Manitoba

Diverse Winnipeg city council gives children role models: community leader

With the election of several new faces to Winnipeg city council, the diversity of decision makers at city hall has expanded beyond what we have seen in recent years.

'They think that they can make it, because they see someone who looks like them in political office'

Abdikheir Ahmed, director of the Immigration Partnership Winnipeg at the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, says this council is the most diverse he has seen since moving here 15 years ago. (Warren Kay/CBC)

With the election of several new faces to Winnipeg city council, the diversity of decision makers at city hall has expanded beyond what we have seen in recent years.

Among new councillors elected on Wednesday, Sherri Rollins in Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry is Huron-Wendat, Markus Chambers in St. Norbert-Seine River is black, and Vivian Santos in Point Douglas is Chinese-Canadian. Returning councillor Devi Sharma's background is South Asian.

Abdikheir Ahmed, director of the Immigration Partnership Winnipeg at the Social Planning Council, says this council is the most diverse he has seen since moving here 15 years ago. People from newcomer communities often don't participate in the political process, but increasing diversity on council can help get those people engaged, he said.

"A lot of people who have never aspired to be in political offices all of a sudden see role models for themselves in people who have been elected, and actually think about themselves running," he said.

Ahmed saw that with his own kids as they watched the news of Chambers's election.

Markus Chambers offers a prayer of thanks with his supporters after winning in St. Norbert-Seine River Wednesday night. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

"I have three boys, and all of them were like, 'Oh Daddy, he's black.' And they think that they can make it, because they see someone who looks like them in political office," he said.

Chambers says he is honoured and humbled to be possibly the first black councillor in Winnipeg history, although he said his focus is on representing everyone in his St. Norbert-Seine River ward.

"Having said that, I hope I can inspire those who are coming up to break that glass ceiling as well, and if you're of diversity, by all means, put your name forward, run in an election," he said in an interview with CBC Manitoba's afternoon radio show, Up to Speed.

Sherri Rollins, councillor-elect in Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry, is Huron-Wendat. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Having diversity on council is important in a representative democracy, Rollins said.

"When you hold those values, you work hard to make sure that your boards and your city council and your legislature, and indeed your Parliament, are reflecting what Canadians, what Manitobans, and what Winnipeggers look like," she said.

Santos says she thinks young people and others in minority communities see what they can achieve, no matter what their background is.

"I still represent the people of Point Douglas, because we do have a variety of people and cultures in our ward, but it's good to see our city progressing and showing that we have diversity no matter what," she said.

Point Douglas councillor-elect Vivian Santos is Chinese. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Before this election, Winnipeg had two councillors from visible minorities — Sharma and outgoing Point Douglas councillor Mike Pagtakhan, who is Filipino — as well as Mayor Brian Bowman, who is Métis.

The addition of a couple more candidates from visible minorities won't radically change the way city council functions, but it's a step in the right direction, said Aaron Moore, associate professor of politics at the University of Winnipeg.

"We do have a tendency in Canada still to have predominantly Caucasian councils, and oftentimes the other ethnic groups in cities can often feel left out," he said.

Visible minorities are still under-represented on Winnipeg council, although perhaps not as much as some other jurisdictions, like Vancouver, Moore said.

"People complain about the diversity of council, but we also have incumbents that last a long time. So the opportunity to elect a visible minority is often limited to those specific times when incumbents choose not to run," he said.

With files from Alana Cole and Shane Gibson.

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