Stephanie Ryan: Democratic deficit calls for wards system in Surrey and Vancouver
By Stephanie Ryan
In Canada and in British Columbia, we often take having a free and fair democratic system for granted.
Yet we still suffer from a fundamental democratic deficit at the municipal level.
I’m talking about the lack of a wards system.
Every major city in Canada, outside of British Columbia, has some form of a wards system. Under this system, individual councillors represent one ward, or neighbourhood, within the greater city.
Surrey and Vancouver stand out as the only two major cities in this country without some form of direct democracy at the civic level. Instead, we continue to elect our municipal officials using the largely-discredited at-large system.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we elected our provincial or federal representatives with an at-large system? Would it make sense for everyone to elect all 85 of their MLAs, or all 308 of their MPs?
There are many arguments in favour of having a wards system. With a wards system, city councillors are in closer contact with their constituents. They know the issues of their particular neighbourhood well, and are better able to advocate effectively on its behalf. After all, with six major town centres across some 317 square kilometres, the needs of Surrey’s urban, suburban, and rural neighbourhoods vary widely.
With the wards system, every single neighbourhood, regardless of income and education levels, is guaranteed a representative at the municipal table.
And, if they leave their constituents displeased, city councillors are easily given the boot. Nothing like a little democratic accountability to make a city councillor do their job well.
You might look at the under-representation of visible minorities at the municipal level as an argument for a wards system.
A full 46.1 percent of Surrey’s population is identified as “visible minority” in the most recent census. It wasn’t until 2005 that Surrey elected its first city councillor who wasn’t distinctly white.
And most ethnic groups, in particular those of South Asian, Chinese, and Filipino descent, have never had their numbers proportionately reflected in local government.
The exciting news is that Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson has committed to holding a plebiscite in the 2011 civic election, giving Vancouverites an opportunity to switch to an electoral system that would give them both more proportionality and better neighbourhood representation.
The less exciting news is that, in Surrey, Mayor Dianne Watts remains adamantly opposed to having a citizen referendum on switching to a mixed-wards system for municipal elections. She’s repeatedly refused to even consider the option.
Her reasoning seems to rely solely on the history of White Rock. This city, once an unhappy ward of Surrey that did not feel like it was being listened to, decided to secede. With secession, White Rock took the Peace Arch Hospital and, God forbid, the waterfront as well.
We cannot afford to remain so backward for much longer. If we’re serious about democracy and about meaningfully engaging citizens in local government, we need to fix the system. It’s broke.
In the at-large system, incumbency, name-recognition, and big dollars from big interests will continue to be the factors that have the most influence in determining electoral outcomes.
It’s time for a wards system in Surrey and Vancouver, a change that should have been made long ago.
Stephanie Ryan is the president of the Surrey Civic Coalition.