White-boy Gregor Robertson must avoid racial blunders

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      The recent Vision Vancouver mayoral-nomination race demonstrated that when upper-middle-class Caucasians get their friends to participate, it’s called “democracy”. But when people with darker skin colours do the same, it’s sometimes painted in a more sinister light. Instead of democracy, you’ll hear people mutter terms like herding or temple politics.

      This must end. So too must the racist and classist requirement that members of Vancouver political parties produce photo ID if they want to vote at a nominating meeting. This sharply elevates the risk of disenfranchising poor and elderly party members who don’t have driver’s licences. This was the outcome of the Vision board’s decision to have Fair Voting B.C. oversee the June 15 nomination meeting.

      Some of those poor and elderly were grandmothers of Chinese or South Asian descent. They’ve ridden the bus their entire lives; they’ve worked hard to raise their children and grandchildren; and they’ve endured more than their share of economic racism. Some were pestered for photo ID at the June 15 meeting.

      There is a risk that the winning candidate, Gregor Robertson, could blow his chance of becoming mayor if he doesn’t acknowledge that this was unfair. He would also be wise to treat the losing candidate, Coun. Raymond Louie, with sufficient respect.

      Robertson’s biggest mistake would be to treat Louie as if he is the party’s ambassador to Vancouver’s nonwhite communities. It would be a demeaning role for Louie, who is as well-versed on the issues as anyone in Vancouver politics.

      Since the early 1990s, civic and provincial parties have been recruiting immigrant candidates to bring in votes from minority communities. For the NPA, the advantage of having a Daniel Lee on council was that he could raise a great deal of money and he could speak Cantonese to Chinese-language media. Political parties usually weren’t nearly as interested in second- or third-generation Canadian candidates from minority communities—even though they were often better suited to become politicians—because they often couldn’t speak the minority language. Hence, they couldn’t bring in the votes.

      Until very recent times, few nonwhite politicians in B.C. transcended the role of ethnic-community ambassador to become major figures of influence within their own parties. Notable exceptions include Ujjal Dosanjh, Moe Sihota, and Jenny Kwan.

      Now that’s changing, thanks to the hard work of politicians like Louie and the increasingly important roles that Canadian-born Chinese are playing in our society.

      Although Louie may not speak his ancestors’ language with total fluency, he brings other strengths to the table. He pulled together an impressive array of support from across the spectrum in his first attempt to run for mayor. It was a true rainbow coalition, with Louie also reaching out to the gay and lesbian communities, bringing in 2,200 votes.

      This was not an instance of a politician of Chinese descent only pulling support from his own community. In this respect, Louie’s campaign marked a watershed event in Vancouver civic politics and foreshadows what we might see more of in the future.

      This approach will have more success in the coming years because of the changing demographic profile of the region.

      Gone are the days when left-wing parties in Vancouver could complacently look back at the 2002 election and say, “Hey, we can win without the support of the Indo-Canadian or Chinese communities.”

      That kind of thinking denies the reality that there is enormous diversity within so-called communities. It’s insulting to people who trace their roots back to China or South Asia.

      More importantly, that mentality ignores that this will soon become a majority-minority region—which means that no ethnic group, including Caucasians, will comprise more than 50 percent of the population by about 2015. In other words, Robertson and most of his supporters will soon be in the minority across Metro Vancouver.

      The winners of future elections will be those who reach out to include people who previously had little connection to municipal politics. The moment Robertson’s supporters embrace this, they’ll have a much greater chance of taking control of Vancouver City Hall in November.

      The first step along that road will be to publicly acknowledge the contribution that Louie has made to making Vancouver civic politics more inclusive. The second would be to give him a significant role in shaping party policies in the platform. This is what Jean Chrétien did with Paul Martin after their often-bitter leadership contest.

      The third step would be to encourage Louie to give speeches to organizations with large Caucasian memberships—and not treat him like his role is merely to bring in votes from dark-skinned people who supported his candidacy. The fourth step would be for Robertson to acknowledge that it was a mistake to impose racist and classist restrictions on many poor grandmothers who joined the party and came out to support Louie’s candidacy.

      If Robertson does these things, he will become the odds-on favourite to become the next mayor of Vancouver. If he fails to do them, there is a very real chance that Louie will be reelected to council and square off against an incumbent mayor by the name of Peter Ladner in the 2011 mayoral election.



      David Wong

      Jun 21, 2008 at 1:01am

      Thanks for identifying us, the true minority in all of this... we, the multi-generational Canadians from an identifiable ethnic community.

      We have long been relegated to the shadows. And yes, we're quite pleased that Raymond Louie has brought the spotlight onto our forgotten community.

      As for Gregor Robertson, it's interesting to see his long list of endorsers showing only two names of Chinese Canadian origin... (though there may be more). Ladner's show at least 5 Chinese Canadians. I guess we're all starting to keep count, with recent news from both camps talking about "reaching into the Chinese community".

