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Rights + Justice

‘Not on Your Life’: Toni Boot Refuses to Back Down

Summerland’s first Black woman mayor on her latest political challenge, developing a thick skin, and why she never gives up without a fight.

Dannielle Piper 14 Oct

Dannielle A. Piper is a freelance journalist and a graduate of the UBC School of Journalism. Born and raised in Jamaica and now living in Vancouver, Dannielle covers identity politics, social justice and pop culture criticism.

Before this summer, people in Summerland already knew Toni Boot as a business owner, town councillor and its first Black mayor. But in July, Boot found herself in the national spotlight when she took on a local store that was selling bandanas printed with the Confederate flag.

Boot headed to the store, convinced the owner to hand over the bandanas, and then cut them up outside.

Now she’s moving onto the provincial stage as the NDP candidate for the riding of Penticton.

Like any politician, Boot is no stranger to criticism and has developed a thick skin. But the colour of her skin makes her experience different. So does the fact that she’s a woman — only 28 per cent of B.C. mayors are women.

Boot knows the cost — and importance — of making sure minorities carve out a place in politics.

This summer wasn’t the first time that Boot had to deal with issues of race. Six years ago, she had just come home when her husband asked to speak with her urgently. “I think you should sit down,” he said.

She was worried, but she did as he asked.

The police had stopped by while Boot was out, he said. Her business sign had been defaced, and they wanted her to come down to the station so they could file a report treating the incident as a hate crime.

Her business was seasonal then, and it closed. A double-sided sign at the entrance thanked customers for their support and encouraged people to vote Toni Boot for council.

Both had been defaced with slurs. “One side was speaking about me as a woman, and the other side was speaking about my skin colour. It was quite old language.”

Both slurs began with a “C,” the one describing her race reminiscent of the language used in the U.S. south and suggesting an older perpetrator. But with no witnesses, an arrest was unlikely.

Once news broke, some people accused Boot of defacing the sign herself, she says. Others were outraged, dismayed and shocked.

Boot was not. As a Black woman who has had to deal with racism all her life, this was not a new experience for her.

She never thought of quitting the council race.

“Not on your life,” she said. “This, this is exactly what these people want.”

‘I’ve never said that it’s a racist town’

This summer, as protests against racism took place around the world, another racist incident shook the small Okanagan town north of Penticton.

Vandals painted graffiti on an Indo-Canadian family’s home in July — swastikas and crude images — and broke a window. Boot felt the victims’ pain.

“This family had been in the community for over 30 years,” said Boot. “They’re well respected in the community. They’re orchardists.” Orchardists are mainstays of Summerland’s community and economy.

A resident organized a drive-by parade in solidarity with the family only a few days afterwards and hundreds of people participated, including Boot. But when she returned home, she received a harrowing phone call. Someone had seen a man waving a Confederate bandana in the parade.

The Confederate flag, given its history and relationship with slavery, white supremacy and violence, has become a symbol of hate and oppression. Boot immediately gave her caller the number for the RCMP.

The next night, Boot and an RCMP officer met the man. He wanted to apologize. Boot also learned that he had bought the bandana at a local dollar store. She went there the next day and proceeded to destroy all of the bandanas after the owner gave them to her.

Boot says she received more than 100 emails praising her bravery and for standing up against racism. However, she also received several emails that she describes as “not very supportive.” Five of those emails had to be forwarded to the RCMP.

Some people accused her of “painting Summerland as a racist town.” Some accused her of being racist herself.

“I've never said that [Summerland] is a racist town,” Boot maintains. “But having grown up in Summerland, these physical, personal and verbal attacks are nothing new to me.”

Boot, who was raised in a multiracial adoptive family of 10 children, was the first Black child while her siblings were of white, Black and Indigenous descent. Growing up, they learned the importance of sticking up for themselves and others.

She was also the first Black child and only child of colour at the time in her school and had a very rough time fitting in with her peers. During this time, Boot’s eldest sister became her only friend in school — and her protector. Boot’s younger sister, who is Inuit, also experienced similar torment.

“I learned a lot just really observing the additional barriers that I saw my younger sister experiencing,” Boot said. “There are a lot of inequities.”

Silence is deadly, Boot says, and she won’t remain silent on issues that affect minorities.

‘I am diverse. But I have a lot more.’

Boot, who lost the nomination for the NDP by a handful of votes in 2017, won the nomination by acclamation in 2020. But not without some controversy.

Her fellow councillor for the District of Summerland, Doug Holmes, had also submitted his papers for the nomination but was rejected by the party. Holmes claimed he had been told that NDP provincial executive officials wanted Boot as the candidate “to promote diversity in the party.”

