Newmarket-Aurora Liberal nominee candidate Shameela Shakeel knew that getting involved in politics meant she would face some pressure, but she did not expect it to come as soon as it did.
The candidate for nomination in the upcoming provincial election is facing criticism for previous comments she made on social media supporting Palestinians in the Israel-Palestine conflict, prompting some calls for the party to drop her as a potential candidate.
The Newmarket resident is also questioning the nomination process after she said she was led to believe she was the only prospective candidate — and would have stepped aside had she known sooner of another candidate — but now faces an opponent.
Amidst an uncertain screening process, Shakeel said the pressure she is facing has made her reflect on her place in the run for candidacy.
“I know that this happens. That smear campaigns happen. I know that intimidation happens. This is why people who look like me and think like me don’t run for politics,” she said. “I’m here because I think our community deserves and needs a change from the status quo.”
The education advocate has faced criticism for statements she made last year during the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Shakeel expressed support for controversial TDSB teacher Javier Dávila, who shared resources highlighting Palestinian voices but faced criticism for some links containing instances of antisemitic tropes.
Shakeel also directly called out Education Minister Stephen Lecce when he spoke out in support of Israel and against the terrorist group Hamas, at a time when Israel was facing criticism for attacks harming civilians.
“Hamas was established in 1987 (and was funded by Israel at that time, actually). Palestinians have been displaced, dispossessed, killed, and illegally occupied by the State of Israel since 1948. Do the math and critical analysis, or do you need a competence test first?" she Tweeted at the time.
Michael Teper, on the board of directors for the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation, messaged the party and questioned whether Shakeel should stand as a candidate.
“I thought that comment was inappropriate, especially for a member of the Liberal Party, because I think it’s inconsistent with the position of the Federal Liberal Party. But I leave them to decide whether that’s the kind of candidate they want to have,” he told NewmarketToday.
But communications and media lead for Independent Jewish Voices of Canada Aaron Lakoff said he does not see any issue with Shakeel’s comments. The grassroots organization that has spoken out about Palestinian rights also supported Javier Davila amidst that controversy.
“What we do tend to see, and what it seems like is happening with this candidate …. When candidates or members of Parliament do speak out, let’s say against Israel apartheid or against Israel injustices, we do unfortunately see attacks against them and often time these attacks come with false accusations of antisemitism,” Lakoff said.
Shakeel said she regrets the Twitter post now because of the misconception it has created, but she added that it was an emotional response to one-sided statements condemning Hamas, but not also condemning actions by Israel against Palestinian civilians.
She has a personal connection in the dispute, as her mother-in-law was a member of a prominent Palestinian family forced to flee the country, and her children are part Palestinian.
Ultimately, she said Palestinian solidarity should not be conflated with antisemitism and that her Tweets come from the perspective of an equity seeker. She has said she has worked to address all kinds of racism in York Region schools.
“A lot of students who are Palestinian or Middle-Eastern or Muslim are afraid to even admit where they come from. My kids often say that,” Shakeel said. “You can’t keep silencing one side.”
Antisemitism should also be addressed, Shakeel said, and she has always encouraged those on either side of the conflict to speak about their experiences.
“As a mother, my thought was always, I don’t want any more Israel or Palestinian mothers suffering the loss of their children,” she said.
Another point of attack that has emerged came from Central Ontario Psychology, which sent her an email with concerns she had misrepresented herself as a psychologist based on a NewmarketToday article published in December 2020. The NewmarketToday article, written by a reporter who is no longer an employee, has been corrected to reflect that Shakeel identified herself as a psychometrist.
Shakeel said part of a smear effort required the psychologist she worked with to get involved. She said she did not see the article when it was published, and would have requested a correction otherwise at the time.
The nomination process has also been a point of frustration, as Shakeel said the party had encouraged her to run last May based on her advocacy efforts as co-chair of a York Region public education advocacy group. She took time to carefully consider her candidacy before submitting her papers last September, and recalls repeatedly asking if any other candidates were running. She said she would have been happy to support another candidate who lives in the riding but was assured no one had submitted papers.
She said she became aware Dr. Sylvain Roy had emerged as a candidate a couple of months after she had submitted to run. She was asked to switch to run in the York-Simcoe riding, and Roy was as well, but both declined.
“To be the one to step aside for —I’m just going to say — to step aside for the white man (from) Toronto. There are so many layers to this,” she said. “I expected a certain amount of racism. Now, to see it in action is really hurtful.”
Newmarket-Aurora Liberal riding association president Cathy Gapp said there is an ongoing vetting process now that nominees have been confirmed and that she could not comment on candidates as a result.
“We as members locally have to put our faith in the nomination process the party has designed,” Gapp said. “No process is perfect, no matter what party you’re part of, but I have to believe whatever process is being used, the central party is doing their best job to make sure the candidates fit.”
Gapp pushed back on the characterization of racism in the process.
“Our leader (Steven Del Duca) has gone to extraordinary measures to attract people of colour as candidates. So I’m not sure that that is a fair assessment of the situation,” she said. “I think that’s what the vetting process is for. The party has a responsibility to make sure candidates are up to the kind of grilling that they’re going to get on the campaign trail. And I think no matter what position you are in, I think that the vetting process is going to be a tough one.”
Roy, who lives in Toronto, publicly announced his candidacy Jan. 1 after submitting his papers in December. He said he was presented with other ridings in which to run, but he felt strongly about running in Newmarket-Aurora after working there for several years connecting homeless and disabled people to services.
He said he was not aware of Shakeel or any other prospective candidates when he submitted his nomination papers. He said former Liberal MP Chris Ballard, who encouraged him to run and is his campaign manager, also was not aware.
He said he never intended to be seen as pushing Shakeel aside. He said it is hard to speculate on what is happening within the party but believes it is working to garner more diverse candidates.
“It seems she’s unhappy the victory was not handed to her,” he said. “To me, it’s about the race. It’s about helping the party.”
The past president of the Ontario Psychological Association said he became aware of the article incorrectly identifying Shakeel as a psychologist when doing research but did not act on it.
Gapp said prospective nominees are not openly broadcast until later in the nomination process for confidentiality reasons.
She also said it is not atypical to have nomination races get tough.
“They’re harder than an actual election because you’re on your own,” Gapp said. “If you think that people feel passionate about their partisan politics, people feel that much more passionate about the candidate to support … This is what it is. It’s hard to put into words.”
Shakeel said she is not sure if the party will greenlight her and that her posts regarding Palestine have come up through the vetting that took place this week.
She remains hopeful she can make a difference and help improve the party to make it more welcoming for all.
“That’s why somebody like me needs to come in and say, 'this is not OK,'” Shakeel said. “Our community deserves a change. We need to change the way things are being done.”