Even though several members of the South Asian community have called Vancouver’s at-large voting system racist, no member of the Vision Vancouver–controlled city council has plans to introduce a motion to create a ward system.
In separate interviews with the Georgia Straight on December 8, Mayor Gregor Robertson and eight members of council would not answer “yes” when asked point-blank if they will bring forward a motion to replace the at-large system with wards, in which councillors are elected on a neighbourhood-constituency basis. (The Straight did not interview COPE councillor David Cadman or Vision Vancouver councillor George Chow.)
Vision Vancouver councillors Raymond Louie and Kerry Jang both acknowledged the discriminatory nature of the at-large system, in which candidates are elected on a citywide basis. Louie also said that the city will be “informed” by a provincial referendum next May on the single transferable vote, which is a form of proportional representation.
“We’ll need to look at all opportunities, I think, to provide better opportunity and voice for all of our communities in our city,” Louie said. “I’m open to the idea of looking for other models than our current at-large system.”
Jang, who cochaired the “yes” side during the city’s 2004 plebiscite on wards, said Vision Vancouver will discuss electoral reform in caucus. “It has been tied into discrimination now, so there is that angle,” Jang noted. “I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve always thought of it as greater representation for neighbourhoods.”
In 2004, the Straight highlighted the issue of the racist nature of the at-large system in a cover story called “Shred the system”. The article pointed out that candidates with South Asian names had come last on their slates for city council, park board, and school board in every Vancouver election dating back to 1990. In the 2008 Vancouver election, all six candidates with South Asian names running for major parties came last on their slates—usually several thousand votes behind the closest candidate.
Unsuccessful NPA school-board candidate Lakhbir Singh, a medical doctor, told the Straight last week that he will file a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that the at-large system is discriminatory. “If they change it to a ward system, I would run [again],” Singh said. “But in at-large, I’m 100-percent sure there is absolutely no hope of winning.”
Simon Fraser University public-policy professor Kennedy Stewart told the Straight that U.S. courts have struck down hundreds of at-large systems, also known as multimember districts, and replaced them with single-member districts. Stewart said U.S. courts have repeatedly determined that at-large systems discriminate against minorities.
“Certain subgroups of the population find it impossible to get seats in the at-large system, which was common in the United States,” Stewart noted.
Stewart said that other members of the South Asian community, whom he wouldn’t identify, are considering a court challenge, which would be linked to the equality-rights section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “You’ll probably find in large municipalities all over the province that councils don’t have mirror representation, and particular groups are essentially shut out of their own governing process,” he said.
However, Stewart said that Vancouver city council could avoid litigation by passing a motion and changing its electoral system. Under Section 138 of the Vancouver Charter, a council may pass a bylaw stipulating that some or all of the councillors may be elected on a neighbourhood-constituency basis. After the bylaw is passed, the provincial cabinet must approve it before it can take effect. Stewart, who opposes plebiscites or referendums on minority rights, explained that there is no legal requirement for the city to put this issue on the ballot for voters.
“It’s so much easier [for the politicians] to push this off to a plebiscite and spend millions of dollars on the ”˜no’ side and the ”˜yes’ side,” he said.
COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth told the Straight that her party is committed to working for wards, but she wouldn’t commit to introducing a motion on this matter. “It’s more likely that someone from COPE would bring it forward, because it’s part of our platform,” she said.
Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer told the Straight that she is not a proponent of ward systems, but she is willing to bring forward alternatives to the at-large system. She claimed that a ward system would “ghettoize the problem even more”.
“If the problem is we’re too parochial and too divided, why would you draw lines around those boundaries and entrench them?” Reimer asked. “I think it’s a very dangerous proposition in this city, where the biggest challenge is bringing east and west together.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs told the Straight that he supports a ward system, but he won’t bring forward a motion until his caucus decides what process should be used to gather public input. NPA councillor Suzanne Anton, an opponent of ward systems, told the Straight that Vancouverites voted to retain the at-large system in 2004. She said she is “very confident” that there will be greater representation of the South Asian community on civic elected bodies after the next election, in 2011.