Shred the System

Will Voting Yes To Wards On October 16 Create An Electoral Process That Better Reflects The Diversity Of Vancouver's Population?

The past five Vancouver civic elections have been a disaster for Indo-Canadian municipal politicians. The trouble began in 1990, when the only South Asian incumbent, NPA school trustee Harkirpal Sara, was defeated in his bid for a third term on the Vancouver school board. For the Indo-Canadian community, it has been downhill ever since.

In the 1993 election, the NPA enjoyed spectacular success, capturing nine of the 10 council seats. However, the only Indo-Canadian NPA council candidate, Daljit Sidhu, suffered a devastating loss. Sidhu, president of the Original Punjabi Market Association, finished almost 10,000 votes behind his closest NPA Caucasian competitor, Craig Hemer.

City's Electoral History

1886: Vancouver is created, with 10 aldermen and the mayor elected "at large". The first city council creates five wards, which would each elect two aldermen.

1904: City council increases the number of wards to six, each with two members.

1920: Vancouver experiments with a single transferable ballot, which is a form of proportional representation.

1923: Vancouver reinstates wards.

1928: Point Grey and South Vancouver are amalgamated into Vancouver.

1929: The city is divided into 12 wards.

1935: In a citywide referendum, 69 percent vote to abolish wards in favour of the at-large system. There is a 19-percent turnout.

1936: The provincial government amends the law to permit at-large elections and reduces the number of aldermen to eight.

1937: The Non-Partisan Association is formed to keep the socialists out of power.

1968: The Committee of Progressive Electors, a pro-ward party, is created.

1973: In a citywide referendum, 58.7 percent of voters reject wards.

1978: In another referendum, 51.7 percent vote in favour of wards.

1979: An electoral-review commission chaired by Judge Lawrence Ekhardt recommends a mixed system of 15 councillors, with two-thirds elected in five wards and one-third elected at-large. Council never acted on this recommendation.

1982: In the third referendum in a decade, 57 percent vote in favour of wards. The Social Credit provincial government responds that it will only change the system if 60 percent vote for wards.

1988: Council appoints Douglas McKay to chair a commission that recommends boundaries for 10 wards; in a referendum later that year, 56 percent vote for wards.

1993: The NDP provincial government scraps the requirement for a referendum.

1996: Voters deliver a mixed response to a complicated referendum question: 59 percent favour the at-large system, whereas 54 percent opt for wards if there's any change.

2002: COPE wins a landslide victory.

2004: Electoral commissioner Tom Berger recommends switching to a ward system.

Source: A City of Neighbourhoods: Report of the 2004 Vancouver Electoral Commission.

The same year, Kewal Pabla, a businessman and the only NPA Indo-Canadian park board candidate, trailed his nearest Caucasian NPA competitor by 4,000 votes. The NPA's only Indo-Canadian school board candidate, lawyer Iqbal Sara, came in a disappointing 15th place. For the second consecutive time, Vancouver voters had rejected every candidate of South Asian descent.

In 1996, the big political story was the NPA's unprecedented sweep of the park board, school board, city council, and the mayoral race. This time, the governing party didn't run any Indo-Canadians, but COPE did.

The three COPE candidates with South Asian surnames—Nina Khajuria, Kamla R. Raj, and Raj Sihota—each came in last on their slates for council, school board, and park board, respectively.

In 1999, the phenomenon struck a fourth time. The NPA won eight of 10 council seats. However, the ruling party's only Indo-Canadian council candidate, real-estate agent Baldev Dhugga, didn't come close. He trailed the second-lowest-ranking NPA candidate, Janet Leduc, by more than 3,000 votes.

The same year, the NPA's only candidate of South Asian descent for school board, Vijay Singhera, finished almost 4,000 votes behind her closest NPA Caucasian competitor, incumbent trustee John Robertson. The NPA didn't run an Indo-Canadian for park board, but COPE did. Munna Prasad, a South Asian, finished last among the COPE candidates.

In 2002, neither COPE nor the NPA nominated a single candidate of South Asian descent for any of the 26 elected positions on council, school board, and park board.

A similar situation has unfolded in Surrey, the region's second-largest city.

In 1993, all the nonwhite candidates went down to defeat. In 1999, the well-regarded Sukh Dhaliwal ran for the powerful Surrey Electors Team machine headed by Mayor Doug McCallum. Dhaliwal's campaign manager was a crack political organizer named Kevin Falcon, now B.C.'s Minister of Transportation.

