Career Profile: Omar Alghabra, Member of Parliament
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Omar Alghabra, a Liberal Member of Parliament who represents Mississauga Centre, and a Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Alghabra received a Bachelor of Engineering from Ryerson University and a Master of Business Administration from York University. As an activist for the community, Alghabra has served as a member of the community editorial board for the Toronto Star, and held leadership positions with General Electric Canada, Enbala Power and the Ontario Energy Board. Alghabra is a tireless advocate for the social and economic integration of Canadians.
PK: Tell us about your journey to becoming a Member of Parliament (MP).
OA: While I have always been interested in Canadian politics and activism, I studied engineering and business. During my studies, I started to take increasingly active roles in a number of issues that I cared about. I felt it would be irresponsible of me to expect other people to carry the torch that I wanted to carry.
Throughout my various efforts, I realized that politics is a useful vehicle that can raise awareness about issues and promote policies, ideas, and ultimately, change. I initially helped on campaigns and testified in front of Parliament on issues including equality, national security and racial profiling. From there, I became more involved.
One day a Member of Parliament retired and the opportunity presented itself. I thought about it long and hard and decided to give it a shot. I was lucky enough to get elected for the first time in 2006. Over the years, I learned that yes, politics can be frustrating, slow, and complicated; you cannot expect to fix all the problems overnight or to always win. But remaining on the sideline is not an option for me. You have to be patient, compromise, and listen to others.
I am passionate about politics— I enjoy every moment. I am grateful that I am in a position to make a positive difference for Canadians.
What made you switch from mechanical engineering to politics?
For me, engineering was a career choice that I enjoyed. But politics ended up being my passion. However, I do not think that I have completely abandoned engineering because I bring the rigour of engineering to politics. The scientific skills and mindset that I developed during my academics and engineering practice in the private sector, has enriched my perspective in politics. This combination is good for me and has only made me a better politician.
You were appointed parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs specializing in consular affairs; what does this portfolio entail?
My main focus is helping Canadians who need assistance abroad. There are occasions when a Canadian citizen requires assistance while they are outside the country or overseas. We always try to offer assistance in different capacities. My portfolio, in this capacity, ensures that the needs of Canadians are looked after.
What is your typical day like?
Every day is different. What is consistent every day is that I start work early and finish late! My schedule is split between the Ottawa and the Mississauga schedule.
The Ottawa schedule focuses mainly on foreign affairs and parliamentary work. I begin at 8 AM and finish around 8-9 PM. I deal with foreign affairs cases, conduct parliamentary business, or meet with different stakeholders and organizations that have raised issues with the Canadian government.
My work in Mississauga involves interacting with my constituents who are in need of assistance. I also spend time with local organizations and learn about the great work they do within the community.
How do you balance your responsibilities as a Parliamentary Secretary with your responsibility as an MP?
First and foremost, without my staff and my team, I would not be able to do any of the work I am doing. Holding both positions requires that I have a reliable and trustworthy team who can help me manage both portfolios. Our focus will always be equally divided and we cannot stop until we have completed the tasks at hand. I am lucky to have a strong team to help me fulfill both of my duties.
What were the issues you addressed during your time as an MP from 2006-2008 and what are the issues you hope to shed light on?
During my first term in Parliament, I worked on a variety of issues. I focused on youth empowerment and advocated for political involvement. Later, I was a critic for Citizenship and Immigration and advocated for immigration and citizenship policy reforms. I was also the Natural Resources critic, during which time I encouraged discussion on our energy policies.
This time around, I am still interested in advocating for these issues. However, my primary focus is to serve the constituents and manage foreign and consular affairs. I remain committed to engaging youth. At this time, the Prime Minister is interested in creating a youth advisory council. In Mississauga, we would like to develop a local youth council to bring awareness of the issues that youth encounter today. It is our hope to work alongside youth and address these issues together. Much like the NSN, I feel that such an advisory council will empower many young individuals and bring their ideas and talent to the forefront.
You mentioned that you were a critic for citizenship and immigration. What does this position entail?
At that time, I was a member of the opposition. We hold the government accountable and ensure that they remain focused on serving Canadians. As the Critic for Citizenship and Immigration, I tried to hold the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration accountable for their policies and position. I would challenge their policies as well as propose new ideas.
What do you mean by “challenging” policies and positions?
In a democracy, it is always healthy to examine theories and policies as well as to consider all options and implications. Regardless of which party is in power, the opposition should support the good ideas but also suggest improvements. For policies that the opposition disagrees with, it is our duty to explain why and offer alternatives.
Can you share some of your thoughts on how you think Canadian immigration may change in the next four years?
One of the big things that we are working on is our immigration system, which has become somewhat paralyzed. The processing time of an immigration application, including ones for family reunification, has been increasing. At times, it can take years to process an application. Our government is committed to reducing this waiting time to three years. We are increasing our resources and re-focusing what is already in place to better streamline the process itself.
What are the most challenging and most rewarding experiences you have had during your time as an MP?
The most challenging aspect of politics is the long duration of time for change to be effected. Whether you push for change or try to implement good ideas, it just does not happen very fast. Regardless if everyone agrees that a proposal is a good idea, it just takes time to make a change, which can be frustrating.
Our office works on behalf of many constituents and the most rewarding part of my job is that I am helping Canadians.
What are some of the sacrifices you have had to make?
When you are doing something you love, it does not feel like a sacrifice. So I really do not feel as if I am sacrificing anything. With that said, there is very little room in my life for other things.
Tell us about a time where you struggled with a project. What motivated you to persevere?
It was a difficult and frustrating time after I lost an election. It can be tempting to give up; but I had that fire and desire to continue on. My passion for the job and my commitment to public service uplifted me and motivated me. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to run again. This time, I was re-elected. This inner desire and passion has continued to help me deal with setbacks.
Do you have any advice for aspiring politicians?
My main advice is to get involved. There’s no substitute for getting involved — joining a campaign, knocking on doors, making phone calls, attending conventions — this is how you can begin to make change.
You cannot just dream. You cannot expect anyone to knock on your door and invite you to be a politician, nor can you just read about politics on the Internet. Go to a campaign and help out. Or stop by my office and get engaged!
Even if you do not know how, why, or what, the best way to find out is by testing the waters. Make the leap out of your comfort zone. This is how you learn, develop skills, and build a network.
What about for those who are already involved?
For individuals who are already involved in politics, it is always a good idea to constantly re-assess your situation: Do I like what I am doing? Am I enjoying or benefiting from this? What are my areas of interest? Through reflecting, you discover your true passions and can pursue a more focused track.
Thank you for your time!