Racist at-large voting system creates uphill challenge for Vancouver candidates of colour

    1 of 5 2 of 5

      It's already a certainty that there will be few incumbents on the next Vancouver city council.

      Five Vision Vancouver politicians (Mayor Gregor Robertson and councillors Raymond Louie, Tim Stevenson, Kerry Jang, and Andrea Reimer) are not seeking reelection.

      A sixth, Geoff Meggs, quit council last year to become Premier John Horgan's chief of staff.

      The only Vision Vancouver councillor who might run is Heather Deal.

      She's been in municipal politics since 2002, serving one term as a COPE park commissioner and four terms as a Vision Vancouver councillor.

      On the NPA side, Coun. George Affleck isn't seeking reelection.

      It's uncertain whether three-term councillor Elizabeth Ball will run again but I'm betting that she'll sit out this election.

      A third NPA councillor, Hector Bremner, appears on the verge of making a permanent break with his party. This is a result of the board denying him a chance to seek the mayoral nomination.

      My best guess is that Bremner will announce that he's running for mayor with a new party unless he chickens out at the last minute. It would rely on the slogan "Let's Fix Vancouver".

      That leaves one NPA councillor left, Melissa De Genova. She has to decide if she'll stick with her party or join Bremner's crew.

      It would be a tough decision, given that she's probably reasonably comfortable with Ken Sim heading the NPA ticket. But in the end, I suspect she'll go with Bremner, given that she's not afraid of taking political risks. De Genova and Bremner see eye-to-eye on dramatically increasing the housing supply and supporting more neighbourhood densification, which sets them apart from some in the NPA.

      It's also possible that park commissioner Erin Shum, who was elected with the NPA in 2014, could join a slate headed by Bremner.

      Park commissioner Erin Shum (left) and Coun. Melissa De Genova (right) have been photographed alongside former Conservative MP Wai Young, but they could quite possibly back a Hector Bremner candidacy for mayor.

      If all of this unfolds, this is what I expect we'll see on the Vancouver ballot in October:

      * The Vision Vancouver slate will be headed by Squamish hereditary chief Ian Campbell. It will include one incumbent council candidate (Heather Deal), and four other council candidates, including one, Catherine Evans, with elected experience on the park board. The other three spots on the council slate will be filled by younger candidates of colour.

      * An NPA slate will be entirely made up of candidates with no council experience. It will include Sarah Kirby-Yung, a one-term park commissioner. Quite possibly, the NPA will allow rabble-rouser Glen Chernen to run as a council candidate. That could very likely push De Genova away.

      The Vision Vancouver and NPA brands are in terrible shape, though they still have functioning party organizations. Quite possibly they won't elect more than three councillors between them.

      Here's an early guess: Deal, Evans, and Kirby-Yung, purely on their name recognition.

      There's a long history in Vancouver of park commissioner making a successful leap to council, which is why Evans and Kirby-Yung have a decent chance of winning.

      Next up is the Greens, who will run three candidates for council: Adriane Carr and likely park commissioner Michael Wiebe and city-hall watcher Pete Fry.

      Based on what happened in the October by-election when three Greens topped the polls for school board, they'll probably all be elected.

      Coun. Adriane Carr should have no trouble gettting reelected, but it remains to be seen if fellow Green Pete Fry will make it onto council in his third attempt.

      Wiebe will benefit from his four years on park board, which makes him better known than other new candidates for council.

      That would leave four other spots on council. Here's my bet for how this will shake down.

      OneCity will elect one candidate, possibly Christine Boyle though perhaps Brandon Yan will surprise people.

      COPE candidate Jean Swanson will be elected.

      Melissa De Genova will be elected on the Let's Fix Vancouver slate should she choose to abandon the NPA.

      And COPE's Anne Roberts could be elected, based on name recognition from serving as a councillor and school trustee in the past. However, she or Boyle may be nipped at the finish line by media-savvy COPE candidate Derrick O'Keefe.

      This scenario would leave Vancouver with a council with five former park commissioners: Deal, De Genova, Evans, Kirby-Yung, and Wiebe.

