Dipika Damerla’s captivation with politics started early. As a relatively privileged teenager attending a boarding school in India, she knew many families who couldn’t afford their children’s education. She dreamed of entering politics to help level the playing field. “So many lives are determined by an accident of birth — we had to correct that inequality,” she says. But she realized that only the elite could aspire to leadership. “There was no way that the daughter of a middle-class family, with neither money nor fame could ever even think about it.” So she bottled up that passion and became a chartered accountant instead.
At age 21, Damerla married a man who had been raised in Canada, and immigrated to Toronto with him. “I was very excited to come here.”
But the move was tougher than she had anticipated. Her basement apartment, illuminated by two tiny windows, was dark and dreary. But even worse were the bugs. “I was embarrassed to invite anyone home — as soon as I warmed up the food, the cockroaches came out.”
Overcoming Canada’s credential barriers
Insects weren’t Damerla’s only problem. She couldn’t work in her field since her chartered accountant designation wasn’t recognized in Canada. Then, when she decided to earn an MBA, she discovered that her Indian commerce degree wasn’t valid either. “It was devastating — that accomplishment had defined me and now it was taken away.”
Damerla appealed to the vice-dean of admissions, who admitted her to the MBA program after re-doing only the final year of the commerce degree. After graduation she was offered a job at the Royal Bank of Canada.
The kindness of the vice-dean and others helped Damerla feel at home in her adopted country. “Though the system wasn’t always entirely fair, there were also good people who helped me and changed my life,” she says.
Volunteering at Omni television (a Toronto-based multicultural station) was also transformative. After being promoted to a professional reporter, she began interviewing politicians. She discovered that, unlike in India where connections were crucial, many elected officials here had worked their way to the top.
Stoked by this epiphany, Damerla’s youthful ambition resurfaced, and she decided to run for office. “I’m driven by the idea of equal opportunity, and governments make the rules around this.” In 2011, she was elected to the Ontario legislature as the member of provincial parliament (MPP) for Mississauga East-Cooksville.
Advocating for condo reform, seniors and more
After talking to her constituents as their provincial representative, one issue came up time and time again — tenant rights. Many of her constituents lived in condos, and had trouble resolving disputes with their board members. Whether determining the size of pets or who had to pay for repairs, dissatisfied residents often wound up having to settle issues in lengthy and costly court battles. Damerla soon recognized the need for condominium reform, and she produced a private members resolution seeking alternative methods to resolve these differences. The government eventually passed legislation creating the Condo Authority Tribunal, which mediates between residents and boards for only a modest fee.
Damerla next became an avid advocate for seniors’ issues when she was appointed the minister responsible for seniors affairs in June 2016. After consulting with elders across 30 communities in Ontario, she recognized their main concern — to live independently without social isolation. Damerla and her staff created Ageing with Confidence, an action plan to helps seniors live at home. The measures include expanded recreational activities, greater in-home health supports and volunteer opportunities.
One of Damerla’s proudest achievements is bringing a microloan program to Mississauga that provides funding and training to aspiring entrepreneurs with mental health challenges. But since RISE is based downtown at the University of Toronto, it’s inaccessible for many of Damerla’s Mississauga constituents. So she established a satellite in her riding. Damerla will never forget one of the graduates who thanked her. “I’m the woman now who I always wanted to be.”
When Damerla hears these words, she remembers the vice-dean of admissions and other Canadians who gave her a break early on. “I benefitted from perfect strangers, so if I have a chance to help someone, it’s very satisfying,” she says.