British Columbia

Local government in Metro Vancouver is 90% white — but it doesn't have to stay that way

Visible minorities — which combined, represent 49 per cent of the region’s population — are dramatically underrepresented in local government, even more so than in provincial or national politics.

From hiring practices to ward systems, there’s a lot of small solutions, say advocates

There is one person of colour on Vancouver council — a ratio that is more or less replicated among city councils and senior staff across Metro Vancouver. (City of Vancouver)

After the 2018 municipal elections, around 40 people of colour who ran for office in Metro Vancouver met up and discussed some of the challenges they faced. 

"Not only are you trying to have to convince your own community to support you or support your ideas, but you're also having to work at engaging your own community of colour to pay attention to municipal issues in the first place," said Ash Amlani, who finished second in the North Vancouver District mayoral election.

According to the 2016 Census, just over a quarter of people in North Vancouver are a visible minority — but not a single member of the district's elected council or senior staff are. 

And that's not uncommon in Metro Vancouver.

A CBC News analysis showed approximately 90 per cent of elected officials and people in senior leadership positions in the region's municipalities are white.

It means visible minorities — which combined, represent 49 per cent of the region's population — are dramatically under-represented in local government, even more so than in provincial or national politics. 
    
"Cities need to take an introspective look at what does it mean to create those pathways to leadership for people of colour, for women of colour in particular," said Amlani. 

"In one of the most diverse regions across the country, that is 100 per cent a problem and has been for awhile." 

Focus on hiring

Amlani said that to start with, municipalities could push for better representation on volunteer committees, and create inclusion charters to look at their own processes

Increasing diversity in local government won't happen overnight — municipal elections aren't until October 2022, and top non-elected jobs in municipalities don't come up all that often. 

Chilliwack councillor and Fraser Valley Regional District chair Jason Lum agreed that there's work that can begin now. 

"The light is shined on this and to ignore it is to our detriment," he said.

"Where do we start to look at what barriers exist? And how can we help overcome those and create more equitable and diverse representation?"

Lum said cities could put more effort into recruiting and training people of colour for internal positions, similar to how they tackled under-representation with another demographic. 

"We looked at what barriers there were for attracting more women to senior portfolios," he said, "and I think we need to do the same thing in terms of looking at what barriers exist for people of colour."

Efforts for gender balance haven't entirely been successful — increases have happened, particularly at council tables, but more than 70 per cent of senior staff making more than $200,000 are men. 

Lum says more diverse leadership teams are critical. 

"Having monochromatic senior leadership tables means we're missing valuable perspectives that could really benefit decision making as a whole."

Ward system?

Unlike the rest of Canada, large municipalities in B.C. elect councillors in an at-large system — meaning the entire community votes for them — rather than a ward system, with specific councillors for specific neighbourhoods.

Freelance Vancouver journalist Jagdeesh Mann has long argued that ward systems would greatly increase the chance people of colour get elected. 

"People from diverse backgrounds tend to be community leaders in their own neighbourhoods. They can have a strong profile within their own community, but they don't necessarily have a stronger profile beyond that, and as a result they struggle when it comes to at-large elections," said Mann.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart promised in his winning election campaign that he would bring in a ward system if B.C.'s electoral reform referendum failed — but last year said he would no longer push for that, because people weren't telling him it was a priority. 

Mann hopes he changes his mind. 

"I think it's a watershed moment," he said.

"Everybody's implementing anti-racism workshops and seminars internally … but if you're going to be sincere about addressing systemic issues, I think you actually have to look at the underlying structures and ask questions of what can we change that will allow people of diverse backgrounds and racial backgrounds to have a stronger, more prominent voice."

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