EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a new Village Media website devoted exclusively to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.
Ontario's newest MPP has arrived.
Sarah Jama, who won convincingly in Hamilton Centre's March 16 byelection replacing former Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath, was sworn into her position on Monday.
NDP Leader Marit Stiles, some of its other MPPs, Matthew Green, the federal NDP MPP for Hamilton Centre, plus some of Jama's family and supporters attended her swearing in, which took place about two hours before she was officially welcomed into the chamber.
The introduction of Jama, who uses a wheelchair, was described afterwards by Stiles as a "historic moment."
"To see her come in in her mobility device, not only the first Somali woman elected in Canada to any level — as I understand it — of government, but also to come in here as a woman with a disability, it's a pretty significant moment," Stiles added.
The NDP hasn't announced yet which critic portfolio Jama will take over. She also hasn't been assigned to any committee positions yet. The new MPP told The Trillium on Monday that she expects these to be decided within the next few weeks.
In the meantime, Jama said she'll be spending lots of her time learning the ropes as an MPP including "figuring out what the dynamics are in caucus, and in the house in general, to be the most useful and effective person in the seat in this space." She's also got to complete the move of her constituency office in Hamilton Centre to a more accessible location, she added.
Jama was a longtime activist before running for the Ontario NDP. On top of her advocacy, some of which was for people with disabilities, she's also worked in several roles involving inclusion programming.
Her campaign website highlighted her desire to "increase access to supportive programs." She also promised to "fight for better public healthcare," "work with local tenants' organizations' to push for real rent control, ending renovictions, and building homes people can afford," and to "protect the Greenbelt," along with other local promises, in a press release during her election campaign.
"What I heard the most while we were campaigning... was that people in Hamilton Centre really care about health care, housing and about protecting the climate, and protecting the Greenbelt," Jama said on Monday. "So those three issues are what I'm hearing from our constituents... and I just want to focus on making sure that those issues are represented at Queen's Park to the best of my ability."
Issues affecting people with disabilities will be another focus of hers, she said.
"I think I'm one of the handful of disabled people to ever hold a seat as a member of provincial parliament, and yeah, that's something that I'll hold dear in terms of when we're talking about protecting our healthcare system — the impacts on disabled people — that's something I'll continue to speak about," Jama said.
While she was greeted in the chamber by a standing ovation from all parties' MPPs, Jama received a frostier welcome from the Progressive Conservative Party.
The party, which officially operates separate from the governing caucus, publicized its new website spotlighting what it portrays as the troubling histories of Ontario's elected New Democrats — and putting Jama front and centre. The single page site is topped with a message that says "Welcome Sarah Jama to the real NDP," and continues with a collage of photos and articles highlighting hers and other MPPs' alleged antisemitic past comments, among other points.
In the lead up to the byelection Jama won with 54 per cent of votes, various comments she made — including accusations she made at a May 2021 rally in Toronto that Hamilton police protected "Nazism" and targeted "Black Muslim Palestinians saying we don’t have the right to push to exist" — clouded over the campaign. The morning of the vote, she published an apology, saying, "I apologize for my comments which have been harmful. This was never my intention, but I recognize the impact."
"If elected, I will be an MPP for everyone, and I will work to bring communities together to fight back against hate," Jama added.
On Monday, Jama said the PC Party's website won't distract her. "If they want to continue to beat this horse, people know what my stance is."
"People know that I care about justice. People know that I care about human rights, and I'm here to actually affect policy in a meaningful way," Jama said. "They're wasting time by building this sort of website."
Stiles also weighed in on the PCs' website on Monday, saying, "I wish this government put as much effort into issues like health care and education and, you know, making sure that seniors get the eye care they need, as they do with silly websites like this." The day before the March 16 byelection, and Jama's apology, Stiles met with the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, a non-profit that focuses on Holocaust education, which had called for an apology from Jama.
The NDP's new MPP voted for the first time on Monday, supporting an opposition day motion from Stiles calling on the government to cover all pandemic-related expenses that school boards accrued. Using their majority, PC MPPs rejected the motion.