‘It’s okay to be underestimated and prove everybody wrong’

Community News & Features Aug 10, 2018 at 5:57 pm
Rowena Santos with her son Lennon

Rowena Santos with her son Lennon

Rowena Santos: Candidate for Councillor, Brampton Wards 1 and 5

By Irish Mae Silvestre

Rowena Santos has been waiting in the wings for quite some time.

Equipped with a business degree and a master’s in economics, she went on to work for world-renowned corporations, then gained experience in the non-profit sector. Feeling restless and on a mission to finally do something to “make a difference,” she ran for city councillor in Parkdale-High Park in 2006 and lost by 700 votes. Despite what she described as a “heartbreaking” loss, she realized she wasn’t quite done with politics.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” said Santos.

She was hired as an executive assistant to MPP Cheri DiNovo and worked for various leaders like Howard Hampton and Andrea Horwath. In the past provincial campaign, she worked as the director of organization for the provincial campaign. Having seen the inner workings of politics first-hand, Santos is once again ready to take center stage but this time as the City Councillor candidate for wards 1 and 5 for Brampton.

“I got to see how policy, debate, and your elected representative truly has an impact on people’s lives even though sometimes people don’t see it on a day to day basis,” she said.

On a Personal Note

To say running in Brampton is very personal for Santos is an understatement. Her mother [who’s from Rosales, Pangasinan] and her father [who’s from Manila] moved to Canada in the 1970s where they got married. After saving up enough to buy a house, her parents chose to move to Brampton. “When we moved in 1984, I was 6 years old and Bovaird Drive was still a dirt road and there were farms north of Bovaird,” she recalled. She remembers children making fun of her for being different and her parents, keenly sensitive to the racism at the time, spoke to their children in English.

Things started to change in high school as Brampton started evolving into the melting pot it would soon become. Now, according to a 2016 census, 73 per cent of the population of Brampton is made up of visible minorities. And with the minorities now the majority, Santos said it’s time for them to have a voice.

And she added that despite being one of the fastest growing communities in the country, Filipinos “lack a voice in any level of the government, especially in Ontario, [which has] the largest number of Filipinos in the country.”
“Even if there are issues happening back in the Philippines, those issues aren’t coming to the fore,” said Santos. “We can’t do anything as a people because we don’t have a voice at the table.”

RowenaSantos (1)

(Photos provided)

Growing Pains

She hasn’t always lived in Brampton.

“Something happens to you in your twenties in Brampton: [suddenly], you’re too cool for Brampton so you move to Toronto,” Santos recalled with amusement. “But then, Toronto becomes completely unaffordable and you miss your family. I have a child and I wanted to raise my child where I grew up.”

Santos said she’s a single mom to eight-year-old son, Lennon [named after John Lennon], and that her son’s father is “involved and very supportive.” She added that being a mother and having recently celebrated her 40th birthday further fuel her desire to make a difference.

“We’re at this tipping point in Brampton where important decisions need to be made with what direction we want to take with the city and how we want it to look for the next generation,” she said.
And there are a lot of issues Santos plans to address. She wants to bring back discussions about the cancelled 2015 plans to build a light rail transit line (LRT) from the Port Credit GO Station in Mississauga to downtown Brampton. She wants to combat high property taxes [which funds the majority of the city’s services]by bringing in more businesses. She also wants to put an end to postal code discrimination, which sees Brampton residents paying more in auto insurance compared to surrounding cities.

“Brampton used to be a small town but it’s going through a lot of growing pains to be a bigger city,” said Santos, adding that it’s time to move forward and drop the “small town” thinking.
On Politics

In response to Premier Doug Ford’s plans to reduce Toronto Council seats form 47 to 25, Santos said doing so will impact people’s daily lives with regards to issues like garbage collection, potholes, transit and property taxes.

“Councillors don’t have a party structure to support them and they’re literally representing residents with the very few staff they have,” she explained. “To have a significant reduction in such a growing municipality is going to harm the level of service that the councillors and the City will be able to provide.”
When asked about her thoughts on Doug Ford, Santos said, “He’s the premier and I have all respect for every single elected official. He needs to be accountable for things he promised such as health care and putting an end to hallway medicine.”

For Santos, being a politician is one thing. But being a female minority in politics is quite another. While going door-to-door alongside Paul Vicente (Regional Councillor candidate) Santos sometimes finds herself ignored by male voters as soon as they see Vicente. “They completely ignore my existence,” she said, laughing. “I don’t fit the stereotype of what people picture a politician should [look like].”

She added that it can be frustrating to be met with skepticism. At times, she finds herself rattling off her entire resume. “Once I say [all of] that, they’re like, ‘Okay, great! Looks like you’re qualified.’”

But those experiences don’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, according to Santos. “It just means you have to work harder,” she said. “It’s annoying and frustrating sometimes but it’s okay; sometimes it’s okay to be underestimated and prove everybody wrong. And kick ass.”