It’s hard keeping up with Arif Virani. Not only on foot — on a recent overcast but pleasant morning, he strides down Roncesvalles Avenue at a no-nonsense clip — but also with his human-rights legal work and budding political career. A mere five months ago, the 44-year-old became a rookie Liberal member of Parliament. As he strolls through a busy fruit market in his own Parkdale-High Park riding, Virani chats about his career path up to this point — and, at the same time, proves he’s mastered the walk-and-talk.
Before his electoral victory this past October, he explains, he spent 12 years as a Crown lawyer in the constitutional law branch at the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario, which represents the provincial government of the day when its legislation faces a constitutional challenge. But midway through that tenure, he also took a two-year sabbatical and worked abroad. He spent one year in Delhi, India, as a legal consultant. The second year took him to Tanzania as an assistant trial attorney where he prosecuted perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. “It was extraordinary,” he says. “We were dealing with rape. Genocide. Crimes against humanity. How many lawyers get to say they prosecuted genociders? It was phenomenal in many, many respects.” These days, his activism is closer to home. He volunteers extensively, including at the Redwood shelter for women and children.
All heavy stuff, but Virani is possessed of a vitality and positivity that propels him through the grimmest of work, and his new political job. Days after he clinched his seat in the government he found the energy to knock on neighbourhood doors to introduce himself. A Twitter photo shows him greeting a constituent while pushing his sleepy toddler in a stroller. Virani is a married father of two young boys. He began his legal career as a litigator at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. But after a couple of years, Virani saw a job ad for the Crown counsel and went for it. “It was the right time financially. The Golden Handcuffs weren’t strapped on yet,” he jokes. “It was about an $18,000 pay cut, but well worth it.” He swotted up for a week on constitutional law before the job interview, which turned out to be more academically demanding than a corporate-law interview. “Rather than it being about my knowledge of art or my squash game, it was about my knowledge of the Charter.” He nailed it.
“He brought amazing energy to his work, and an understanding of how to balance competing interests,” says Janet Minor, the current treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada and Virani’s mentor back when she was general counsel for the Ministry of the Attorney General. “This will make him a great MP.”
By Virani’s account, he never pivoted away from job satisfaction at the Ministry of the Attorney General. But, over time, he felt increasingly frustrated with the Stephen Harper political climate. “Entering politics wasn’t an epiphany,” he says. He always liked to talk politics. But one event pushed him over the edge: the robocall scandal of the 2011 election. “It was a blatantly antidemocratic endeavour to prevent people from voting in the proper place and to dissuade youth from voting. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Virani, for the first time, stopped just talking and got politically active. He got involved with the Liberals in his riding. And when the party held open nominations, he felt confident he had the work ethic needed to put in the long hours of a campaign. The hard work paid off: he won both the nomination and a seat in Parliament.
Since being sworn in, Virani has assumed a high-profile post as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. This puts him front and centre in welcoming Syrian refugees, an issue that hits close to home. Virani himself came to Canada as an infant and a Ugandan refugee when Trudeau père welcomed 7,000 exiled Ismaili Muslims. “I don’t remember being a baby at Dorval Airport” — now called the Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport —“in 1972, but I have recently met Syrian families with babies. And looking at these families now, I think, That was me.”
He makes an effort to talk to them about his own past. “I can speak some Arabic, but using a translator I explain I was in their shoes 43 years ago. I say, ‘Canada is a land of opportunity. Please seize every opportunity to be anything you want in this country. I became an MP.’”
Timeline of a new MP
1987: Virani, 16, works as a ballboy at a tennis tournament, in which Arantxa Sanchez and Martina Navratilova both played. “It paid $10 a day and I got a free pair of tennis shoes,” says the tennis nut.
1994: He graduates from McGill University with a joint honours BA in political science and history.
1999: Virani articles at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP.
2001: He works for a year in London on the Harold G. Fox Scholarship. At a salsa class, he meets his future wife, Suchita Jain, a Canadian grad student studying International Public Health.
2003: Virani joins the constitutional law branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario.
2009: During a sabbatical, Virani heads to Tanzania to work at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
2013: Virani uploads a YouTube video to announce he’s running for the federal Liberal nomination in the Parkdale-High Park riding.
2015: Virani wins a seat in Parliament, overtaking the NDP’s incumbent, Peggy Nash. Then, he and his wife hire a nanny to cover morning daycare drop-off.
This story is from our Spring 2016 issue.
Photography by Steph Martyniuk