Mayoral candidate Doug McCallum kick starts a Surrey discussion on wards
For years, progressives in Surrey have been advocating for a ward system in which councillors would be elected in neighbourhood constituencies.
This system is in place in most Canadian cities outside B.C.
And some of the strongest proponents have been in the South Asian community, including Indo-Canadian Voice editor Rattan Mall and mayoral candidate Vikram Bajwa.
But it's taken an ardent right winger, former three-term mayor Doug McCallum, to spark a serious conversation about a ward system among all the mayoral candidates.
This week, McCallum told the Georgia Straight that he wanted to see Surrey's eight councillors elected in four two-member wards.
McCallum, who's trying to make a political comeback as a mayoral candidate, said that the mayor should still be elected at-large by all voters in Surrey.
Today, I noticed that Kevin Diakiw of the Surrey North Delta Leader has an article quoting McCallum's rival in the mayoral race, Linda Hepner.
She's now promising a referendum in 2018, even though "she isn't a big fan of wards".
Coun. Barinder Rasode is expected to enter the mayoral race. She told Diakiw that she prefers a hybrid system in which some councillors are elected in wards and others are elected on a citywide basis.
On several occasions in the past, I've written articles about how the at-large system discriminates against candidates with South Asian surnames.
The most extensive analysis was in a 2004 Georgia Straight cover story called "Shred the system". It demonstrated that up until that time, candidates of South Asian descent almost always trailed non–South Asians on the same slates.
One of the follow-ups was a blog post after the 2008 civic elections entitled "Racism is alive and well in Vancouver municipal politics."
It was written after candidates with South Asian surnames once again ranked far behind other candidates on their slates.
In those days, I believed that the courts would have struck down the at-large system because it likely violated equality provisions in section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In the 2011 election, however, there appeared to be less discrimination against candidates with South Asian surnames.
Perhaps it's a sign that the region's voters are growing up.
Niki Sharma became the first woman of South Asian descent to be elected in Vancouver when she came fourth in the race for seven positions on park board.
In Surrey, Tom Gill came sixth and Barinder Rasode came eighth on the Surrey First slate for eight council seats in 2011. It wasn't a stellar performance, but things weren't nearly as bleak for the community as in previous elections.
Among the rival Surrey Civic Coalition candidates in 2011, the only one of South Asian descent, Rina Gill, had the second-highest vote total on the five-member council slate.
The last provincial election demonstrated that when white candidates were pitted against candidates of South Asian decent for the two major parties, the white candidate almost always did better.
This was on display in Surrey where B.C. Liberal Peter Fassbender defeated the NDP's Jagrup Brar, and where B.C. Liberal Marvin Hunt defeated the NDP's Amrik Mahil.
In fact, in 10 provincial races in which the B.C. Liberal candidate was white in 2013, the NDP candidate of Asian descent lost.
The only exception was in Burnaby-Lougheed, where Jane Shin narrowly edged a white candidate.
I've noticed that most political columnists and commentators in B.C. don't like to tread into this area because it's fraught with potential for a backlash from readers.
But after reading Rattan Mall's columns for many years and speaking to candidates who were victims of this discrimination, I can also tell that it's a legitimate concern within the South Asian community.
Thus it's not a surprise to me that wards have arisen as an issue in Surrey even as this topic is being ignored by mayors of the region's other large cities.