The problem: Vancouver’s at-large electoral system is racist.
The proof: Almost every candidate with a South Asian surname has come last on his or her party’s slate in the past 18 years.
Options available to fix this problem:
a) a court challenge, which would probably succeed
b) a human-rights complaint, which would invariably be appealed to the courts, delaying a positive outcome
c) a motion approved by council creating a ward system, which could be done in less than five minutes with sufficient political will
a) Councillors don’t want to end the at-large system because it favours incumbents, who have greater name recognition.
b) Some councillors live in the same neighbourhood, notably the Commercial Drive-Trout Lake area, so they have a vested interest in opposing a ward system because that could force them to either move or run against each other.
c) Proponents of proportional representation loathe any sort of first-past-the-post system, so they will try to block a ward system.
d) There is no legal mechanism within the Vancouver Charter for creating a proportional-representation system. So when people raise this issue, it delays an immediate solution to addressing the problem of a racist electoral system. The only remedy under the current law is to create a partial-ward or a full-ward system, which can be done through a council motion that must be ratified by the provincial cabinet.
The South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy and No One Is Illegal have been leading antiracist organizations in this region for a long time. They and other antiracist groups should educate themselves about how the at-large system amounts to institutionalized racism (if they haven’t done so already). Then, they should notify the media and organize a protest on the steps of Vancouver City Hall on January 20 at 1:30 p.m. They could bring placards with phrases saying: “No more racism. No more at-large.” Or “I want my kid to have a chance to serve on city council.” They could invite SFU professor Kennedy Stewart to give a speech about how racist at-large systems were defeated in the United States. Veterans of past civil-rights battles, such as retired SFU professor Hari Sharma, could give speeches to inspire the younger people. Then at 2:05, the crowd could enter city hall, march up to the third floor, walk into the council chamber, and start chanting, “No more racism. No more at-large.” Then they could present a written demand to each councillor to pass a motion for a ward system in the City of Vancouver.
My guess is that there would be enough members of council who would feel sufficient shame about the city’s institutionalized racism that they would probably pass a motion to change the status quo. Eventually, it would mean that bright young people of South Asian descent could consider the possibility of serving the citizens as a member of Vancouver city council. Right now, that isn’t an option for them, which is a blemish on all of us.