Racism is alive and well in Vancouver municipal politics

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.



David Wong

Nov 16, 2008 at 8:59pm

This was something one of my late profs, Dr Walter Hardwick and his teaching aid Todd (can't remember his surname) had talked about... and this was many decades ago.

Nothing's changed. Here we are - yapping about how diverse and tolerant this wonderful city is. It's superficial.

I met a number of these South Asian candidates, and really enjoyed their wit and charm... especially Raj (we clicked when he told me he was a Windermere or Gladstone grad).

Charlie - you know I've got a lot of thoughts on this, but I'll save it for now.

Thanks for having the guts to share your thoughts on this.

Remember this post by Carlito?



Nov 17, 2008 at 12:37am

No doubt there is some racial bias evident in the Vancouver vote. Look at Sophia Woo, a first time would-be school trustee candidate, who finished with substantially more votes (but didn't gain the job either) than Clarence Hansen who had been the chair of the board. No rational voter puts Sophia Woo (NPA) above Clarence Hansen (also NPA) but there you are.

Meanwhile Dr. Lakhbir Singh (NPA) - who avoided participating in any of the three school trustee forums I attended (Woo gave some rather painful answers only at one) came in dead last among the party-affiliated candidates.

For all we know some component of these results are due to "lottery voting", which seems to explain why Peter Haskell could even get *one* vote (incredibly, he received 10,370). Anyone who had witnessed him participate in a forum (I saw him painfully lurch through meetings at Bayview and Secord) would have expected him to receive one vote only, his own.

These are all unskilled observations to be sure, but it does seem that a variety of different biases were at work: Party bias, alphabetical positioning, racial bias, and the lottery effect all seem to have played a role in distributing the vote.

I'd like to point out one key point here that Charlie has overlooked, specifically in the case of not-well known but very credible candidates such as the quite engaging Alvin Singh... the media paid very little attention to anything but the mayor and council races. Mr. Singh could have done much better with just a little more media profile - Alvin was a very strong performer in every forum and discussion I'd seen him in.

School board spends half a billion a year (chicken feed?) and touches 55,000 students and one in six Vancouverites (adult ed, etc) - hardly worth talking about I know. (sarcasm off)

Maybe next time.


Nov 17, 2008 at 7:27am

Surrey has never had an Indo-Canadian councillor? I'm sure Tom Gill may be surprised to hear that, seeing he was re-elected. Also, Barinder Rasode was elected in Surrey on Saturday as well.

More dubious stereotyping from the Georgia Straight. But then why let facts get in the way of your agenda?


Nov 17, 2008 at 7:49am

Here's a question Charlie...if Kashmir Dhaliwal is so "well-regarded," why didn't you and your newspaper make him one of your choices for Council?

Charlie Smith

Nov 17, 2008 at 9:58am

The recommendations were based in part on knowledge of civic issues and depth of involvement in municipal issues. The picks were also chosen after consultation with staff who attend candidates' meetings and nomination meetings. Dhaliwal was a decent candidate and was on an earlier worth-considering list. He was removed when I felt he wasn't completely transparent when he wouldn't tell the Vancouver Sun which federal party reflected his views. He is a well-known supporter of Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, who endorsed his candidacy. I'm guessing that Dhaliwal didn't want to alienate New Democrats. He strongly supports adding more police officers, which might be popular with voters but which is not really sound public policy. He's neutral on a regional police force when anyone who has studied this issue in any detail, including Kash Heed and Jim Chu, support the creation of a regional police force. Dhaliwal represents the more conservative wing of Vision, which focuses too much attention on increasing the number of cops at the expense of other useful initiatives. There could be a serious revenue shortfall if this global credit crunch results in a protracted economic contraction. Nevertheless, Dhaliwal is a decent candidate and he is well-regarded. We recommended Raj Hundal and Alvin Singh. Singh, in particular, has demonstrated an interest in school board issues for many years, and he was included on one of our issues pages during the campaign. There were a lot of good candidates for council this year. Now, are you going to ask why we didn't recommend Meggs and Stevenson?

Charlie Smith

Nov 17, 2008 at 10:01am

I must respond to the comment by left-of-centre. If he reads the piece closely, he'll see that I was including an excerpt from a 2004 article. This was before Rasode and Gill were elected. I figured some people might misread this, but I also concluded that the vast majority would recognize that the piece was written in 2004. Maybe I should edit out that older excerpt. But I felt it was important for people to see the history.

David Wong

Nov 17, 2008 at 10:09am

Proof of racial bias. Where do I start... hmmmm.... since I am a person of Chinese ancestry, I'd like to share my thoughts about this community.

I won't delve into Vancouver (which is what Charlie's post is about here), but let's look at one of it's neighbouring municipalities. I know several Chinese candidates (quite well) who ran in various municipal elections. A couple of them contacted me for thoughts on "how to reach out into the 'white' vote". And honestly, some of these Chinese candidates make my skin crawl.

A few of them won. Not because they know anything about city politics, and not because they care about the City. Sure they all claim they love the City and stuff, but truthfully, they care more about pumping their credentials when they market their various businesses back in their respective homelands of birth.

When asked for advice, I mentioned to one of them that most citizens don't really give a rat's ass about the issues. They don't know and don't care to find out. So pick a party that is established, organized, and do what you normally do, which to him, was nothing.

He won. Everyone had voted along party slates... and because he had access to the Chinese media, he managed to gain recognition within this community.

Another Chinese candidate, also a colleague of mine, ran for the other main civic party. This fellow in contrast, was bright , articulate and much more "Canadianized" - he spoke fluent English, knew the issues, understood civic governance. In fact, he had much better record of community involvement and worked really hard at the candidates debates, and worked the door knocking circuit. But he did not hook up with the Chinese speaking media.

He lost.

It really sucks to see how apathetic and how dumbed down our citizens have become. On the heels of Remembrance day, I don't think that generation of young Chinese-Canadians had this in mind when they fought for the right to vote in Canada - and to have mediocre Chinese flavoured politicians elected into office.

Yes, racism occurs... and not from just only one community, but from all communities to others.


Nov 17, 2008 at 11:23am

I haven't seen demographic data on the voter turnout, but the elderly always seem to emerge in droves whenever there's an election. If it ever becomes possible for people to vote electronically without having to get themselves to a polling place, I believe we'll see a more accurate representation of how Vancouver's electorate truly feels about South Asian candidates.


Nov 17, 2008 at 12:10pm

I've heard Kashmir Dhaliwal speak at a number of all-candidate forums, and have to say I didn't find him at all engaging and extremely hard to understand because of his thick accent.


Nov 17, 2008 at 1:08pm

As a proud Indo Canadian being brought up in my whole life in Vancouver I am embarrassed and saddened at how we are touted as being a multicultural city and yet people can't look past the color of our skin and look at us like individuals.