      It really shouldn't matter about ethnicity. But everyone raises this issue with every election.

      A quick read of Robertson's endorsers offers an optic that may be misinterpreted. And with him and other politicians playing the race card, it shows that race and ethnicity does matter.


      Jun 22, 2008 at 1:08pm

      I disagree with several points you make in this posting Charlie but I will restrain myself simply to saying that the headline is very offensive and totally unnecessary.

      Calling an individual "white-boy" is simply insulting and lowers both this blog and the likelihood of a serious discussion of an important issue. I urge you to change it and think more carefully about the language you use here in the future - replacing "white" with another skin colour would be rightfully completely unacceptable.

      - Bill Tieleman [and yes, I supported Robertson]

      Charlie Smith

      Jun 22, 2008 at 1:33pm

      I knew someone would be offended by the headline. I'm not going to change it. I know that no one would ever use this term to describe people of different races. Here is what I want people to realize:
      * we in the white community are an ethnic community and it's time we started to recognize this. What better way than to toss on this headline? It's deliberately provocative. Anyone who is offended by this is probably also offended by the Counterpunch blog, which also endeavours to tell the truth.
      * it's time to stop the reductionism of people to their race or to their religion. There is so much more to a person than this. The brilliant Nobel Prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, so wisely pointed this out in his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. I highly recommend this book.
      However, some people on the left have engaged in reductionism for far too long, which is one reason why the major left-wing party in this country has largely failed to attract a great deal of support from a broad cross-section of society in recent years.
      There are people in this town who are absolutely delighted with this commentary. If you're going to zero in on the headline and miss the point, then that's your loss, my friend. I'm curious to know what other points you disagreed with in the commentary.

      Mat Loup

      Jun 23, 2008 at 2:33pm

      <em>Comment submitted via e-mail. </em>

      It is another example a white columnist trying to explain the ethnic politics. Neither Victor Wong and Sophia Leung doesn’t speaks Cantonese, so language skill was an issue in 1997 election. Victor Wong just didn’t have enough connection with the community among a bunch of other reasons. Raymond Louie is not a saint, far from it. You will learn more by talking to his organizers and ask them how they signed up those members. Well, still, I have to give you credit for trying.

      Me No English

      Charlie Smith

      Jun 23, 2008 at 3:20pm

      Here's what one of the veteran Chinese media reporters told me. Sophia Leung speaks Mandarin, but understands Cantonese. Her Cantonese is so-so (translating the sound se-ooo se-ooo into English means "a little bit"), according to this reporter, whom I've known for more than a decade. There were Mandarin speakers living in Vancouver Kingsway in the late 1990s, but there are many more Mandarin-as-a-first-language speakers now. Trust me. I know that Raymond Louie is not a saint. Some of his votes during his first term really made me wonder. But I think he has learned a lot in his six years in politics, and he is as knowledgeable about the issues as anyone on council.


      Jun 24, 2008 at 3:38pm

      Sorry for late reply - Charlie, I find these comments you made also problematic:

      "This must end. So too must the racist requirement that members of Vancouver political parties produce photo ID if they want to vote at a nominating meeting.

      This sharply elevates the risk of disenfranchising poor, elderly Canadians who don’t have driver’s licences.

      Some of those poor, elderly Canadians are grandmothers of Chinese or South Asian descent.

      They’ve ridden the bus their entire lives; they’ve worked hard to raise their children and grandchildren; and they’ve endured more than their share of economic racism.

      These are some of the people who were pestered for photo ID at the Vision nomination meeting on June 15."

      First of all, anyone without photo ID could file a statutory declaration or stat dec to be allowed to vote. Those stat decs, just like any other form of id, could be challenged by scrutineers for the candidates. It is hardly unusual, let alone "racist" to ask for appropriate identification at something as important as a political nomination.

      Second, how do people without photo ID vote in a municipal, provincial or federal election? Through the same process.

      No one in their right mind in any political party wants to discourage members from voting but ensuring a fair, open and transparent process is critical.

      Bill Tieleman


      Jun 26, 2008 at 3:30pm

      Requiring photo ID is a far more onerous condition than any placed on a citizen by law in municipal, provincial or federal elections:

      "The following documents are deemed to be acceptable ID documents:

      B.C. Driver’s Licence
      B.C. ID card from Motor Vehicle Branch
      ICBC Owner’s Certificate of Insurance and Vehicle Licence
      B.C. Care Card
      Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security Request for Continued Assistance Form SDES8
      Social Insurance card
      Citizenship Card
      property tax notice
      credit card or debit card
      utility bill for electricity, natural gas, water, telephone or cable services
      welfare cheque stub showing identifying information
      statutory declaration or sworn affidavit (from a notary public, lawyer, or commissioner for taking oaths)"

      Furthermore, racism is not overt in a sophisticated society such as ours. People are far less likely to throw the N word around than they are to invent rules or use language that sublty excludes others, including creating policies that have a disproportionate on members of an identifiable group.