British Columbia

#CityHallSoWhite: In Metro Vancouver, local politics is the least diverse level of government

In Metro Vancouver's two biggest cities, there's a very realistic chance that a person of colour could become mayor for the first time.

Less than 10 per cent of councillors in the region are visible minorities

Among the councils in Metro Vancouver without a visible minority are (clockwise from top left) Coquitlam, the Township of Langley, West Vancouver, the City of North Vancouver, Port Coquitlam, and the District of North Vancouver. (Composite)

In Metro Vancouver's two biggest cities, there's a very realistic chance that a person of colour could become mayor for the first time. 

But don't expect either candidate to embrace a possible history-making turn on the campaign trail.

"That may be a personal accomplishment, but what's most important ... is taking Surrey to the next level," said Tom Gill, who didn't want to talk about the significance of the fact he may become Surrey's first Indo-Canadian mayor.

Similarly, Ken Sim downplayed the significance of becoming Vancouver's first mayor of Chinese descent.

"Personally, I actually don't really think about it too much," Sim said.

"I hope the City of Vancouver votes for the most qualified person ... I know we talk about diversity, but I don't even know what that word means, in the sense that everyone's diverse."

Sim and Gill are the most visible examples of how the political makeup of Metro Vancouver is slowly becoming more representative of the general population. 

But local politics, in particular, still has a lot of catching up to do. 

Not 1 mayor

According to the 2016 Census, 49 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents identify as a visible minority, which the government defines as "persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour."

Yet of the 155 mayors and councillors in Metro Vancouver, it appears only six per cent are of visible minorities.    

Compare that to federal politics, where 30 per cent of Metro Vancouver MPs are of visible minorities, or provincially, where the figure is 37 per cent. 

Not one of Metro Vancouver's 21 mayors is a person of colour, and the only one in recent history is Len Traboulay, who served as mayor of Port Coquitlam from 1982 to 2000.

There are several new diverse candidates hoping to be elected to city councils across Metro Vancouver, including Chinu Das in New Westminster, who has highlighted the issue in her campaign.

"If the diverse groups that we have in our community are disengaged in our civic elections, they are probably more disengaged from the community," she said.

Lack of ward system may be factor

One reason for the low representation could be the lack of a ward system, where cities are divided into neighbourhoods with an individual council candidate selected for each.

It's the way local politicians are elected in most of Canada. But in British Columbia, municipalities still use an at-large system, where candidates are chosen for the entire city. 

Jagdeesh Mann, a reporter with the South Asian Post, a Vancouver-based media outlet, believes the at-large system is one of the main reasons it's harder for visible minority candidates — because it doesn't create specific ridings in immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods where those candidates would likely be elected.

"You're seeing more success from diverse candidates in smaller and deeply diverse constituencies [at] the federal and provincial level, but you're seeing the reverse of that at the municipal level," he said.

Mann also said that parties at the municipal level of politics make a conscious effort to recruit a candidate that reflects a particular riding or community — but outside of Metro Vancouver's largest municipalities, political parties are virtually non-existent at that level. 

Some visible minority success 

Barinder Rasode, a former mayoral candidate and city councillor in Surrey, placed third in the city's 2014 election. One of the challenges Rasode faced was appealing to all of Surrey's communities.

"For some Surrey residents I was defined by my ethnicity, even though I defined myself as Canadian; and for some South Asians, the community of my heritage, I was seen to be too Canadian," she said.

In Vancouver, Sim wouldn't be drawn on any challenges he may have faced in politics because of his ethnicity.

But he acknowledged that if he becomes mayor, more young people of colour might believe they belong in the halls of power, too.

"I do think, if I do become next mayor of Vancouver, I know a lot of kids of Asian descent will look at me and go: 'Wow, I could actually become the next mayor,'" he said.

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