A solemn evening in early June this past summer turned out to be a turning point for Ali Duale. Having come to Nova Scotia as a refugee in the late 1990s with his wife and three children, Duale has always been looking for ways to give back to the community he believes has given him and his family so much.
“I came to Nova Scotia as a refugee from Kenya,” Duale says. “When I arrived here, I had the intention to move to another part of the country. After six months, my wife and I had discussed our future, and she proposed we stick to Nova Scotia, for mainly two reasons.
“One, to benefit from the richness of colleges and universities around this province, and this city. Secondly, we felt this was a good place to raise family. By the grace of God, we were able to benefit from both of those aspects.”
It was in 2014, after many years working for a local cleaning company and a few years more as his own boss offering cleaning services to the HRM school board, that he found his first real opportunity to reciprocate to the province, in his estimation, in kind.
“I came across the Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency,” Duale says. “They were trying to diversify their force and were looking for African Canadian candidates. I became one of those individuals who were lucky enough to fulfill all their requirements, and the rest is history.”
History, indeed. Duale spent seven years as a firefighter, soon becoming the department’s diversity and community liaison officer. He had also been busy in those intervening years adding to his growing family, fathering five more children since landing in the province. That leaves him with eight kids today, ranging in age from 28 to 10.
While Duale had found opportunity to give back to Halifax for what it gave him, he has also found a lot more to be thankful for.
“By my nature, I am somebody who is very active in issues pertaining to community, as well as serving the community,” Duale says. “I do identify myself from different perspectives. I’m of the African diaspora, I’m African Nova Scotian, I’m a Muslim, I’m an immigrant, I’m a refugee, and I’m a citizen of Islam. Whatever the community, I’ve been active, always. I felt there would be no better way to serve the community. This land has offered me a lot.”
That brings us back to that early June evening, earlier this year. A terrible crime of hate, perpetrated on a Muslim family out west, weighed heavy on Duale.
“A couple months ago, there was an incident that took place in London, Ontario. A family of three generations was wiped out; it saddens me today, there was a young child that was left with no family.” Duale pauses, noting that, at the time of our interview, schools were opening up across the province. “And I did have a concern this morning, how that child will feel, since today was the first day of school.
“That issue forced me to respond. That hatred, and death.”
On the ninth of June, Duale held a vigil for that family, and invited the political leaders of Nova Scotia to attend. There, he ran into Ian Rankin, the premier at the time, as well as an old friend of Duale’s.
“We’ve known each other for about 10 years now,” Rankin says. “He was in my community, and was involved in the community. We got to know each other, went out for coffee. He actually nominated me in my first bid to become MLA.”
This was the turning point hinted at earlier. It was this evening that, encouraged by Rankin, Duale chose to enter the political ring himself.
“When we talked about what happened in London, Ontario, and the need to make substantive changes, I asked him if he would consider running,” Rankin says. “So that he could not only provide some advice on changes to be made, but also to be involved directly.”
“Everybody advised for me to take a leadership role,” Duale says, hinting the premier wasn’t the only one urging him to run. “I’m not getting younger; this is the time that I felt I can give back to this community. It’s a great responsibility, and I’m mindful of that, as much as I’m excited.”
While Rankin’s Liberal Party did not come out of the election forming the new government, it did succeed in getting Duale elected as the MLA for Halifax Armdale, among a record number of other African Nova Scotian candidates. Of even more note, Duale is the first person of a Muslim faith to be sworn into Nova Scotia provincial office.
“I knew there was never an MLA from a Muslim faith before, and I thought that would add value to debate in the legislature,” says Rankin, who tried to infuse the provincial government with as much diversity as he could when selecting candidates, he explains. “I told him I was proud of him. And that now, the work begins.”
Duale admits he has a few high priorities to work on right out the gate. Chief among them is updating the educational infrastructure in his riding.
“The staff, the students, and the parents have been concerned over the years; that would be my number one priority for my constituents,” says Duale, adding that combating the kind of hate seen in London here in Nova Scotia is another immediate goal. “I look forward to creating legislation that pertains to hate and hate crime. Some of those issues have to be raised; some of them are already at the table.”
After that? He’s eager to hear what his new constituents need from him; then he’ll start filling out his to-do list.
“Those are the people who elected me, and those are the people for whom I plan to advocate,” Duale says. “I’m still learning; I’m taking my time. It’s quite different. But also, I look forward to the challenge.”
Setting an Example
Being the first Muslim MLA in the province’s history is not lost on Duale, by the way. Nor that he’s an MLA who has risen above a lot of hardship to get where he is now.
But he also doesn’t think that makes him any more special than the thousands of newcomers who face the same struggles he’s faced over the years. Nor does he feel the potential to rise above those challenges is anything new to the region.
“This land, and this province, was built by immigrants,” Duale says adamantly. “I could be one of the last arrivals, but nothing has changed in that respect. I truly believe that we, as immigrants, should not accept for a fact that we don’t make a contribution. Historically, that’s what immigrants have done. That’s what they are doing, right now.”
“The only survival — the only way forward — is based on immigration. On immigrants.”
Rankin agrees. It’s one of the reasons he wanted to increase the diversity of the provincial legislature, to show the many different communities of the province that they’ve got as much right to a seat at the proverbial table as anyone else does.
Rankin explains that having someone like Duale in Province House, someone who knows what it’s like to immigrate as a refugee, someone who is from a Somali background, someone of a Muslim faith, leads to better representation for those communities. They now have someone in government who knows their plights and speaks their language. Communities that don’t see themselves reflected in government can easily be under served, just from cultural and language barriers alone.
“That’s why it’s so important to have representation in the legislature, from different backgrounds,” Rankin says. “For someone to be able to see themselves reflected in leadership positions, it gives them hope. This will be a way that people will see they have an opportunity to do the same.”
“That’s a positive thing for our democracy.”
“We need people who can become examples,” Duale adds. “Who can inspire other people. But I really believe this idea is not unique to us, especially those of us who arrived late — this idea of giving back and making an impact. That’s been since the beginning of this land. I just see myself as someone who’s part of that continuum.”
And even though he doesn’t expect any of them to follow in his footsteps, per se, Duale does hope that, in taking on this next challenge, he manages to set a good example for his children, too.
“My children all have their own destinations,” Duale says. “Nevertheless, they are members of the community. It is my hope and my dream to be a good example for my children, and my community.”