      Park commissioners Catherine Evans and Michael Wiebe (seen at the Polar Bear swim) both have a decent chance of being elected to Vancouver council.
      Vancouver park board

      If one of the independent candidates, NDP MP Kennedy Stewart or SFU professor Shauna Sylvester, or Bremner is elected mayor, this would leave only one person of colour on Vancouver council under this analysis, should Yan lose.

      That would be the Greens' Fry, who's the son of Liberal MP Hedy Fry. But even Pete Fry could lose if enough voters reject the Greens over its decision to scotch the candidacy of actor Adam Abrams. The decision appears to be linked to Abrams's ties to Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter.

      However, if Vision Vancouver's Campbell or the NPA's Ken Sim is elected to succeed Gregor Robertson, plenty of media attention would be showered on the first mayor of Indigenous or Chinese history in the city's history.

      But at the end of the day, there would be a mostly or even an entirely white council under this scenario. 

      There are other possibilities.

      Conceivably, Vision Vancouver will perform some sort of Lazarus act and win another election with little-known candidates.

      But the chance of that seems fairly remote, given the shellacking that Vision's council candidate received in the October by-election.

      Of course, there's also a chance that Bremner's new slate could capture the public's imagination.

      If the NPA withers, this centre-right group could win a surprising number of seats, given the multitude of candidates running on the centre-left and left side of the spectrum.

      The makeup of a Bremner slate is still unclear at this stage. It might include multilingual, Oxford-educated B.C. Liberal activist Julian Prieto. If he's elected, would become the first candidate of Philippine ancestry to win public office in Vancouver's local government. 

      A Bremner council slate would very likely include Adrian Crook, a pro-density activist. And if Shum unexpectedly joined the council slate rather than seeking reelection to park board, she would have a good chance of winning.

      But let's say that Bremner's slate only took one council seat and if that went to De Genova, where would that leave us?

      Once again, Vancouver's at-large system would lead to the election of hardly any new candidates of colour to Vancouver council. It might result in an even whiter council than the current group, which includes Kerry Jang and Raymond Louie.

      For years, Kennedy Stewart and others have been arguing that the at-large voting system is racist, particularly as it pertains to new candidates of colour and to those with South Asian names.

      This topic was explored recently on Straight.com in a lengthy essay by journalist Jagdeesh Mann, the long-time editor of the Asian Pacific Post.

      When Vision Vancouver was elected, there was hope that it would fix the structurally racist voting system. But Robertson and his council refused to take on this challenge.

      It's one reason why Stewart has entered the mayoral race.

      That could cost Vision's Ian Campbell the mayoral election.

      But the most likely victims of Vision Vancouver's refusal to create a less racist voting system are its candidates of colour who seek seats on council this time around.

      I'm not sure this even crossed their minds when they filled out their nomination applications. 

      There's one upside if a mostly or entirely white Vancouver council is elected in 2018.

      It will finally drive home, once and for all, that the at-large voting system is racist.

      And if Vision Vancouver is no longer running the show, it won't be able to block efforts to fix this situation.

      Voters can have confidence that Stewart, in particular, and the COPE candidates are intent on addressing this issue.

      For the Greens, electoral reform is in their DNA.

      OneCity Vancouver strongly advocated for a ward system in the last election, so it can be counted on to address this institutional racism.

      The NPA, on the other hand, has never had an appetite to change the at-large system.

      And Vision Vancouver failed miserably when it had the chance to deal with this issue through three terms in office.

      Bremner is the wild card. He's trying to present himself as a candidate who wants to include the voices of different communities in civic government.

      But to date, he's given no indication that his definition of fixing Vancouver includes dumping a racist voting system.

      Until he suggests otherwise, voters should look upon his candidacy with a fair degree of skepticism.

      It's 2018, after all.

      It's inexcusable that racism should still be alive and well in our municipal political system.

      For anyone who doubts this assertion, I encourage them to pay attention to who's elected on October 20 in Vancouver.

      Comments