Why is it that a candidate of South Asian descent always attracts fewer votes in Vancouver municipal elections than other members of his or her party?
The only possible explanation is racism when it happens again and again and again.
Yesterday, Vision Vancouver’s only council candidate of South Asian descent, Kashmir Dhaliwal, came 11th.
The next worst performance by a Vision candidate was Geoff Meggs’s ninth-place showing, almost 5,000 votes higher than the number of ballots for Dhaliwal, the well-regarded president of the Khalsa Diwan Society.
Vision’s only park-board candidate of South Asian descent, Raj Hundal, was elected, but he came more almost 8,000 votes behind the next lowest Vision candidate, Sarah Blyth.
Hundal is extremely well-educated and worked as a political aide to former NDP MP Penny Priddy. In other words, he's no slouch at politics.
COPE’s only school-board candidate of South Asian descent, Alvin Singh, came 2,227 votes behind the next lowest COPE school-board candidate, Bill Bargeman.
Singh, a brilliant young politician, has been referred to as the "South Asian Spencer Herbert" inside the Straight newsroom because he's such an articulate dynamo. But apparently, that wasn't good enough for the voters.
What I'm trying to say is that Dhaliwal, Hundal, and Singh were all very credible candidates, and they all came last on their respective slates.
The only explanation is that thousands of voters who otherwise voted for the Vision-COPE slate chose not to include one or all of them because their last names didn’t correspond with their “vision” of who should be serving on council, the park board, and school board.
It doesn’t stop there. The NPA’s only council candidate of South Asian descent, Daljit Singh Sidhu, was last among NPA candidates, 4,516 votes behind the next lowest NPA council candidate, Sean Bickerton.
For Sidhu, long-time president of the Punjabi Market Association, it was a case of deja vu. He came last on the NPA slate in 1993. Like Dhaliwal this year, he was the only member of his team not to get elected to council that year.
This year, the NPA’s only park-board candidate of South Asian descent, Naresh Shukla, came last among NPA candidates—5,779 votes behind the next-lowest NPA park commissioner, Sharon Urton.
Face it: Urton and Shukla are not well-known, so the only explanation for such a large discrepancy is racism, particularly when people look at the broader pattern.
There was a similar story at the school-board level. The NPA’s only candidate of South Asian descent, Lakhbir Singh, trailed the next-lowest ranking NPA candidate, Margit Nance, by 1,355 votes.
In 2004, I wrote a cover story about the debate over wards called "Shred the System". I researched the history of candidates with South Asian descent in recent Vancouver municipal elections.
Here’s how the 2004 story began:
The past five Vancouver civic elections have been a disaster for Indo-Canadian municipal politicians.
The trouble began in 1990, when the only South Asian incumbent, NPA school trustee Harkirpal Sara, was defeated in his bid for a third term on the Vancouver school board.
For the Indo-Canadian community, it has been downhill ever since.
In the 1993 election, the NPA enjoyed spectacular success, capturing nine of the 10 council seats.
However, the only Indo-Canadian NPA council candidate, Daljit Sidhu, suffered a devastating loss. Sidhu, president of the Original Punjabi Market Association, finished almost 10,000 votes behind his closest NPA Caucasian competitor, Craig Hemer.
The same year, Kewal Pabla, a businessman and the only NPA Indo-Canadian park board candidate, trailed his nearest Caucasian NPA competitor by 4,000 votes.
The NPA's only Indo-Canadian school board candidate, lawyer Iqbal Sara, came in a disappointing 15th place. For the second consecutive time, Vancouver voters had rejected every candidate of South Asian descent.
In 1996, the big political story was the NPA's unprecedented sweep of the park board, school board, city council, and the mayoral race. This time, the governing party didn't run any Indo-Canadians, but COPE did.
The three COPE candidates with South Asian surnames--Nina Khajuria, Kamla R. Raj, and Raj Sihota--each came in last on their slates for council, school board, and park board, respectively.
In 1999, the phenomenon struck a fourth time. The NPA won eight of 10 council seats. However, the ruling party's only Indo-Canadian council candidate, real-estate agent Baldev Dhugga, didn't come close.
He trailed the second-lowest-ranking NPA candidate, Janet Leduc, by more than 3,000 votes.
The same year, the NPA's only candidate of South Asian descent for school board, Vijay Singhera, finished almost 4,000 votes behind her closest NPA Caucasian competitor, incumbent trustee John Robertson.
The NPA didn't run an Indo-Canadian for park board, but COPE did. Munna Prasad, a South Asian, finished last among the COPE candidates.
In 2002, neither COPE nor the NPA nominated a single candidate of South Asian descent for any of the 26 elected positions on council, school board, and park board.
A similar situation has unfolded in Surrey, the region's second-largest city. In 1993, all the nonwhite candidates went down to defeat.
In 1999, the well-regarded Sukh Dhaliwal ran for the powerful Surrey Electors Team machine headed by Mayor Doug McCallum. Dhaliwal's campaign manager was a crack political organizer named Kevin Falcon, now B.C.'s Minister of Transportation. Even with these connections, Dhaliwal lost.
Surrey has never had an Indo-Canadian municipal councillor, even though 20 percent of that city's population is South Asian, according to the last census. (editor's note: this piece was written in 2004 before Tom Gill's election in 2005.)
One of the most glaring percentage differentials occurred in Burnaby in 1999. The second-lowest ranking Burnaby NPA council candidate collected 50 percent more votes than the only Indo-Canadian member of the slate, SFU political scientist Shinder Purewal. Not one of the above-mentioned candidates has ever run since in a municipal election.
The message that these results have sent out to every person of South Asian descent is that municipal politics is a waste of time. Why bother volunteering your time, money, and skills to try to seek political office in Vancouver if you're just going to get slapped down every time you run?
If you can't get elected municipally, that reduces your chance of graduating to the provincial and federal levels. In this respect, the at-large system metes out a double whammy of discriminatory treatment to aspiring politicians of South Asian descent.
The last time COPE controlled council, there was a chance to fix this and get a plebiscite passed supporting a ward system.
COPE and the labour movement put in a half-assed attempt. Dhaliwal paid the price in this election.
The COPE-Vision slate should revisit this issue. Because if they don't, some smart lawyer will launch a Charter challenge against the Vancouver Charter, arguing that the at-large election system violates equality rights guaranteed under Section 15.
Vision's Dhaliwal was a victim of systemic racism in yesterday's election. And his and other examples listed above should be part of the evidence in such a court challenge against Vancouver's at-large voting system.
In my layperson's opinion, there's not a hope that the at-large would stand up to legal scrutiny. It can't be saved by Section one of the Charter. And those who don't do anything about it while they are in office will eventually be blamed for allowing this blatant discrimination to continue unchecked.
This week, people of South Asian descent in Vancouver are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the racist continuous-journey legislation, which kept people from the Indian subcontinent out of Canada. A century later, we have legislation in place that keeps people of South Asian descent out of the Vancouver council chamber.
Get on with it folks. Fix the system. Because if you don't, you're going to get hammered in the law courts and in the court of public opinion. This week is when the rubber should hit the road.