Vancouver councillors waffle on ward system

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      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.



      Wayne Smith

      Dec 11, 2008 at 12:02pm

      A first-past-the-post ward system is no solution to this problem. The obvious answer is to keep the multimember ward and use the Single Transferable Vote. This will ensure that every voter is represented. Proportional voting systems promote diversity.

      For more information:


      Dec 11, 2008 at 6:01pm

      I completely agree with Wayne Smith: it is ironic that the Vancouver Left has invested so much in replacing an at-large first-past-the-post (FPTP) system with the single-member FPTP system that has shown to be such a failure federally and provincially, and has most of the exact same defects of the current system.

      The problem with the US multi-member districts that Kennedy Stewart refers to is that they are presumably filled FPTP, as in Vancouver. What is not reported in this story is that many of the single-member districts mandated by courts have also been ordered to be gerrymandered in order to ensure that one ethnic group or another is in the majority, in an perverse attempt to impose "fairness."

      An STV system of, say, three wards of four council members or even one city of ten or twelve members, would allow voters to make their own choices--based on political party, ethnicity, local participation, or any combination of factors--and the results will accurately reflect the combined will of the voters.

      STV also removes the necessity of "strategic voting" ("I like Candidate A, but I hate B and C has a better chance of defeating B, so I'll vote for C"), makes every vote count (in a FPTP system, there are "safe" seats, where any vote--for *or* against the favourite--is completely wasted), and has many other advantages. It is a shame that the local Left is unthinkingly committed to perpetrating a new system (single-member wards) that is as unfair and faulty as the current one, and that the Straight is unthinkingly swallowing their line.

      George T. Baker

      Dec 12, 2008 at 10:24am

      The current system may possibly be broken, but to say it's racist is hyperbolic.
      You cannot claim that it is meant to keep minorities out of sitting in government when ultimately two councillors sitting on the last council would certainly fit that profile.
      I think this article seems to suggest that white Vancouverites,when presented with a qualified South Asian candidate, would rather choose a donkey than a horse.
      It's a bit silly, really.
      I think the community could present candidates that enthrall all Vancouverites and get out there and promote themselves as working for the best interests of all of Vancouver, rather than simply their own neighbourhood. I might be wrong, but I don't think Vancouverites would turn their noses up at such a candidate.

      Matthew Burrows

      Dec 12, 2008 at 11:18am

      Currently there is no provision in the Vancouver Charter to switch from at-large to a system of proportional representation. While I appreciate the merits of STV, it cannot be implemented in the city without a Charter change. I think that may be more messy, and doomed to fail, than a five-minute motion to council to change the electoral system for the 2011 election to a ward system, with the mayor, school board and park board still elected at-large. Boom! It's done, and the provincial cabinet would be very reluctant to prevent it when they give their consent.
      At that point pro-rep advocates could push for a Charter change that will at least allow for a future move to pro-rep.
      First let's at least walk before we try and do the 100-metre sprint.


      Jul 17, 2009 at 3:44pm

      If the At-Large system is so great how come Vancouver is the only major city in Canada that uses it. Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Montreal all have wards and they seem to function well. I like local accountability and I want to talk to someone from my Neighbourhood if I have a problem -- not someone from Kitsilano or Point Grey because I live in Hastings-Sunrise. Watch the movie, "Milk" and you will see how the Ward system benefits minorities.