Alim Lila: Politics, Community Organizing, and Encouraging Indo-Caribbeans to be Civically Engaged
Written by Rebecca Dass
Sunday July 2, 2023
“I think a lot of it is pushing people to consider the importance of civics and politics, participating in the things that will shape your life, regardless of whether you want them to.”
Alim Lila, 29, currently works as a Community Engagement Advisor for Metrolinx. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from McMaster University and a Master of Arts in International Relations from York University. He is also a fourth-year Ph.D. student at McMaster University in International Relations, which is on pause at the moment as he focuses on his volunteer work and pursuing professional opportunities.
For Alim, his interest in politics wasn’t necessarily hereditary. Born to an Indo-Guyanese mother and an Indo-Tanzanian father, he explains that his parents didn’t have much of an interest in encouraging politics as he grew up. “A little bit about my parents, when I was very young, they didn’t really emphasize civic or political engagement,” he says. “We would talk about the news sparingly. They weren’t all that interested, and they didn’t want to be. They just didn't care. So I think for a lot of my upbringing, I felt like politics and the government weren’t things I was supposed to be interested in.”
“That all took a turn in the 12th grade when I was in high school. I took a course on politics, a combination of Canadian and International politics. I started to fall in love with the idea of studying political systems, looking at big global crises, and trying to understand the causes and circumstances. That led to me going to McMaster University and studying Political Science, doing quite well, and taking that on to the doctorate level. Where I am now, it’s a lot more practical and less theoretical, and that’s why I’ve joined some of these volunteer initiatives. It’s to really get people involved in politics and the process in a tangible way.”
One of the volunteer initiatives that he dedicates his time to is being the spokesperson for an organization in Toronto called Save Don Valley East (SaveDVE). “In 2022, there was a process to redraw the boundaries of the province of Ontario and nationwide. Basically, this is a constitutional process that happens every 10 years. During this particular round of consultation work, the Federal Electoral Boundaries Commission for Ontario decided that the riding that I live in, Don Valley East, was going to be eliminated and absorbed into neighboring ridings. So the significance of it, the City of Toronto has 25 ridings, and with this, we would be consolidated down to 24 with my riding being split up. This is the community that I live in, it’s the community where I actually got my first start in politics. I worked as an intern at the House of Commons for this riding, and I’ve worked in this riding previously as a Constituency Assistant for a Member of Parliament. So, when the process was playing out, I thought it was really misguided by the Commission, the people redrawing the maps to eliminate our riding. So I’ve been the spokesperson for the group that’s trying to oppose that effort, so it’s been a lot of community organizing, and trying to get the community out to voice their disapproval of this.”
Alim joined the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association (ICCA) in the fall of 2022, after being drawn to the Respect Diwali campaign. “I followed ICCA on Instagram for about a year, up to this point. I saw that there was this conflict about the date of Diwali and the municipal elections in the province of Ontario. I was just following the ICCA posts, and I said, ‘I’ve got some ideas, why don’t I shoot it to whoever's behind the account through DM?’ I came up with some ideas and I sent them, and within a couple of minutes, I got a response saying they really like my ideas. I sat down with Ryan [Singh] on a Zoom call later that evening. We chatted about some visions for ICCA, the vision for VOICE (Voter Organization for Indo-Caribbean Engagement), and I was locked in right then and there.”
“It’s a bit of solidarity,” he says. “My family is not a Hindu family, but the idea that there was this issue that was going to affect a big chunk of our community was enough to get me out, and I was really happy to be a part of that and participate in our community in that way. We’re an Indo-Caribbean Canadian group. I think the different variables and qualities that make us distinct, we could fixate on that or we could focus on our community as a whole. And that was my vision at that point, and that’s what I’ve seen play out in ICCA that I’ve seen in the almost one year that I’ve been a member.”
“In October of 2022, the big thing that we were trying to do was distribute flyers and information to people in the Indo-Caribbean community to inform them that a conflict existed between Diwali and the municipal election. A lot of people weren’t aware, and I thought that the work of public education and awareness was a really good thing. Elections and civic engagement are dependent on circumstances, we need an election to get out there. In the current lane with the mayoral by-election in Toronto, we’re trying to get the same rhythm going of getting people informed and letting them know that an election is happening on June 26th. We’ve been going out and canvassing Indo-Caribbean businesses throughout Toronto, so I’ve been doing a little bit of that already for this current campaign.”
Speaking on some accomplishments with ICCA so far, “I don’t know if this is my proudest accomplishment, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless. Shortly after Ryan and I met in late September, and I pitched him those messages on Instagram, we agreed to do a canvass. We were going to go out and canvass Indo-Caribbean businesses and mandirs to distribute these flyers. The night before that canvass, I actually fell and split my head. I had to go to the hospital for some stitches. The following morning, I managed to leave the hospital, get in my car, and get to the places. We went out and spent a whole day there. But if you look at some of those pictures, I have those stitches on my face that are clearly visible. I think like, a proud accomplishment is knowing we were able to persevere through some difficult circumstances and still get that work done.”
“I also feel, as a sense of accomplishment, that the community has been really receptive to what we’re trying to do. I think there is a broad understanding that Indo-Caribbeans are not as civically engaged as they could be. And so, the fact that we’re out there as a group trying to encourage and foster that spirit, I think it’s been well received, and that gives me a great sense of accomplishment and pride.”
When thinking of what kind of impact he wants to make, he thinks of his upbringing. “I’m trying to make sure that the next generation of Indo-Caribbean kids, youth, and parents, take civic engagement seriously. Our audience is bigger than just informing people about events. It’s to get them to actually think and participate in these big issues, whether it’s an election or just educating kids on institutions. I think a lot of it is pushing people to consider the importance of civics and politics, participating in the things that will shape your life, regardless of whether you want them to.”
When not engaging in the world of politics, Alim enjoys spending time outdoors in nature. “I’m a bit of an outdoorsman, I love fishing and hiking. We have a boat, so we like to take that out and just enjoy our time on the water. This is good from a recreational standpoint, but also from a mental health standpoint, because sometimes getting outdoors could be really good for you and that’s something I try to find the time for.” He also shares with us his favourite Indo-Caribbean food, “My favourite Indo-Caribbean food is a really nice hot goat curry with some really good fresh dhal puri. That’s my deal, I can live on that like 7 days a week,” he laughs.
Alim has been making remarkable strides in community organizing and raising public awareness. He has taken the initiative to bring positive change in his community and has been very successful so far. “I hope to be in ICCA, I don’t see myself going anywhere anytime soon,” he says, speaking on his hopes for his future. “This is going to be a big part of my professional vision moving forward. I just hope to stay in public service in one way or another. I hope that I could do work that’s going to be sort of, net positive, for the community that I live in and for the city that I love. I think a lot of it is just public service, and just knowing that whatever I do is for the public good.”
About the Author
Rebecca is a Toronto-based writer and digital marketer, currently working in book publishing. With a BA in Sociology and a minor in Caribbean Studies, she joined the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association to continue her interest in researching and writing content about Indo-Caribbean history and culture.