Even with these connections, Dhaliwal lost. Surrey has never had an Indo-Canadian municipal councillor, even though 20 percent of that city's population is South Asian, according to the last census.

One of the most glaring percentage differentials occurred in Burnaby in 1999. The second-lowest ranking Burnaby NPA council candidate collected 50 percent more votes than the only Indo-Canadian member of the slate, SFU political scientist Shinder Purewal. Not one of the above-mentioned candidates has ever run since in a municipal election.

Meanwhile, on the provincial scene, seven Lower Mainland MLAs of South Asian descent were elected in 2001, including two from Burnaby and three from Surrey.

Two Indo-Canadian Liberal MPs, Herb Dhaliwal and Ujjal Dosanjh, have each achieved tremendous influence in Ottawa as federal cabinet ministers. Yet there is not a single Lower Mainland municipal politician of South Asian descent with full voting power on the boards of the Greater Vancouver Regional District or TransLink.

Some in the Indo-Canadian community say they're fed up with this situation.

Jarnail Singh Bhandal, president of the Ross Street Sikh temple, told the Georgia Straight that he thinks Vancouver needs a ward system to give ethnic minorities a better chance of getting elected to city council. On October 16, Vancouverites will vote in a nonbinding plebiscite on changing the electoral system from at-large to wards. Under the current at-large electoral system, voters across the entire city cast ballots for up to 10 council candidates.

Defenders of this approach claim it results in the election of councillors with a "citywide" perspective. At the provincial and federal levels, candidates run in smaller geographic areas, giving concentrated ethnic groups greater clout at the ballot box.

"In the at-large system, it's very hard to win for the minorities," Bhandal maintained. "If you are very high-profile in the whole city, only then you can win. Otherwise, there is no chance."

Bhandal claimed that a ward system would improve the quality of civic representation because people with a proven record of community service could compete against more famous opponents.

Rattan Mall, the fiery editor of the Indo-Canadian Voice, has gone much further, alleging in his columns that opponents of a ward system are trying to perpetuate an undemocratic and racist municipal electoral system. After two Fraser Institute researchers wrote an article in the Vancouver Sun claiming that the cost of government is lower under an at-large system, Mall denounced the organization as a "right-wing white controlled conservative institute that is an embarrassing dinosaur for multicultural British Columbia". Mall has also disparaged the NPA as "the rich white man's party", even though it has fielded numerous Chinese-Canadian candidates in the past two decades.

According to the last census, 30 percent of Vancouver's population is of Chinese descent, yet only one of the 10 councillors, COPE's Raymond Louie, is not Caucasian. Louie, a second-generation Vancouverite, speaks some Cantonese, though rarely with the media, and resists being labelled as a politician only for the local Chinese community.

None of Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell's three executive assistants speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, Tagalog, or Vietnamese, even though these languages are commonly used in the city.

This raises the question: is there something about Vancouver's municipal electoral system that discriminates against racial minorities? This year, Vancouver's electoral commissioner, former B.C. Supreme Court judge Tom Berger, didn't confront this issue explicitly in his 158-page report recommending a ward system.

Instead, Berger chose to focus more attention on other problems associated with the at-large system, such as the lack of neighbourhood representation, disparities in voter turnout, and the city's incomprehensible ballot. It featured 118 different names in 2002, including 46 candidates for city council.

In his 1995 master's thesis, now SFU public-policy professor Kennedy Stewart reported that from 1958 to 1993, three West Side neighbourhoods—Shaughnessy, Kerrisdale, and Dunbar-Southlands—had average voter turnouts between 49 percent and 54 percent.

Over the same period, two East Side neighbourhoods, Mount Pleasant and Strathcona, each averaged a 29 percent turnout.

"Communities with low socioeconomic status consistently vote less frequently than communities with a high socio-economic ranking," Stewart wrote.

Berger reported that in the 2002 civic election, roughly 25 percent more eligible voters cast ballots on the West Side compared with the East Side. As a result, he claimed that West Side voters have a greater impact on the outcome of elections under the at-large system.

"When voting rates are skewed geographically in a way that conforms to patterns of income, education, family status, and language, I don't think it is right to associate underrepresentation with apathy," Berger wrote. "I think it is self-evident that it is attributable to reasons such as those I have described, which are structural and systemic. It is not fair to give a person a lesser voice in government because of these conditions, and it is not unreasonable to expect a system of government to provide a measure of equality for all its citizens."

