Kaycee Madu looks out the large window behind his desk in the solicitor general’s office at the Alberta legislature. It is a world away from the place he was born and raised.
When asked on a snowy February morning whether he ever imagined himself here as a boy, he responds without hesitation: “Never in my life — the extent of my dreams didn’t go that far.”
“Think about it,” he continues. “A son born to illiterate parents, who never saw the four walls of any formal education. My parents, my dad and my mom, wouldn’t be able to understand this conversation.”
His birth name is Kelechi Madu, the seventh of 11 siblings. He said he grew up in a one-room mud-house in a remote part of Nigeria.
“We were poor… When I use the word poverty, people here wouldn’t understand it,” Madu said.
“Food was the most important thing on our mind so all of us worked on the farm. As we grew up my parents had to give away some of my siblings because they couldn’t feed them. So a few of them lived with well-to-do individuals.”
But Madu said despite not being able to read and write themselves, his parents knew the only way to end the cycle of poverty was to give their children an education. So they sold part of their land to pay for grade school fees.
Madu never took it for granted. He worked his way up the bar and became a lawyer in Lagos. In 2005, his wife, also a lawyer, was given an opportunity to study and teach at the University of Alberta. It would be the first time he ever left Africa.
“It was tough, there’s no question. I ran out of money after six months,” he said.
He credits the warmth and hospitality of an Edmonton family for helping them set down roots. His first job was in patient health services in an Edmonton Hospital, washing dishes and preparing meals.
He calls it a defining moment in his life.
“I got the honour of my life to care for people who were going through periods of adversity,” he said. “But that was the job that forever changed my life — it was that employment that set me on a path to becoming a lawyer (in Canada).”
Madu decided to challenge the exams. But he says the real trial came when it was time to find an articling position. He said he sent out dozens of applications every day but didn’t get any responses and then some suggested he change his name.
“The moment it was Kaycee Madu I started receiving phone calls back and emails back. And that was how I articled,” he said. “There was something in my name.”
“Oftentimes, who we are, our names, the colour of our skin, the sound of our mother tongue can be a determining factor for an employer,” he said, adding he’s heard this same story from many people in Alberta.
“Racism is real. I think many of us have got our own stories to tell but that said, it’s important also that, I say this, we have made tremendous progress as a society and that progress you can see that by me sitting down here.”
In August, Kaycee Madu became the first-ever Black justice minister in Canada. It’s a title he holds dear to his heart, especially, he said, because he knows what it means to Albertans and Canadians who are Black.
Madu is quick to defend Alberta’s reputation when it comes to race relations and accusations or assumptions that people here are more racist than in other provinces.
“I can be frustrated by folks from across the country or in our province oftentimes, insinuating that the folks in Alberta are racists. I absolutely reject that. That is not to say that we don’t have problems but those problems exist individually in every province,” he said.
Alberta, along with the rest of the country, saw many large protests over the summer after the death of George Floyd — with so many people coming forward with stories of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.
It triggered louder calls to cut funding to Calgary and Edmonton police budgets and give that money to agencies better experienced at dealing with mental health calls and social issues. Edmonton city council cut the police budget by $11 million and created a citizen task force. Calgary’s city council voted against defunding the police but did announce an anti-racism task force earlier this month.
“I would also argue, with every strength and fibre in me, that this province has made more progress in terms of opportunities and race relations than any other territory or province in this country,” he said.
While he supports the right to protest, he said it shouldn’t come with violence or destroying property.
“If you approach race issues from the point of victimization, picking winners and losers of taunting people, how do you build a consensus, how do you allow the other folks to understand where you are coming from?” Madu said.
He plans to revamp both law enforcement and the justice system to better represent Albertans.
“I want a well-trained, experienced, responsible law enforcement that comes from every corner of our province: Black, white, Asian, Latino, you know, all everyone. That’s what I’m looking forward to accomplishing.”
“I would not stand for a culture in which members of our society feel they have lost faith and trust in an institution that is supposed to protect and keep them safe because of the colour of their skin,” he said. “I am going to do everything I can to end that. I think all of the chiefs in this province know I am serious about that.”
The Police Act is currently under review. The minister of justice said he’s going to revamp everything from the complaint resolution process to interactions between police and the public.
It’s no doubt a lofty task he has in front of him. But Madu said he often goes back to the early teaching from his parents about how to be “resilient and never stop dreaming and working toward a better future.”