Will 2017 election change Edmonton politics, for now mostly white and male?

Edmonton's city council has historically been white and male. When Amarjeet Sohi was first elected in 2007, he was the first person of colour to sit on council in decades. Bev Esslinger is currently the only woman on council. Will the October election change things?

In 2007, Amarjeet Sohi was the first person of colour to be elected to council since David Ward in 1968

Edmonton has just one woman and one person of colour on its 13-person council. (Laura Osman/CBC News)

Ahmed Ali is running for school board, in part, to help students take pride in who they are, and the differences that make them unique.

In his run for office, he talks about his own background, as an artist who has worked in schools and as a member of the city's Somali community. 

"It's important, because you bring a perspective that other people might not have, because knowledge is based on experience," he said.

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"My experiences come from my background, my background contributes to how I learn, and therefore if I have an understanding of some of the youth and what they're going through, I can bring a perspective that's valuable."
Ahmed Ali (centre), with campaign volunteers, is running to be school trustee with Edmonton Public Schools. (Supplied/ Nicholas Yee)

Edmonton voters go to the polls Oct. 16 to elect a new city council, as well as public and Catholic school trustees.

Ali said no one should be elected just because they have a multicultural background, but diverse experiences do bring diverse perspectives.

There's no question that municipal politics in Edmonton lack those perspectives; politics in this city are overwhelmingly white and dominated by men. When Amarjeet Sohi — now a federal cabinet minister — was first elected as a councillor in 2007, he was the first person of colour to sit on council since David Ward, who was Inuit, was elected in 1968. Moe Banga, who replaced Sohi in a 2016 byelection, is also from the South Asian community.

Both the public and Catholic school boards lack ethnic diversity, even as Edmonton's immigrant population steadily grows. The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers estimates about 25 per cent of the city's residents were born outside the country.

Only one woman on current council

Meanwhile, the gender imbalance at city hall has been glaring since 2013, when just one woman, Bev Esslinger, was elected to the 13-person council.

Those numbers could change after the Oct. 16 election. As of nomination day on Monday, 31 per cent of candidates for city council are women. That's a 13-per-cent increase from four years ago. And candidates for council and school boards currently reflect an array multicultural communities in the city.

At the school board, that diversity would be good not just for decision-makers but for students, said Joseph Luri, who is also running for a public school trustee position.

"It's so students [are] seeing we're part and parcel of this population and the parents are seeing that as well," said Luri, an immigrant from South Sudan.
Joseph Luri, second from left in this family photo, is running for a school trustee position with Edmonton Public Schools. (Supplied)

"But I won't just represent the ethnic community from which I come from; it's also to ... make [sure] every student has a positive experience in the schools and to get trustees at the table to have an enhanced understanding of the total experiences."

That might be an understanding of how parents from different countries view the school system or how students might struggle with issues like identity and belonging.

Getting more women on the ballot

The increased number of women running for office didn't happen by chance, said Lana Cuthbertson, who chairs the Alberta North Chapter of Equal Voice, an organization working to get more women into Canadian politics. 

Political stories in the city, and around the world, have resonated over the past several years, said Cuthbertson.

"I think the American election was actually a really big influence on getting women involved in things like the women's marches and realizing, 'I have to step up,' " she said.

Groups such as Equal Voice, the city's Women's Initiative, and the province with its "Ready For Her" campaign, have been actively encouraging women to run for office over the past year, with workshops, speaker series and networking events.

"We've done a little better" with gender parity in local politics, said Cuthbertson. But there is still a long way to go.

"Until we have a number of elections in a row where there are equal numbers of women and men running, and equal number of women and men getting elected — and sometimes even a few more women than men, and maybe we go back and forth a little bit — we're just getting started."
Women gather at city hall in February 2017 for 'Municipal Campaign School,' an event hosted by Equal Voice, Alberta North Chapter, to prepare for women for an election campaign. (Supplied/Equal Voice, Alberta North Chapter)

'They want their issues raised'

There has been no similar concerted effort by a national organization to recruit candidates from different ethnic communities to run for office in Edmonton.

But members of those communities themselves are hungry to change their lack of representation in city politics, said Frankline Agbor, who edits Diversity magazine and runs the Diversity Centre in Edmonton.

"They want their issues to be raised at city hall — from a framework on racism, to action on diversity in city staff and police, and priorities with development [in] areas where minority people are dominating the city, like 118th and 107th avenues," said Agbor.

Agbor said newcomer groups are learning more about how local politics work, and the need to get involved and engaged in different organizations around the city.

But that's not always easy.
Amarjeet Sohi speaks to reporters in 2007, the day after he was elected to Edmonton city council. (CBC)

"When you're new, you first want to survive. And when you start getting your feet on the ground, then you start looking at policies, and politics come to mind," said Agbor.

Ali, who is running for school board, noted he has been "amazed" by the support and the fundraising efforts of the Somali community.

"You need a lot of networks, you need a lot of connections, you need money," he said.

"I come from the Somali community, their skills in raising funds are tremendous. However, if you're coming from a community where you're not connected to professional networks, good luck. It is challenging. There's people with connections to unions, to developers. This is money, and money is what makes the difference." 

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It also takes resilience.

Erick Ambtman, executive director of the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, has been on the doorsteps with some candidates who still sometimes get told to "go back to your home country."

"It takes a lot of resiliency to put yourself in that position. It's tough to hear that and go out the next day and campaign hard and do the things that win elections," he said.

Their efforts, however, are important.

"We need more trailblazers," Ambtman said. "They're the ones who normalize it for others. And when you see people who are successful, who do get appointed or get a nomination ... I think it really helps for others to feel like, 'I can do that.' "