Edmonton·Edmonton Votes

Election day action needed to break 'final glass ceiling,' say political experts

Political watchers are not surprised that there has never been a Black woman, Indigenous woman or woman of colour on Edmonton's city council. Changing that, they say, will take more than just openness to vote for diverse candidates.

‘We seem to either be stalling out or moving backwards’

A new slate of city councillors will be elected to Edmonton's City Council on Oct. 18, 2021. (David Bajer/CBC)

Political watchers are not surprised that there has never been a Black woman, Indigenous woman or woman of colour on Edmonton's city council. Changing that, they say, will take more than just openness to vote for diverse candidates.

Edmonton city council was once the entry point for women in politics, producing figures like Edmonton's first female mayor Jan Reimer. It's also been a place where men who are Indigenous or of colour have launched their political careers.

But municipal politics has changed, said Alberta pollster and political commentator Janet Brown. 

"We should be coming into an era now where it's the domain of women of colour entering politics. But that's just not what's happening right now," Brown said. 

"It seems like when it comes to female representation, the representation of people of colour at the municipal level, we seem to either be stalling out or moving backwards."

As party politics creep into city politics and municipal positions become increasingly desirable, the cost for candidates of running a city council campaign has gone up, Brown said. 

"Some of the barriers that have always existed for marginalized people getting into provincial or federal politics, those things are starting to come, unfortunately, more and more into play in municipal politics as well." 

Voters 'open' to diversity

In recent focus group discussions facilitated by CBC Edmonton and Brown, voters say they're "very much open" to voting for diverse candidates. 

Before 2021, only 21 women of colour have ever tried to break "this final glass ceiling" at Edmonton City Hall, researchers note in the YWCA's podcast Searching for Izena, named after the city's first female councillor elected 100 years ago. 

This year, there are at least eight women of colour running in the Oct. 18 municipal election, which raises "hope to see more representation from diverse backgrounds on the next iteration of city council," said Christine McCourt-Reid, a spokesperson for YWCA Edmonton. 

But this year has also brought new obstacles for political newcomers: COVID-19, a federal election and voters are at odds with the provincial government are all "competing for political oxygen," Brown said.  

"What we didn't have was a summer when lesser-known candidates could hit the doors and could hit the festivals and could get their name forward," Brown said.

"Now we're coming into the end of the election campaign, and it seems like only those people who entered the race with name recognition are coming out of the race with name recognition."

Support doesn't translate into votes

Research has shown that — contrary to popular belief — municipal politics is not more open to diversity than politics on the provincial or federal level, said Melanie Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

When people have been asked if they would be open to voting for qualified candidates who are women or people of colour, the answers are overwhelmingly positive, Thomas said.

But these sentiments haven't translated to votes at the polls and more diversity on city councils, Thomas said. 

"I think people will use that 'maybe the skills aren't there' or 'I'm skeptical of their abilities' as a rationalization, like a coded rationalization, to not support more diverse candidates," Thomas said. 

"It is potentially comforting but an error to assume that there's more space for diversity, without actually having to do the work of dismantling those systemic things in municipal politics." 

There's also overt racism to contend with. 

Jibs Abitoye was first elected to Fort Saskatchewan city council in 2017. (Submitted by Jibs Abitoye)

Jibs Abitoye, the sole woman of colour on city council in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., located 25 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, saw fellow women candidates in the 2017 municipal election being attacked because they were women of colour.

"There were racist remarks like 'Go back where you came from,' and 'If I can't pronounce your name, why would I vote for you?'" she said.

Abitoye, who is running for re-election, said the circumstances this year are making it harder for political newcomers to break in. 

Barriers hinder women of colour trying to break into municipal politics

3 months ago
Duration 3:12
CBC's Thandi Konguavi reports that rising costs, COVID-19, party politics and racism are some of the obstacles facing women who are Black, Indigenous or of colour, and who are running for council in the municipal election on Oct. 18. 3:12

"2017 was so different from now. Even for me as an incumbent, I'm door-knocking but it's difficult because some people are afraid to talk, some people aren't open to talking because they're really afraid of what's going on with the pandemic," she said. 

"It is definitely easier for people who have already been there, who already have name recognition."

Making room 

Most incumbents are easily re-elected, and it's those who lose their seats who are the exception, Brown said. 

But those experienced politicians and sitting members of council could be doing more to succession planning by mentoring young, diverse people to become future leaders, Brown said. 

Voters can also play a part, in "low-information contexts" such as municipal politics, Thomas said. 

Instead of relying on demographical cues, voters still have time before Oct. 18 to look at candidate websites and learn what they stand for, Thomas said. 

"Put in a little bit of effort to get at least some information," she said.

"Look to see the kinds of experience that candidates are listing … if that experience isn't landing, this is a really good time for self-reflection — to be like, 'Why?'"

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thandiwe Konguavi

Reporter/editor

Thandiwe Konguavi is an award-winning journalist, born in Zimbabwe. She is a reporter/editor at CBC Edmonton. Reach her at thandiwe.konguavi@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter:

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