Councillor Lindell Smith: Not is proud of… Will be proud of…

As he begins the second half of his first term as a city councilor, Lindell Smith reflects on what’s been accomplished. And what’s still to do before he moves on. He is not, he says again/still, a career politician.

(Halifax Magazine)

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner February 25, 2019.

What are you most proud of, I asked District 8 Coun. Lindell Smith?

He didn’t answer right away. We are seated at a quiet table in Alteregos, the Gottingen Street café he jokingly refers to as his “satellite office.” In fact, Halifax councillors don’t have offices of their own, so this is as close to a public office space as it gets. When he arrived this morning — dressed in a snappy business suit for a council meeting later today, his trademark braids hidden under a Wu-tang tuque — he did the casual rounds. Staff, customers. A word here, a hug there. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him.

Lindell Smith has plenty to be proud of, beginning with the simple fact he is who he is: the first black person to win a seat on Halifax city council in 20 years, and one of the youngest in memory.

His roots are in the Prestons, among the Smiths, descendants of Maroons on his father’s side, and the Colleys, descendants of a slave named Sarah and her master, Governor John Wentworth, on his mother’s side.

Lindell grew up on Gottingen Street in the welcoming urban shadow of Uniacke Square but he spent large swaths of his childhood summers among family in Preston, watching his grandmother pick blueberries and make bread. “They were polar opposites,” he says of his early years. “It affects how I see the world.”

He did his elementary schooling in the north end, then attended St. Patrick’s High School for Grades 10 and 11 before becoming — when St. Pat’s closed — a member of the first graduating class at the new Citadel High.

Halifax city’s centrally located high schools have always drawn their students from all over the peninsula. Rich kids from south-end enclaves. Poor kids from north-end public housing projects. Most stick with their own. Not Lindell. “Can I join you for lunch?” he would say to a group he didn’t know, flashing his light-up-the-room smile. “St. Pat’s opened my eyes,” he tells me. “I met people from different classes. You don’t see that many families with two parents and good jobs where I come from. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”

It was clear from early on that Lindell was a smart, ambitious young man who was going to make his way in the world. What wasn’t clear, even to him, was that elective politics would be part of that future.

“I had a stereotype of politicians,” he tells me this morning. “Politicians were people who didn’t care, who took credit for things they didn’t do, who lined their own pockets.”

But then Jennifer Watts, his own district’s well-regarded councillor, decided not to re-offer in 2016, in part to encourage more diversity on council. She and Lindell knew each other from working together on “small things,” he says. She asked him to spread the word among people he knew who might consider running. He did, but everyone he spoke to said, “Not me… You do it.”

He thought about that. He’d been doing public speaking since he was 12; he cared about city issues; he had a young daughter. Why shouldn’t he be the one to change the stigma about people who seek office? Why not?

He decided to run, but before he committed, he made himself three promises. First, he would make no promises to voters. “I had no idea how politics worked. I didn’t want to be the guy making promises he wouldn’t keep.”

Second, he would be true to himself. In part, that meant dressing and acting like the 26-year-old black man he was, and embracing his blackness. On the second day of the campaign, doing his door-to-door door-knocking in the far north end, he was greeted by one man who was “a little drunk.” “What are you doing here?” he demanded. Smith tried to explain. The man wasn’t buying. “Wait here,” he said, returning a few minutes later with his teenaged son in tow. “See,” he told the boy, “this is what I don’t want you to be.” To Smith: “I don’t want him to be a Snoop Dog like you.” Smith laughs. Before he left, Smith was offering the man’s son recording advice.

“I ended up connecting with the son.”

“Not the father?”

“Not the father.”

Smith’s third promise to himself was to “bring people with me.” His would be a people’s campaign.

Promise kept. In a field of seven candidates in a riding that wasn’t even majority black, Smith won 52 per cent of the vote.

Given Halifax’s long and unhappy history with racism, it’s little wonder Smith’s victory reverberated across Canada, and beyond. There were stories in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s (“Why Lindell Smith’s Election in Halifax was so Remarkable”), The Current on national CBC. “The day after the elections,” Smith remembers, “I had 500 Facebook friend requests. There were messages from all over, from the US, Australia, Kenya.”

