When Lakhbir Singh ran unsuccessfully for a Vancouver school-board seat in the 2008 municipal election, he came last on his party’s slate.
That year, five other candidates with South Asian names like Singh’s ended up at the bottom of the major-party heap for council, school board, and park board.
But it wasn’t the first time that such a thing happened. It’s the same electoral outcome that has plagued South Asian candidates in every election in Vancouver since 1990.
With another civic election coming up in November this year, Singh, a medical doctor, won’t bother to put his name on the ballot again.
“There’s no hope for a minority candidate to win,” Singh told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.
Singh isn’t the only South Asian who is disheartened. No one from that ethnic community is running for either the ruling Vision Vancouver or the opposition Non-Partisan Association.
That’s quite a significant departure from the last election, when Vision had two South Asian candidates and the NPA had Singh and two others.
Singh maintained that the city’s at-large system of voting is discriminatory against South Asians and other minority groups, a situation that he believes can be addressed by shifting to a ward system.
“Every large urban centre has switched to the ward system, and the only holdout left in all of Canada and the United States is us, British Columbia,” he said. “Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, they’re all under the ward system. The simple reason is that it allows for greater representation of the people that live in the city.”
Like Singh, Alvin Singh of the Coalition of Progressive Electors failed to win a seat on the school board in 2008. He also is not running again, but for a different reason than that of the NPA’s Singh: he cited the work involved in being his party’s executive director.
However, COPE’s Singh declined to say in a phone interview with the Straight whether any South Asians are going to seek nominations with his party in the fall.
According to Rattan Mall, an outspoken journalist who edits the Asian Journal, a predominantly South Asian–oriented paper, potential candidates from the community feel they don’t stand a chance in Vancouver.
“I think that South Asians have come to be totally demoralized,” Mall told the Straight in a phone interview.
But Mall doesn’t believe that this is due to an electoral bias against members of this particular ethnic group.
“The Chinese have more in numbers [in Vancouver], like the Indo-Canadians have more in numbers in Surrey,” he said. “So in a way I don’t think it’s got anything to do with racism. It’s just the reality of the ethnic situation right now.”
According to community statistics put out by the City of Vancouver, at least 49 percent of residents reported during the 2006 census that English is their mother tongue, while just over 25 percent indicated that theirs is Chinese. Only 2.8 percent reported their original language as Punjabi, which is even slightly lower than the 2.9 percent who said that they speak Tagalog, the common language of people of Filipino ancestry.
Vision councillor Kerry Jang explained that his party actually asked for candidates from the South Asian community. But according to him, no one stepped forward.
“Many of the South Asians that we talked to were supportive of Tony Tang for council,” Jang told the Straight in a phone interview. Like Jang, Tang is a Chinese Canadian.
Kashmir Dhaliwal, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society, was the only unsuccessful council candidate for Vision in the 2008 election. Another South Asian run by Vision—Raj Hundal—won a seat on the park board. But Hundal isn’t seeking reelection this year and will likely move to provincial politics.
In November 2010, a South Asian—Jesse Johl—was acclaimed by the NPA as candidate for council. However, according to NPA president John Moonen, Johl was later dropped because he wasn’t responding to further correspondence from the party.
The NPA hasn’t fully filled up its slates for park board and school board. Moonen told the Straight that the party may still nominate more candidates. But he’s not sure whether a South Asian may come forward.
Naresh Shukla, a prominent businessman in Vancouver’s Main Street Punjabi Market, ran but failed to win a park-board seat with the NPA in 2008. Like those of the others, his name will not appear on in this year’s ballot.
“Maybe it takes time to change,” Shukla told the Straight by phone about the city’s current voting system. “We need a ward system. That’s the only way the minority peoples can come further.”