Q&As a week — two on Facebook, one on Instagram — as she’s unable to host her Café MLA events or street greets with constituents.

Last Wednesday over a Skype video call, Ma showed me all the gadgets and gizmos attempting to fill in for face-to-face. “I’ve honestly never owned so much video conferencing technology in my life,” she said.

There’s a webcam, an external microphone for her phone and, the pièce de résistance, a stand for holding up a mic and phone with an LED ring to light the face of the host. “I hear it’s all the rage with bloggers these days.” Her two cats can occasionally be spotted in her video calls.

When she got these new tools, she probably didn’t expect that she’d later be making a video in response to the behaviour of Canadian singer Bryan Adams.

In Metro Vancouver, like many immigrant communities around the world, one side effect of COVID-19 has been increasing anti-Asian racism. Vancouver police have recorded a spike in hate crimes, from defaced monuments to physical attacks of East Asian-looking people in public.

Ma is Canadian born with Taiwanese immigrant parents, and her sister has been warning their parents not to go to certain areas. During the 2017 election, Ma and her rival, Naomi Yamamoto, a third-generation Japanese Canadian, had their signs defaced by red swastikas.

Singer Adams added fuel to the fire in May by posting a message on Instagram in line with what many anti-Asian racists were saying, blaming COVID-19 on “some fucking bat eating, wet market animal selling, virus making greedy bastards.” Adams later posted a vague apology and said he only meant to promote veganism.

It prompted Ma to record a short video that ended up going viral, though she said it’s about a bigger issue than Adams.

“The problem with prominent people like Bryan Adams, or Donald Trump for that matter, expressing themselves in the way that they do is that it actually encourages people to embrace their biases, their prejudices and their ignorant ideas about other people as though they are righteous,” Ma says in the video.

“And when you do that, you don’t need to name the ethnicity or the culture of the people you are trying to put down in order to incite racism, it becomes a dog whistle that brings out all the terrible thoughts and messages that people are already bombarded by. And when you start to embrace prejudice like it’s righteous, that’s when it can start to manifest as verbal assault and physical violence and as hate crimes.”

After speaking up, Ma received some racist emails.

Ma said she’s always believed herself to be “very, very, very Canadian” having been born in, grown up in and educated in Canada, even spending a year with the Canadian Armed Forces in their regular officers training program.

“But I had never been more aware of my ethnic background until I announced that I was running for politics,” she said. “Everywhere I went during the election campaign, not a day went by when somebody didn’t remind me that I looked different, that I wasn’t white.”

Ma’s riding of North Vancouver-Lonsdale is majority white, with large Iranian Canadian and Squamish Nation communities. She didn’t find that anyone who brought up her background during the campaign was trying to be rude to her, they simply didn’t realize the implications of what they were saying.

As she says in the video, “bias, prejudice and ignorance... exist to some extent within all of us. And our responsibility in this battle is to realize that we are imperfect as human beings, and so we need to check ourselves.”

After Ma, the premier and other MLAs also condemned the rise of anti-Asian racism.

The transit-loving Ma also had to watch the virus hit TransLink, which in April was losing $2.5 million a day due to the plummet in riders. Local mayors worried that the lauded transit network would become “unrecognizable” post-pandemic without help from the province or the federal government.

No external aid has been announced yet, but Ma had this to say.

“B.C. has done so much by way of prioritizing public transit in the last three years, and TransLink has been leading the way in terms of ridership growth across the entire continent until COVID-19 hit,” she said. “We can’t let that hard work and progress slip away.”

The view from Ma’s seat on the car-dominated North Shore — which desperately needs more transit service despite a passionate anti-bus crowd neutering a new line last year — is an especially sensitive place to watch transit’s pandemic pain.

“A lot of our essential workers are people who might not be able to afford their own car,” said Ma. “So if essential workers are the lifeblood of our society, then transit services are really part of the vein system through which they travel. Ensuring a strong public transit backbone isn’t just about people who live in specific communities. It is also about the people who work in those communities and about the people who rely on the workers who come in from outside to work there. We know that there are lots of seniors in West Vancouver who rely on critical home services provided by workers who unfortunately cannot afford to live in West Vancouver. A strong public transit system is part and parcel to a socially just society.”

TransLink ridership is slowly on the mend in June, up 85 per cent since April, but only a third of what it was this time last year. Phase two of B.C.’s pandemic strategy has also rolled around, due to the gradual drop in new cases. For Ma, that means she’s finally able to watch some television.

“To be honest, I’ve been rewatching — gradually, very slowly — the Battlestar Galactica series. Yes. So that’s something I look forward to if I’m able, watching an episode at night before going to bed. We have a very strong sci-fi following within our caucus, and John Horgan is our leader.” The premier is a big Star Trek fan and has compared the show’s message of “an imperfect world striving to be perfect” to his government.

With so much time on screens, Ma is looking forward to chatting with constituents face to face again. You might see her soon on the streets of her riding with a social distancing circle drawn around her.

“No matter how many emails I send, no matter how many social media messages I post, no matter how many phone calls I make, it doesn’t make up for the ability to actually look somebody in the eye and let them know they’ve been heard.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, BC Politics

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