Earlier this year, Berger told Vancouver city council that the at-large system is broken.

"The ballot is so bad that it doesn't allow the citizens of Vancouver to cast an informed vote," he said. "They don't know who the people are on the ballot....No citizen can be expected to properly inform himself or herself about the character and qualifications of 46 persons running for city council."

Berger noted in his report that other Canadian cities with populations comparable to Vancouver—including Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and Hamilton—all elect councillors in wards. San Francisco switched from at-large to wards following a 1996 referendum. Portland and Seattle, however, have retained their at-large systems, though Berger said the overall pattern in the U.S. is "predominantly wards".

Just two pages in his report were devoted to the issue of multilingual ballots. Berger concluded that any advantages would be offset by even bigger problems. Only once in his report did Berger address the difficulty of ethnic candidates getting elected under the at-large system.

"Douglas J. Amy, in his highly-regarded textbook [Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems, Praeger, 2000] on electoral systems, sets against the two advantages of at-large block voting—promoting city-wide representation over local parochial interests and avoiding problems of gerrymandering when ward boundaries are drawn—a list of disadvantages: poor geographic representation, more expensive campaigns, and self-defeating votes by electors," Berger wrote in his report. "Amy also asserts that the representation of racial, ethnic or political minorities fares less well under the at-large system than any other possible system."

Berger did not test Amy's assertion by evaluating how local ethnic candidates performed in previous Vancouver elections. Berger also didn't explore why a significant number of voters in citywide contests appear to pass over the South Asian candidates on the major parties' slates. Nor did he inquire into whether or not the major civic political parties demonstrate any discriminatory practices in the recruitment and nomination of candidates.

In the upcoming plebiscite, registered voters will have the choice of maintaining the status quo at-large system or choosing to increase the number of councillors from 10 to 14, with each elected in a neighbourhood constituency. The city has distributed a four-page flyer to every household explaining that the mayor, school board, and park board would still be elected at-large.

The most outspoken advocate of the at-large system, NPA Coun. Sam Sullivan, acknowledged that it creates three "legitimate" problems: the excessively large and complicated ballot; the lack of a single councillor for a citizen to contact; and complaints from ethnic minorities about the difficulty of getting elected. Sullivan told the Straight that he doesn't believe there is any "systemic discrimination" against Indo-Canadian candidates in a citywide vote, and he insisted that a "renewed" at-large system could address all the key concerns.

"I tell you, it is my commitment that I'm going to work really hard to make sure we do have an Indo-Canadian elected in the NPA," Sullivan promised.

On September 28, Sullivan introduced a motion claiming that the at-large system was responsible for Vancouver's triple-A credit rating and for being rated the best city in the world by three European agencies. In this motion, which the COPE-controlled council deferred, Sullivan wanted to ask the province to require candidates to collect 20 signatures to be eligible to run. He told the Straight that this would simplify the ballot while retaining the at-large system.

"We don't believe you have to throw the thing out when it has been so successful," he said.

Former NPA councillor Don Lee, another supporter of the at-large system, has researched how candidates of Chinese descent have fared in Vancouver versus Toronto, which has a ward system. Lee claimed to the Straight that only three have been elected in the City of Toronto since 1969. Urban-affairs writer and public-policy consultant John Sewell, a former Toronto mayor, told the Straight that this figure is misleading because it doesn't include Greater Toronto.

"We've got a whole variety on city council," Sewell said. "I think the ward system helps that."

Since 1982, Vancouver has elected eight councillors of Chinese descent: Bill Yee, Sandra Wilking, Tung Chan, Maggie Ip, Jenny Kwan, Daniel Lee, Don Lee, and Raymond Louie. The percentage of councillors of Chinese descent has never matched the percentage in the city's population.

Lee, a retired mathematics teacher, said that candidates with Chinese-sounding names generally fare quite well in Vancouver's at-large system, whereas those with South Asian--sounding names do much worse. In 1993, Kwan, then a political rookie, was the only COPE candidate elected to council. In 1996, Daniel Lee and Don Lee were both elected on the NPA ticket even though neither had sought political office before and neither had a high public profile. In 1999, COPE school trustee Allan Wong topped the polls in his first campaign. In the same election, NPA school board candidate Bill Yuen attracted more votes than any other NPA candidate seeking to become a trustee. In 2002, the NPA's B.C. Lee attracted more votes than all the other nonincumbent NPA candidates except Peter Ladner, who already had a high public profile as a publisher.

