Why diverse candidates are facing challenges breaking through in Ontario civic elections

Imran Hasan says his run for municipal council in Mississauga is a way to provide newcomers with something his father didn’t have when he arrived in Canada in 1973 — someone who looked like him in politics.

Candidates cite prejudice, the struggle to overcome incumbents as barriers to success

Imran Hasan, a Mississauga city council candidate, is running for the third time in Ward 11. He's trying to break through and become only the second diverse member of council, after Dipika Damerla won in her ward four years ago. (Submitted by Imran Hasan)

Imran Hasan says his run for municipal council is a way to provide newcomers with something his father didn't have when he arrived in Canada in 1973 — someone who looked like him in politics.

But Hasan is the first to say his bid to join Mississauga city council has been a challenge at every turn. The council for the city west of Toronto has only one member from an ethnic community even though more than half of its population is non-white. 

Prior to 2018, it had no diverse members.

Hasan says political representation is important because for newcomers, seeing people from their communities can have an influence on governments. Without it, people feel excluded, he said.

"When my father came to Canada, he didn't have any role models, he didn't have anyone who could help him navigate the system, Hasan told CBC Toronto. 

"He didn't have anybody who could explain to him the different levels of government, let alone the services that each level of government provided," he added.

"And I felt that he was at a disadvantage."

As cities and towns across Ontario prepare to go to the polls on Oct 24., Hasan said he and other diverse candidates like him are trying to overcome the challenges of breaking through on municipal councils. This will be the third time he has run in Mississauga because he believes communities could benefit from electing more diverse politicians. 

I think that's really what diversity brings to the local level of government, understanding and respect.- Imran Hasan, Mississauga city council candidate

"I think that's really what diversity brings to the local level of government, understanding and respect," he said.

"To really put that individual in the other person's shoes and say, 'Yes, I remember that journey. I remember coming to Canada.'"

But Hasan says he's also faced racism and prejudice on the campaign trail. It hasn't discouraged him, but he acknowledges it keeps many people from running.

'I couldn't possibly vote for someone like you'

"I've heard comments like, 'I couldn't possibly vote for someone like you.' So you have to read between those lines and what that really means. And I get it, my name is not a name they're familiar with. My face doesn't look like theirs. But I tell people, 'You know what …I'm not a scary guy.' I'm their neighbour."

Hasan has spent years working in the community, making contributions as the chairperson of Peel Crimestoppers and the former chair of the Mississauga Board of Trade. He has lived and worked in the community for decades but says it is still difficult to overcome the name recognition of a city council incumbent.

He's hopeful that after a second place finish in 2018, he'll break through this year now that the long-time incumbent he faced before has decided to retire.

It's part of the uneven playing field experts say diverse candidates face when they seek elected office. Increasingly, those same candidates are having to work harder to break through and bring new perspectives and ideas to the council table.

Dipika Damerla, a former provincial cabinet minister and the only diverse member of Mississauga city council, is running for re-election this year. (Tina Mackenzie/CBC News)

Dipika Damerla thinks her election to Mississauga council in 2018 has helped bring a different perspective to city hall. As the lone person with a diverse background on council, she has tried to manage expectations and stresses that change takes time.

"When you are the only visible minority, I think it's powerful," she said.

"But one person cannot change things alone; you need allies."

Damerla says if people with different backgrounds were on councils, political systems and communities would be more inclusive. She points to this year's municipal vote being held on Diwali as an example of how the current system is not tailored to some diverse communities. 

Provincial law mandates that municipal elections must be held every four years on the third Monday of October.

"That law actually is systemically racist because it doesn't acknowledge the fact that there's a potential for major holidays and festivals on that third Monday of October," she said.

"If I'm re-elected, that's something I want to change."

A number of organizations across the country are taking up the cause of making elected bodies more diverse.

Velma Morgan, the chair of Operation Black Vote Canada, says the group's mission is to help more Black candidates get elected at all three levels of government. Toronto, for example, has a Black community that makes up nearly nine per cent of the city's population. But thus far, council only has one Black councillor.

"Right now, we're not getting diverse lived experiences to help create policies for everybody," she said. "We're getting people with the same type of experience, creating policies for people who have an array of different lived experiences."

Candidates need to be 'rooted in the community'

Progress Toronto, a left-leaning non-profit advocacy group, is also trying to give diverse, progressive candidates help in this election. They've endorsed a slate of candidates in Toronto with the goal of boosting their profiles in open races and battles against incumbents.

The group's organizing director, Saman Tabasinejad, says the cost of not taking action has consequences for local democracy. 

"We're supporting candidates who are rooted in the community, who really understand the problems diverse communities face," she said. "We know that city service cuts … most negatively impact communities that are already marginalized."

Erin Tolley, a Carleton University professor and Canada research chair in gender, race and inclusive politics, says term limits at the municipal level could give diverse candidates an opportunity to get elected. 

"There's a misconception that politics is a level playing field; it absolutely is not a level playing field," she said.

"If you are a racialized candidate trying to break through, you face tougher hurdles, you face higher hurdles"

Tolley says Imran Hasan's experience is not unique, but that needs to change for the health of municipal democracy.

"Can we really claim to be an equal society if there are large swaths of the population, that no matter how hard they try, they just simply don't find themselves in elected positions?"


Shawn Jeffords is CBC Toronto's Municipal Affairs Reporter. He has previously covered Queen's Park for The Canadian Press. You can reach him by emailing