Sarah Jama says Hamilton’s police have long “held a grudge” against her.
For years, the 28-year-old disability rights activist and newly elected NDP MPP has been involved in defending encampments and pushing to reinvest police funding into community services.
So she said she was “not surprised” when Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives (PCs) announced the candidate who would face her in this month’s by-election: the very cop who had her charged with assault two years before.
Jama’s connection to PC candidate Peter Wiesner was not reported during the month-long campaign for NDP leader Andrea Horwath’s former seat in Hamilton Centre, which Jama won on Thursday.
In a sworn affidavit from last spring, which Jama shared with The Breach, another officer accused her of assaulting Sgt. Wiesner while police cleared an encampment of unhoused people from a Hamilton park in November 2021.
According to Jama’s lawyer, Wiesner claimed she deliberately ran over his foot with her wheelchair, an allegation Jama called “comical” and “egregious.”
Jama’s charges of assault and obstruction were withdrawn in exchange for a peace bond, which meant that she agreed not to “interfere with any police operation related to the homeless.”
The two never came face-to-face during the campaign because Wiesner skipped an all-candidates debate. Jama went on to handily win the election, beating him by 6,827 votes, as well as the second-place Liberal candidate.
She says she’s now the youngest member of the Ontario NDP caucus, the first black woman elected in Hamilton and the first Somali woman elected to a parliament in Canada.
She brings with her a record that she knows will have her labelled “radical.” As the co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO), Jama has talked about “moving away from capitalist understandings of access” because “disabled people want more than…ramps to stores so that we can buy things.” She’s spoken at events about abolishing police and prisons. But she’s also backed by a big community in Hamilton and a network of activists who—after years of pushing for change from the outside—are now seeking public office.
‘A visible personification of power’
The arrest of Jama and her fellow activists by Wiesner and his colleagues happened in a very public way.
Several arrests took place as unhoused people were forced out of an encampment at J.C. Beemer Park in the fall of 2021.
When Jama left her apartment the next day, she didn’t know that there was a warrant out for her arrest. She went outside to observe another encampment clearing near her apartment building. Officers there told her she was under arrest.
Jama said it was “nerve-wracking” because her 16-year-old nephew, whom she cares for, was left alone at their apartment.
The arrests left the activists feeling “pretty defeated,” Jama said. “It felt like people were just going to continuously be criminalized for being homeless. It’s not like the surge of policing…fixed housing and homelessness.”
“So I guess it was just a visible personification of power—who had it and who didn’t at that moment.”
About a month after the initial charges were laid, Jama’s lawyer was informed that the charge of assaulting Wiesner had been added.
Dean Paquette, Jama’s lawyer, told The Breach there’s “nothing remarkable” about officers adding additional charges after the fact.
‘An act of intimidation’
At the time, Jama said it was “kind of comical” for the “six-foot-something man” to have her charged with assault for allegedly running over his toe.
“I think the charge itself was egregious. There’s no way that I would have been able to run over his toe. Officers tend to wear steel-toed boots.”
But she said that Wiesner’s candidacy raises questions about whether Hamilton’s police force was meddling in the election and whether the PC party knew about the connection between them.
“It felt like an act of intimidation for him to have put his name forward,” Jama said.
The Breach asked Hamilton Police Service by email if it encouraged Wiesner to run and if it seeks to influence elections when candidates who are critical of police run for office.
“No,” the force answered, in an email that was not attributed to any spokesperson by name. Wiesner took a leave of absence for the campaign in accordance with his collective agreement, the email also said.
Jama said his candidacy shows how far Ford’s party was willing to go to stop her from winning a seat in the provincial legislature.
“I am a disabled, progressive, Muslim young person who has been arrested, who has a track record for speaking up for what is right,” Jama said. “I represent a threat to the status quo.”
The Breach also sent questions to the PC party and to Wiesner’s campaign but did not receive responses.
‘Taking care of the material conditions of people’
Jama sees her work at Queen’s Park as a continuation of the work she did as a community organizer.
As part of her work with the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, she helped create a food delivery system which delivered meals to 7,000 people during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m really focusing on taking care of the material conditions of people in the riding,” Jama said.
She herself lived on Ontario Disability Support Program payments until seven or eight years ago.
She said she also wants to use the resources available to her as an MPP to support sustainable organizing and mutual aid in Hamilton.
“I just feel like we didn’t have the resources beforehand. Maybe we do now.”
Her organizing skills could help build the Ontario NDP’s base of voters, Jama also said, so that the party can form government in 2026.
“Doug Ford has a majority government and he’s harming people,” she said. “People are being warehoused in long-term care. People are choosing medically assisted dying rather than being able to find affordable places to live. More lives will be lost if we do not change something.”
The by-election campaign was dominated by headlines related to Jama’s concerns around international solidarity. A video surfaced online of her making connections between Israeli state violence against Palestinians and police violence worldwide, and saying that “Hamilton police protect Nazism.” In 2019, Hamilton police were uninvited from a Pride celebration and were then accused of being slow to respond when far-right demonstrators, some with weapons, attacked the event.
Right-wing Jewish organization B’nai Brith Canada called on the Ontario NDP to revoke Jama’s candidacy, because they claimed Palestinian solidarity organizations she has been associated with “frequently targeted Israel.” In response, more than a hundred members of the Ontario Jewish community pledged their support for her, but Jama and the NDP still issued an apology for her “poor choice of words.”
Jama said her Palestinian solidarity “was used as a political tool to try to come after me,” erasing Palestinian and progressive Jewish voices from the discussion.
“That was the thing that made me the most frustrated,” she told The Breach. “I’m not apologizing for supporting Palestinian human rights.”
Other Hamilton organizers also seeking office
The MPP-elect didn’t decide to run for office alone. Jama said her campaign was part of an “experiment” among a network of friends and activists to see if they can use electoral politics to create opportunities for movement breakthroughs.
Kojo Damptey, who himself ran for Hamilton City Council last year, first worked with Jama at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion in 2018.
“One of the things that we realized when we were organizing was that we were meeting with elected officials that said things couldn’t be done,” Damptey told The Breach.
He recalls working with Jama on a campaign to have snow removed so that streets would be accessible for people with disabilities.
“One of the city councillors laughed. He said, ‘This will never be possible,’” Damptey said.
It “breaks your heart” to hear politicians talk like that when you know the impact it’ll have on people with disabilities, Damptey said. “You’re like, how can I trust that this person is in charge of taking care of our city?”
Damptey lost his run for council—by just 79 votes—but he said the loss motivated him to knock on doors for Jama. “We learned a lesson: every vote counts,” he said.
One of their other friends, Sabreina Dahab, is now a school board trustee.
She and Jama have worked together on issues around education, such as pushing for access to prayer spaces for Muslim students in schools. Their biggest win, Dahab said, came about when they shut down the street outside of a Hamilton school board trustee meeting where a motion was put forward to get police out of schools.
“By the end of the night, they had voted to terminate the police in schools program,” Dahab said. “That was a super profound and memorable moment for a lot of youth in Hamilton.”
An experience with police was also the catalyst that made Jama decide to run for office herself.
In May 2022, she said she was sitting in a park eating sandwiches with a friend. They were talking about how “abysmal” it feels to struggle to survive while trying to help others in their community survive, too.
“While we were having that conversation, I watched two police officers tackle a homeless person onto the ground. And I couldn’t do anything because I had a peace bond,” Jama said.
She remembers thinking, “What if some of us had a little bit of power?”
“I was tired of begging for things to change.”