The Tyee reached out to Holmes about his comments on Boot’s nomination. He declined to comment. The Tyee also reached out to the NDP party for comment.

“Doug’s application for candidacy was vetted and not approved by the provincial executive. For privacy reasons, I am not in a position to discuss the contents of any individual’s application,” said BC NDP president Craig Keating in an email statement.

Boot felt that the comment from her Summerland colleague was unkind, hurtful and dismissive. “I am diverse,” Boot said. “But I have a lot more. I’ve done a lot of work not only for my community [but] as the mayor and as a councillor.”

Boot says she would have won the nomination if Holmes had been allowed to enter. Her candidacy isn’t about her skin colour, she says, noting she has also owned two businesses, lectured at the local college on agricultural sustainability and sat on multiple advisory and advocacy boards.

“The numbers showed that I would have been in this position anyway,” Boot insisted. “Frankly, my focus now is to do the best that I can so that I can win this seat for the BC NDP.”

Focusing on party policy differences

Boot will face off against Liberal MLA Dan Ashton, who was first elected in 2013 and took 54 per cent of the vote in the last election.

If elected, she wants to focus on affordability and accessibility.

Her eldest brother, now a senior living in Prince George, suffers from a disability and health conditions that have damaged his mental health and previously affected his ability to work. Housing affordability and accessibility have been big concerns for him through the years.

Her sister, a nurse, retired after health issues forced her to have two back surgeries. It soon became apparent that she wouldn’t be able to afford to keep her home. She now rents from a friend.

In both situations, it has been difficult for each sibling to access the services and support they needed.

“Although it hasn’t impacted me as an individual,” Boot said, “in that way, it has impacted me as the sibling of people that I love and care for.”

Boot says she no longer wants to see people fall through the cracks. She wants to advocate more strongly for affordable housing, an appropriate number of child-care spaces, and adequate training and pay for early childhood educators.

“We have seen for the last 16 years, all kinds of things that have been great... if you are in the upper-income brackets,” Boot said. “And not so great... if you are not. And most of us, including myself, and most of the people in this region, are not.”

With regard to B.C.’s post-pandemic economic recovery plan, she says she supports green, alternative energy and backs Premier John Horgan’s promise to bring in legislation that requires net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

On the controversial Site C megaproject, seen as a party contradiction by many NDP supporters, Boot didn’t take a clear position. “I fully support the renewable energy and sustainability of electricity in our province, especially as we’re moving to a carbon-neutral province by 2050. But at the same time, I also understand the value of the agricultural lands that are there, as well as the rights of Indigenous People.”

What separates her from her opponent?

“The biggest difference between me and Mr. Ashton... is the difference in party policies and what we believe in this government. The NDP is very much involved in making sure that all of British Columbians can enjoy and access the services that they need.”

Back down? ‘Ain’t gonna happen.’

Racism in politics and in B.C. writ large came to the fore once again during Tuesday night’s election debate. Asked on the debate stage how he personally reckons with his privilege as a white political leader, NDP Leader Horgan reflected on his experience as a youngster: “I did not see colour. I thought everyone around me was the same.”

Immediately after the debate, Horgan tweeted that he misunderstood the question and noted that “It was inappropriate to say I don’t see colour.” He further clarified that he’ll “never fully understand, as a white person, the lived reality of systemic racism. I’m listening, learning, and I’ll keep working every day to do better.”

Boot was unavailable for an interview Wednesday morning, but said in an emailed statement: “John immediately demonstrated the true leader that he is. He acknowledged and apologized for his misstep, provided context and committed to continue learning. No excuses or backpedalling. Yet another reason why I am so honoured to be a candidate for the BC NDP.”

As a Black woman in politics, Boot continues to promote diversity through participation with non-profit groups nationwide. Over the last few months, she has been invited to speak at several panel discussions. She was recently invited on to a monthly advisory committee for the Support Network for Indigenous Women and Women of Colour.

And this month she participated in the Women Diversifying Cities webinar series where she spoke about the challenges and opportunities for women of colour getting into local politics. Boot will also be participating in an all-women event organized by Operation Black Vote — a non-partisan, non-profit that “encourages more Black people to run for office.”

Boot says it’s a pleasant change to be afforded opportunities like these. And although she admits that it is challenging at times being a Black woman in politics, these confrontations with racism seem to make her even more determined to win.

“If you’re hoping that your comments and backlash and the vitriol that’s out there...” Boot says trailing off. “If you’re thinking that that will cause me to pull back and be quiet... ain’t gonna happen.”  [Tyee]

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