Although that is now more than two years ago, Smith is still a national figure. Late last year, in fact, the Globe featured a picture of a smiling Smith taking a selfie with a backdrop of several hundred high school students who were attending a leadership conference. Smith was their keynote speaker. And the Globe story itself was part of a series called Standing Up, “introducing Canadians to their new sources of inspiration and leadership.”

Smith takes it in stride. He’s even getting used to being addressed as Councillor. “What I want to be seen as,” he explains, “is a regular guy with a leadership role, the guy people see at the park with my daughter, the guy on the bus.”

But becoming a councillor has been a learning process too, he admits. Councillors are expected to be experts on solid waste one day, snow removal the next and environmental issues the next. There’s a lot to read. Also, the layers of bureaucracy “smacked me in the face. You have to learn what you can do, what you can’t, figure out what residents will support, what’s in your jurisdiction and what’s not. You go to the province with some issue, it comes back to the city, you have to get policy written and then back again…No wonder everything takes years.”

Lindell Smith hasn’t got years. From the beginning, he’s insisted he’ll be no more than a two-term councillor. He doesn’t want to be a career politician. “The city is changing. It deserves a dynamic council.”

But before there can be a term two, there must be a term one.

So what is he most proud of so far?

He rolls the question around in his head.

There are specific “prouds.” “I’m proud of the stance I took on the Willow Tree,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I voted against.” He was one of only three councillors to vote against allowing the Armoyan group to build a 25-storey tower at the corner of Quinpool and Robie despite the developer’s promise to include more affordable units as “a density-bonus” trade-off.

Density bonusing, Smith says, shouldn’t be the “only tool” council has to encourage affordable housing, “but it’s the only one the province has approved.”

There are broader prouds too. “What I’m most proud of,” he says, “is that I’ve been able to change the stigma around what a politician is, especially among young people in the community.”

One community worker told the Globe Smith’s mere presence on council had “sparked” and inspired young people. “Getting Lindell into the seat said a lot to our youth who may not have believed this was something they could do,” explained Rodney Small. “We will see youth put their name forward to join these conversations.”

There’s more to changing the dynamic than just being an exemplar of course. Although The Coast’s notoriously hard-to-please annual councillor rankers “know the young councillor is capable of fire,” they downgraded his 2018 score from a B to a B-. “No one has a bad word to say about Smith,” they noted. “We’d just love to see him show some teeth for something more than a smile.”

Lindell Smith smiles, shows some teeth.

His, he knows, is still a work in progress. As the city’s only black councillor, Smith has been quietly but firmly pressing the city to face its own history of racism in hiring, promoting and treating its employees. After a recent internal report and a human rights board decision slammed the city for its treatment of black transit workers, the city apologized publicly and took steps to become more accountable, including setting up a confidential hotline for employees to report abuse and requiring quarterly reports on racism, sexism, and harassment in the city’s workforce.

Smith is also now a member of the city’s police commission, which is expected to receive a long-overdue report on police street checks and racial profiling next month. For Smith, it will be another test. He knows the use of street checks is controversial in his community, knows too that police claim such tactics are necessary. On the one hand, he’s been “engaging” with senior police officials since he was a teenager and he knows the key players well — and mostly positively. On the other hand, as a young black man with braids, he has been stopped by police for no reason.

So what is he most proud of?

He thinks. “Not is” proud of, he says finally. “Will be.”

Since early in his term, Smith has been pressing for the city to use a “social policy lens” when it makes decisions, to look at every action in the context of social policy. Should the city endorse a living wage? Should the city insist those it contracts to do work for the city also pay a living wage? Should it create legislation to force developers to include affordable housing in their projects, not as a density bonus but as a standard requirement?

A staff report Smith championed is currently being written to consider what incorporating a social policy lens might mean for the city. Smith hopes it will mean that, in his second term, the city will have an actual social policy department again (the city abandoned its welfare and social planning departments when the province took over responsibility for paying social assistance) with staff and policies in place.

That will be what he will be most proud of, he says.

And then he will move on. And leave the job — and the opportunity — for someone else. “I’m not a career politician,” he insists. Although his post-council future isn’t clear — “maybe the private sector, maybe non-profit” — he is beginning to think about it. He recently bought a condo in the far north end near the community college. “I’m turning 30 this year. So we’ll see what the future brings.”

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