Since Vancouver’s incorporation as a city in 1886, approximately 98 percent of its councillors have been white.
And every one of Vancouver’s 39 mayors has been a white man.
These are more than lopsided statistics. They are the sort of results one expects from a Russian or Zimbabwean reelection. But these slanted numbers should be tagged with an asterisk, given Chinese and South Asian Canadians were legally denied the vote in Canada until 1947, and Japanese Canadians until 1948 (and hence they were equally denied the right to stand for office).
If white people have always been winning, it was because, once upon a time, they were the only ones permitted to compete.
2018 however, seemed poised to be the breakthrough year when this story arc finally jumps from being #VancouverSoWhite to #VancouverSoDiverse. Every one of the nine parties in this race has fielded candidates from diverse ethnic backgrounds—and typically more than just the token one for their slates.
And there is still a possibility the city may finally elect its first nonwhite mayor, a potential outcome that, if not brighter, has at least not dimmed since mid-summer when Ken Sim won a historic NPA nomination.
Yet despite all these positive signs, the forecast still seems uncertain—and if you’re a pessimist, it’s as bleak as ever—that Vancouver’s new council won’t just be more of the status quo when it comes ethnic under-representation.
Ironically, this could be the result of voter choice—not a lack but an over-abundance of it.
There are 71 candidates competing for ten city council seats of which only three incumbents are running for re-election. From a mathematical perspective, there are a staggering 461,738,052,776 possible combinations of candidates that could form the next council—approximately the same number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, give or take a few billion.
Though a few of the candidates, as usual, are more peripheral contenders, the bulk are not—this astronomical number illustrates the bewildering array of choices facing Vancouver voters in this weekend’s vote. Given the NPA, Yes Vancouver, and Coalition Vancouver are the only parties running large enough slates to form a majority—and given they are all lagging in recent polls—it is a reasonable expectation that for the first time since 1986, Vancouver has a council where no party has a majority. And it also may be the case—for the first time since when the city hosted Expo 86—that we end up with council that is all white.
The polling has been difficult in in this crowded race. But as of the most recent poll by a Research Co. online survey, 51 percent of respondents indicated they would consider voting for the Green Party (running four candidates), 35 percent for the NPA (eight candidates), and 35 percent for COPE (three candidates), 29 percent for Vision Vancouver (29 percent), and 27 perent for OneCity (two candidates).
For the average voter, researching all 71 candidates is a Herculean task. The simplifying strategy (aside from not voting or, arguably worse, randomly checking off names), would be to vote for a party slate and then allocate one’s remainder votes to a neighbouring party on the political spectrum, or to a select number of independents.
So on the left, progressive voters would likely end up favouring some combination of better known candidates from leading parties like Green, COPE, Vision, and OneCity, while on the right, a voter would pick and choose from the NPA, Yes Vancouver, Coalition Vancouver, Vancouver 1st, and one or two independents.
There are better prospects on the right for the first South Asian to sit on council in nearly half a century or for the first Filipino to win a council seat. But this would depend primarily on the NPA winning a majority slate which in turn depends on how fractured the vote is on the left.
Meanwhile back on the left, the prospect of a diverse candidate winning a seat depends on how voters pick and choose between the various progressive parties and their favourite independents.
In both scenarios, it seems unlikely that more than one or two diverse candidates squeak through onto the council, if any do at all.
Diverse candidates often finish near or at the bottom of their respective slates, regardless of how prominent they are within their own communities. A telling example was in 2008, when the lone Vision councillor out of eight on the slate who failed to win a seat was Kashmir Dhaliwal, the former president of the Khalsa Diwan Society (Ross Street Sikh Temple). Despite being a power broker within one of B.C.’s biggest Sikh temples, and one with a very politically active congregation, Dhaliwal still was the only Vision candidate that fell short of being elected.
In the upcoming 2019 federal election we will likely be hearing (to the brink of nausea) of how "diversity is our strength". And unfortunately, this catchphrase will be misused repeatedly on the campaign trail to gloss over the mediocre performance of some of the federal Liberal government’s ministers—I am not someone who advocates for diversity if only for the sake of its pleasing optics.
But I do believe increased ethnic representation on Vancouver’s city council can provide, if not new solutions, then at least new empathy for issues like immigration settlement and mental health issues, Chinatown’s heritage preservation, Punjabi market development, seniors' housing, housing for multigenerational families, and any number of other Vancouver-centric issues that also go beyond mere "ethnic issues".
So I am going to make a bold suggestion and add some additional—though I believe manageable complexity—into this election by suggesting voters give extra consideration to diversity, perhaps even conscientiously allocating those last two or three votes to diverse candidates once you have selected your slates.
There are many interesting "on-the-bubble" candidates who can provide a new voice to the civic arena. Many are even new to politics but have been successful in other areas.
These votes need not go to candidate(s) from a particular ethnic community, rather I suggest a vote on an under-represented issue. Here are a list of some of these issues and a corresponding candidate campaigning on its behalf:
- Addressing loneliness via intergenerational housing: Abubakar Khan
- Cleaner streets: Erin Shum
- Voting rights for permanent residents: Taqdir Bhandal
- Reclaiming rental housing from AirBnB: Rohana Rezel
- Small business taxes: Brinder Bains
- Inner-city mentorship: David Wong
- Safer streets: Nycki Basra
- Small business growth: JoJo Quimpo
- Business red tape and innovation: David Grewal
- Opioid addiction: Jaspreet Virdi
Vancouver’s housing crisis has crowded out other issues worthy of attention in this election—these candidates are bringing forth awareness and solutions for some of these.
And in a city where half the population is foreign-born and becoming more diverse over time, these crossover candidates will be vital connectors between Vancouver’s communities.
While it is hard to put a value on that, it seems clearly worth a vote or two.