A former chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s national administrative-law section has said she thinks Vision Vancouver council candidate Kashmir Dhaliwal has a point when he suggests Vancouver’s at-large voting system is discriminatory.
“I think it’s an arguable legal case,” Surrey lawyer Palbinder Shergill told the Georgia Straight by phone.
Dhaliwal, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society, was the only Vision candidate not elected in the November 15 vote, placing 11th in the race for one of 10 council spots. Last week, the Straight reported that all Vision, Non-Partisan Association, and Coalition of Progressive Electors candidates with South Asian surnames came last in their respective council, school-board, and park-board slates. Dhaliwal and other candidates, like failed NPA park-board candidate Naresh Shukla, told the Straight the at-large voting system likely resulted in them not being elected.
“At the end of the day, whether the legal system is the right place for this issue, or whether this issue belongs in the purview of politics—that is a very different answer,” added Shergill, a former federal Liberal candidate. “So if you asked me as a lawyer, I would say it’s a reasonably arguable legal argument to make. If you ask me as a general member of the public”¦I think in every respect you want to deal with issues outside [the courts].”
Bill Black, a UBC professor emeritus of law and an international authority on human rights, sees merit in the legal route. “If you bring a court case and the other side realizes they don’t have a really strong case, that can lead to electoral reform on a voluntary basis,” Black told the Straight by phone. “Sometimes bringing a case can be an incentive to look seriously at a matter. I think you’d have a hard time making the argument that the present at-large system was put in in order and for the purpose of decreasing the representation of different groups. But under our Constitution, if equality is violated unintentionally—if that is the effect—then you can make a challenge based on that.”
Dennis Pilon, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Victoria, told the Straight that stories like those told by candidates such as Dhaliwal can often sound like “sour grapes”. However, this should not discourage legal action, he added.
“There’s obviously elements of whether or not the public liked this particular candidate, but the overarching issue he’s raising is, I think, a fair one,” Pilon said of Dhaliwal. “In terms of some of the academic work and examples in the U.S., this is not some far-out claim. This is a quite realistic and reasonable assessment. We judge our democratic institutions by their results as well as by their process. When results depart too far from the society we live in, we start to raise questions about them.”
Pilon noted that the Village of Port Chester, New York, was found this year to have violated Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act because its at-large system posed a barrier to Hispanic candidates winning election despite Hispanic people representing 46 percent of its population.
Added Pilon: “We’ve got a significant South Asian population in Vancouver. They tend to be geographically concentrated. If there was a ward system, it’s fairly obvious that they would get some kind of representation, because they would be the majority in a particular geographic riding.”
Speaking by phone with the Straight on November 26, Dhaliwal said he is unlikely to take legal action. The previous day, he told the Straight that he was keeping his options open, but that he was also concentrating on community work.
“I talked to my supporters and they said we have got to work within the communities,” Dhaliwal said, “and this legal route is a long one, and I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Regardless of the electoral system that’s in place, Dhaliwal said he intends to run for council again in 2011.
South Asians last under at-large system
> In 2008, NPA candidates Daljit Singh Sidhu, Naresh Shukla, Lakhbir Singh; Vision Vancouver council candidate Kashmir Dhaliwal; and COPE school-board candidate Alvin Singh weren’t elected and placed last on their respective slates.
> Vision’s only 2008 park-board candidate of South Asian descent, Raj Hundal, was elected, but he got almost 8,000 votes less than the next lowest-placing Vision candidate, Sarah Blyth.
> In 2005, Vancouver Green park-board candidate Tracey Jastinder Mann finished last and NPA school-board candidate Rucku Bhandal finished second-last on their respective slates.
> In 2002, no one with a South Asian surname was nominated by a party to run for any of the 26 positions on council, the park board, and the school board.
> In 1999, NPA candidates Baldev Dhugga and Vijay Singhera and COPE park-board candidate Munna Prasad placed last on their respective slates.
> In 1996, COPE candidates Nina Khajuria, Kamla R. Raj, and Raj Sihota all came last on their respective council, school-board, and park-board slates.
> In 1993, Daljit Singh Sidhu was the only NPA council candidate not elected. Kewal Pabla and Iqbal Sara came last on the NPA slates for park board and school board, respectively.