British Columbia

Near whiteout: Where's the diversity on Vancouver's new council?

Mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart and 9 of 10 new councillors all appear to be white

Posted: October 22, 2018

People of colour account for more than half of Vancouver's population. (Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

At first glance, two things are obvious about Vancouver's newly elected council — it includes a lot of women, and it's very white.

More than half of Vancouver residents are people of colour, but nine of 10 newly elected councillors appear to be white — along with mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart.

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That result is a bit troubling for Kevin Huang, executive director of Vancouver's Hua Foundation.

"I think that it is time that we had a conversation around what can we do to have more representatives' lived experiences ... on council," Huang said.

"We do need to round out the different types of lived experiences to make sure ... that we're considerate of the different needs and different types of contexts, both culturally and socially, that we might be missing."

He said it's encouraging to see a record eight women on council, but, otherwise, Vancouver's diverse population isn't well represented.

That includes Chinese Canadians, who make up Vancouver's largest ethnic minority. The current city council includes two people of Chinese descent, but the next council won't include any.

Getting airtime on council

There could be serious implications for the city's future, according to J.P. Catungal, an assistant professor in critical race and ethnic studies at UBC's Social Justice Institute.

"People who are not able to see themselves on council might not be able to see themselves as potentially having representation there. Civic engagement might be affected," Catungal said.

"The issues that are important to racialized folks might not get airtime on council," he added, and people of colour might also be discouraged from getting involved in city politics.

How and why there's such a lack of diversity on council this time around isn't exactly clear.

Vancouver voters line up to cast their ballots at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre on Saturday. (Tina Lovgreen)

It's not necessarily because there wasn't a diverse field of candidates to choose from, but even within individual parties, voters often preferred white candidates.

For instance, OneCity ran two candidates for council — Christine Boyle was easily elected, but her running mate, Brandon Yan, was shut out. Though the NPA managed to get five people elected to council, that didn't include either of the party's candidates of colour.

Huang said the reasons for this disparity deserve closer examination.

"Is it because of exposure? Is it because of name recognition? Is it because of previous work? Or is it because we do have undertones of racism?" he asked.

Catungal agrees that old-fashioned racism could have been a factor.

"Vancouver's white demographics might not see racialized candidates as viable candidates," Catungal said.

'A lot of on-the-ground organizing'

Some have suggested that Vancouver's at-large system for electing councillors might play a role in the lack of diversity at city hall, and that a ward system would allow people to vote directly for members of their own communities.

But Huang cautions that isn't a cure-all.

"A ward system is also a way to gerrymander and break things up," he said. "Especially for vulnerable communities like the Downtown Eastside and Chinatown, how do we do things in a way that actually gives them strength without dividing them up?"

Both Huang and Catungal agree it will be crucial for the new council to reach out to the city's diverse communities to make sure everyone is engaged. That might include finding ways to make sure everyone has ample representation on city advisory councils, for example.

In turn, members of those diverse communities may need to mobilize.

"It would require a lot of on-the-ground organizing to put the pressure on those who are on council to make sure our issues are heard," Catungal said.