Terry Glavin: There are more crucial issues than the colour of Vancouver’s council

I agree more with Tolley (see Lack of council diversity puts municipalities at risk) than Glavin here (perhaps not surprisingly). The thought experiment I often use is how would I feel if I could not see myself reflected in political leadership and institutions? Would I be comfortable or not? Could I completely divorce feelings about my identity from the more intellectual choices in public policy? And could the abysmally low turn-out be tied to lack of representation or not?

And the other question to ask, where Terry has a point, would more diverse municipal councils address more or less effectively the issues facing the municipalities? In general, more diverse voices ensure better consideration of different perspectives, but not automatically so:

You might think it would be bad enough to show up again this year near the top of Demographia’s listings of cities with the least affordable housing markets in the world, and a rental vacancy rate of less than one per cent, and to have been reduced to ground zero of Canada’s fentanyl crisis, with a worldwide reputation as the epicentre of a global money-laundering system run by organized crime networks in China.

You might also think it is a bit disturbing that Vancouverites are apparently so dispirited by all this, and perhaps even convinced beyond doubt that there is nothing that can be done about any of it, that voter turnout in Vancouver’s recent civic election was about 40 per cent.

On the bright side, it’s a good thing that mayor Gregor “Happy Planet” Robertson and his Vision Vancouver team, after having presided over Vancouver’s transformation from Lotusland’s Metropolis to a seedy gangland paradise of drug-money laundering and shady real estate swindles, is now in history’s dustbin. On the downside, Robertson’s successor, Kennedy Stewart, won the race for the mayor’s office backed by only about 12 per cent of the city’s eligible voters.

Vancouver mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart celebrates with his wife, Dr. Jeanette Ashe, after addressing supporters in Vancouver on Oct. 21, 2018.

Whatever might be said about all that, the post-election thing to get worked up about, judging by reports in the Toronto Star, the local CBC news, various city webzines and the Twitter hashtag #councilsowhite, is the noticeably pale complexion of the new city council members, save one. Pete Fry. His Trinidad-born mother is the Vancouver Liberal fixture Hedy Fry, the long-serving MP for Vancouver-Centre.

To be fair, the statistical dearth of successful non-white candidates is something worth noticing, and even worrying about. Perhaps not so fervently as Globe and Mail Vancouver reporter Sunny Dhillon did, mind you. Owing to his bureau chief’s decision that the historic surfeit of women on Vancouver’s new city council was perhaps more newsworthy than the colour factor, Dhillon quit this week, quite publicly. Eight of the Vancouver’s 10 council members, as of the Oct. 20 elections, are women. This is, after all, quite a big deal.

The whiteness of recently elected municipal councils is being noticed right across Canada at the moment, though, and so it was helpful that the Institute for Research on Public Policy published a brief paper in its Policy Options journal this week, under the headline: “Elections in some of Canada’s most diverse cities still produced extremely homogenous councils. This threatens the legitimacy of their decisions.”

But just hold on a minute. If voters engage in a civic election, and the ethnic or racial diversity of the winners, in the aggregate, does not end up replicating the ethnic or racial diversity of the people who voted them into office, isn’t it a bit of a stretch to say the result “threatens the legitimacy of their decisions”?

Not a stretch at all, according to the article’s author, Erin Tolley. An assistant professor at the University of Toronto and “co-investigator” with the Canadian Municipal Election Study, a project of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Tolley writes: “All else being equal, we know that voters gravitate toward candidates with whom they share an ethnic or racial background.”

Maybe so. But “all things being equal” is a rather basket-sized caveat, and in any case, the examples she cites — recent elections in Vancouver, Mississauga, Ont., and Toronto — could be held up as evidence against her claim just as easily as Tolley cites them as evidence in favour of it. Voters in Vancouver, Mississauga and Toronto do not appear to have followed the pattern of ethnic gravitational pull at all.

British Columbia NDP MLA Leonard Krog is recorded as a reporter interviews him while awaiting the municipal election results for Nanaimo, B.C., on Oct. 20, 2018. Krog was elected mayor.

In Mississauga, 57 per cent of the voters identify as members of a “visible minority” but only one “racialized” councillor got elected. In a city where slightly more than half the people identify as members of “visible minority” groups, Toronto’s 25-member city council can boast only four people of colour. Statistics Canada’s recent data shows the same sort of ratio for Vancouver — slightly more than half of Vancouverites identify as members of “visible minority” groups.

So what’s with all the white people on city councils?

It’s a question worth asking, and although the answers are likely to differ from city to city, Tolley’s remedial prescription, an interim measure consisting of diversity and inclusion advisory committees to provide councils with advice about ethno-cultural relations and diversity, is perfectly reasonable, so far as it goes. An approach like that might also give “racialized” participants some public exposure, access to networks and degrees of civic exposure “that might serve them well if they choose to enter electoral politics,” Tolley writes.

But isn’t this just a bureaucratic solution in search of a problem? Does the ubiquity of white people in civic politics really mean “many voices are excluded from the decision-making process,” and that this state of affairs “puts municipalities at risk”?

In Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart, backed by Metro Vancouver’s labour unions, won the race for the mayor’s office only by squeaking past the Non-Partisan Association’s Ken Sim, who happens to be Chinese-Canadian. The result was 49,812 votes to Sim’s 48,828. Sim can hardly complain that he wasn’t taken seriously, so I asked three unsuccessful Vancouver civic candidates, people of colour, all with the outside-chance upstart ProVancouver slate, what they thought about all the fuss about whiteness.

Women cross the street at the intersection of East Pender Street and Gore Avenue in Vancouver on Dec. 5, 2016.

ProVancouver council candidate Rohana Rezel, born in Sri Lanka, had to put up with some nasty and widely publicized online racist harassment. “People from all ethnic communities came and rallied around me every time somebody tried to attack me. There was nothing that made me less privileged than other candidates, based on my ethnic background,” he said. “I just don’t buy the argument that white people just vote for white candidates.”

Rezel’s running mate, Raza Mirza, a Punjabi Muslim, said: “I just don’t understand this obsession with the idea that overall, council must look like the overall general population.” ProVancouver mayoral candidate David Chen, whose background is Taiwanese: “You have to be careful with that, or you’re going to risk forcing bad people into the system.”

All three said there are far bigger “process” issues that require attention. Like the abysmally low voter turnout. And Vancouver’s antiquated at-large voting system.

Source: Terry Glavin: There are more crucial issues than the colour of Vancouver’s council

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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