Wednesday November 05, 2014

Are Canadian municipal politics too white and too male?

Listen 12:27

Most of Toronto's new council is caucasian, even though almost half its population identifies as a visible minority. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

When Toronto's new council is sworn in next month, it won't look very different. Nearly all the incumbents who ran were re-elected, and most of the councillors look like each other-- in that they're caucasian. The story is similar across Canadian cities, despite growing communities of visible minorities. So why is that? And does it matter?

Desmond Cole thinks so. He's a writer and community activist, who once ran for city council. He wants to see more ethnic and gender diversity in council, but he recognizes it's a hard situation to be in. He once ran for council, and was described as the "young, black candidate."

"It's kind of as connundrum, because on the one hand, as a black person, I do want to talk about perhaps a differet set of experiences in the city of Toronto, than maybe a white candidate might...yet at the same time I don't neccessarily want to be classified that way every time I open my mouth as a candidate."

Desmond Cole

But Cole says there is an idea that caucasian candidates represent everyone, while visible minority candidates only represent their community. And, he thinks it can be hard for diverse candidates to break in to council because incumbents often run again, and win again, or are replaced by family members who already have community support.

Karen Bird studies gender and ethnic representation in politics. She says there are structural factors that lead to homogeneous municipal governments. The lack of political parties, for example, play a role. She says because there is less information available about municipal candidates, voters look to race and gender for cues. She's not yet sure why, but just conducted a study in the Toronto election to learn more.

Vancouver, which has a party system, does better when it comes to diversity, though Montreal also has a party system and is not as strong. And Bird says it's not actually clear that women or visible minorities are more likely to advocate for their own communities. Regardless, she says diversity matters when it comes to all elected bodies.

"I think it matters for very symbolic, but truly important reasons. Our city halls and our parliaments are really a signal and a symbol of who belongs in our country and who has a role in making important policy decisions."

Karen Bird

Both Karen Bird and Desmond Cole may want to keep an eye on BC, where municipal elections happen November 15.