"If you look at each civic election, the new candidate with the Chinese name usually has the higher number of votes than...the rest of the newcomers," Lee said.

Vancouver's Chinese population is exceedingly diverse. Thousands trace their Canadian roots back several generations, whereas many others have arrived more recently from the People's Republic of China and from Taiwan. People of Chinese ancestry are also widely dispersed geographically, unlike the Indo-Canadian community, which is primarily concentrated in southeast Vancouver. Lee said that while he was on council, half of the calls to his office came from new immigrants living across the entire city.

Last February, Lee submitted a petition with 585 names to Berger asking for a citywide referendum before the imposition of a ward system. Lee told the Straight that Chinatown businesspeople and many Chinese-speaking residents in the area worry that a ward councillor for Strathcona-Grandview will not represent their interests.

"Going back to the new immigrants, of course they will want the at-large system," Lee claimed. "Hopefully [with this system], they will get somebody to speak their language to serve them."

For long-time Kitsilano COPE activist Mel Lehan, the key issue in the upcoming plebiscite is neighbourhood representation. He bristled at any suggestion that electing ward politicians will result in a crew of parochial councillors only interested in their own backyards. In the 1990s, Lehan founded an organization called Neighbour to Neighbour, which linked more than 50 residents' associations across Vancouver. He told the Straight that members banded together to save the historic Mole Hill homes in the West End. "Every neighbourhood in the city, from Shaughnessy to the Downtown Eastside, came out and spoke in favour of preserving Mole Hill," he recalled.

Lehan claimed that Vancouver needs to have "urban villages" to create a greater sense of community within the fabric of the larger city. He said that a ward councillor could play a key role in making this happen by holding regular evening meetings with constituents and seeking input before voting on major issues.

"They're more than a ward councillor," Lehan said. "They're a visionary for the city."

In the last election, COPE spent $1.1 million and the NPA spent $800,000 promoting their respective slates. Berger's report quoted one woman who was elected in a Kingston, Ontario, ward with a $400 campaign budget. Lehan said that under a ward system, candidates don't need to spend nearly as much money because they're running in smaller geographic areas. "When you have an at-large system, it basically allows big developers and big parties to dominate the civic scene," Lehan said.

Sewell, the former Toronto mayor, said political parties don't exist at the municipal level in his city. "A ward system is very good, in my opinion, because it ensures different areas in the community are represented by someone who is bringing their interests to council," he said. "I mean, it's politically useful for them to do that. That's something that doesn't happen as much as it should in Vancouver with the at-large system."

Berger also highlighted the importance of neighbourhood representation in one of his presentations to council. The electoral commissioner cited several issues--the missing women on the Downtown Eastside, the introduction of slot machines at Hastings Park, and big-box stores--in which neighbourhoods should have a voice during council debates. "The neighbourhood perspective may prevail or it may not, but at least it will be heard, and the neighbourhood will know that their interest has been represented," Berger said. "That is the most critical issue as I see it."

Coun. Sullivan told the Straight that he found it "offensive" that Berger would raise the issue of the missing women in the context of the city's electoral system. The NPA councillor claimed that it was equally possible that a ward politician might side with residents who oppose prostitution, resulting in even greater hardship for sex-trade workers. He also claimed that city council has no influence on criminal investigations.

"We don't make decisions for the police force," Sullivan said.

Berger's decision to raise such controversial issues as the missing women suggests that the upcoming plebiscite is extremely important for the city's future. Would a ward councillor answerable to Downtown Eastside residents have raised a ruckus in the 1990s over the disappearance of dozens of sex-trade workers? Could that have prompted the Vancouver police department to reallocate resources from busting marijuana grow-ops to investigating whether or not there was a serial killer on the loose? Might this have saved lives?

Similarly, would the presence of an Indo-Canadian councillor brought more attention to gangland shootings within that community? Could that have caused police to respond differently?

On September 16, Mayor Campbell stood outside Vancouver City Hall and declared that if voters choose wards, this system will be in place in time for the 2005 civic election. If the public rejects wards, this could stall any momentum for change across the region.

The stakes are enormously high for neighbourhoods, for real-estate developers, and, judging from recent elections, for anyone of South Asian descent who aspires to a career in civic politics.