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Canadian cities are still electing overwhelmingly white governments

After elections in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, racialized organizers say it's an issue that can't be ignored.

by Steven Zhou
Oct 24 2018, 5:08pm

For a contentious municipal election made all the more chaotic by a premier who insisted on cutting the city’s ward number in half, Toronto’s new city council is full of old occupants. Doug Ford’s controversial intervention resulted in, among other things, 242 municipal candidates fighting over just 25 council seats. Incumbents were often pitted against each other and many inevitably lost their jobs. Still, a large number of seasoned, career politicians — almost all of whom are white — also ended up getting re-elected.

In fact, in a city known for unparalleled ethnic and racial diversity, Torontonians — over half of whom belong to a visible minority group — are currently represented by a 25 member city council that includes only four non-white individuals.

There’s no neat-and-tidy relationship between ethnic make-up and political preference, but such a stark chasm in political representation has long characterized Toronto, a city of 2.7 million people and the fourth largest municipality in North America.

The pattern also extends to other cities, like Vancouver and Ottawa, both of which also had municipal elections at around the same time. Almost all 10 of Vancouver’s city council seats are occupied by white councillors who’re supposed to represent a city where about 48 percent of residents are of European descent. Ottawa, where ethnic minorities make up a quarter of the population, also has a virtually all-white city council. All three cities also have white mayors.

“Name recognition is everything in a municipal race,” says Toronto-based writer and activist Desmond Cole, “candidates of colour who ran tend to be newer to the game and not career politicians.”

“Name recognition is everything in a municipal race.”

“When you’re young and a person of colour, it’s harder to have that name recognition. You don’t have the same political networks or the same level of attention. Your dad wasn’t city councillor or a politician. When you don’t have those advantages, the only thing you can really do is to stay at it,” he says. The prevalence and power of incumbency showed in the results, with the vast majority of winners having won before.

“So not only did people of colour not win, almost always they didn’t even get in the top two,” he says. “Again, I think that’s the power of incumbency, the power of name recognition.”

Ward sizes are much larger now after Ford’s decision to shrink city council, which means the races are more expensive to run. A newer, less seasoned candidate of colour with less financial and political resources has a much steeper uphill battle to gain traction and votes. This is a structural pattern that generalizes across many major municipalities. As a result, incumbent (usually white) candidates tend to win out.

“As a Muslim person of colour who has lived in Toronto virtually all my life, the election results are not very promising,” says Hassam Munir, a Pakistani-Canadian graduate student and historian of Muslim communities in Canada. Several Muslim candidates like Walied Khogali Ali of Toronto Centre (Ward 13) ran energetic campaigns but can’t be found in the top two spots on election day. There are no Muslims in Toronto’s city council.

“We know that Muslims have made Toronto and the region their home for more than a century, and we know that they make up 8 percent or more of the population in some areas,” Munir says, “and yet myself and many friends from other minority groups don’t feel that we will be properly represented in city halls and school board trustee meetings for the next few years.”

Since last year, there’s been an attempt to remedy this lack of engagement in the form of the Muslim Youth Fellowships, a leadership development program for Muslim youth to be placed for 12 weeks in the offices of Toronto councillors and the mayor’s office. The program is funded in part by the city itself.

In Ottawa, only two city council seats out of 23 are filled by people of colour. This is down from four prior to this week’s election. The number of women councillors, on the other hand, went up from four to seven.

“It’s really quite sad that you had no new city councillor from any visible minority community,” says Amira Elghawaby, an Egyptian-Canadian community activist and commentator in Ottawa who has written on issues of representation at the municipal level. “I think there are legitimate questions to be asked in terms of how to increase that representation.”

“It’s really quite sad that you had no new city councillor from any visible minority community.”

In an August column for the Ottawa Citizen, Elghawaby argues that the problem of representation is part of the larger issue of limited civic engagement for marginalized communities, youth, and most minority groups of colour. She notes that the city of Ottawa, which has seen only nine racialized councilors in office since 2001, isn’t doing enough to encourage broader political participation.

“The evidence is pretty clear in that the more diversity you have around any table, the better and more inclusive the policy-making will be,” Elghawaby says. “It’s the same even with businesses that simply tend to do better with diverse staff or a diverse board. So lack of representation isn’t just something minorities should worry about because it affects everybody.”

She also notes that, as with most cities with this problem of inclusion and representation, there’s a need to educate the broader community about racialized candidates and what they stand for.

“You’d think after 150 years of being a colonial entity, people would reflect more on who they are, and that there’d be more actions and policies to reflect us,” says Ajay Puri, a Vancouver-based community activist focusing on political inclusion and dialogue. “But the discrimination that my parents used to face is still here, just in a different form.”

Puri emphasizes that the broader dynamic at play is one that goes far beyond municipal politics and into the way issues are talked about, be it housing or racial discrimination. The overall attitude toward people of colour, he notes, is still one of tokenism — to have one or two non-white individuals join a discussion and fill a quota without actually engaging their worldviews or concerns.

In a public Facebook post after the Vancouver election, Puri expanded on this point by asking, “how do we go beyond representation? How do we do meaningful engagement and organizing? How do we create and enact policies that empower and uplift all our citizens, particularly those that are marginalized?” At the end of his post are the hashtags, #CouncilSoWhite and #VancouverSoWhite.

“You’d think after 150 years of being a colonial entity, people would reflect more on who they are, and that there’d be more actions and policies to reflect us.”

Echoing this sentiment, Jaclyn Wong, a Chinese-Canadian teacher and educator based in Toronto says that, “a lack of representation isn’t just a matter of the lacking diversity in the voices spoken at city council but also the voices that are being heard. How will the conversations be reflective of the people they serve? How will the decisions from these conversations consider the people being served?”

Wong notes that it’s especially disconcerting that these questions have to be asked at a time when certain candidates throughout the GTA are gaining traction by openly sympathizing with far-right, racist, white nationalist views.

Despite the lopsided power of incumbency in Toronto, a handful of newer faces mounted significant challenges to the old guard while making a name for themselves. This includes Amber Morley, candidate for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, who snatched up 27 percent of the vote in a ward long dominated by the John Tory-backed Mark Grimes (now entering his fifth term).

Such insurgencies are still rare in a system and city that benefits long-term name recognition and entrenched political networks. Broader civic inclusion and recognition of newer voices from more diverse backgrounds implies a seachange in the way citizens from across the country rethink their approach to city politics--including the way they categorize what an electable candidate should look like.

Cover image left to right: Vancouver elect mayor Kennedy Stewart (photo by CP); Toronto Mayor John Tory (photo by Frank Gunn/CP); Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson (photo by Matthew Usherwood/CP)