Kennedy Stewart needs our help in getting rid of a racist electoral system in Vancouver

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      This morning, unfortunately, I was asked once again to speak about racism in Lower Mainland elections.

      It's a familiar refrain for me after covering these races for more than two decades.

      Spice Radio, which serves the South Asian community, invited me on to talk about the voting results in several communities.

      I pointed out that Baljinder Narang, a 10-year school trustee with a progressive record for LGBT students in Burnaby, missed the final spot on council.

      The rest of her Burnaby Citizens Association council slate was elected, including a veteran politician of Indian ancestry, Sav Dhaliwal.

      I noted that in Surrey, a 13-year veteran of city council of South Asian ancestry, Tom Gill, lost by about 17,000 votes in the mayoral race against Doug McCallum.

      In Vancouver, two candidates of Chinese ancestry, David Wong and Brandon Yan, failed to get elected when all the others running for council with their parties, the Greens and OneCity, cracked the top 10 and will be sworn into office.

      The NPA's David Grewal also fell short, coming in 11th. This means that Vancouver has still never had a councillor who speaks Punjabi. Five white women running for council with the NPA were elected ahead of him.

      This occurred more than a century after the Komagata Maru was forced to leave Vancouver's harbour with more than 350 immigrants from South Asia. And in all that time, not a single member of council has ever been of Punjabi ancestry.

      The last-place finisher on the NPA council slate was JoJo Quimpo, an immigrant from the Philippines. No Filipino Canadian has ever been elected to a local government position in Vancouver.

      In Richmond, candidates with Chinese surnames also fared very poorly in comparison to those with anglicized names.

      Yes, I had to concede on Spice Radio, racism appears to be alive and well in our political system.

      I emphasized that it's often not the parties' fault. They nominate slates with candidates from a variety of backgrounds.

      It's the voters who elect candidates with nonanglicized names at rates far lower than their presence in the population. It's been going on for decades.

      There are enough voters don't support candidates with South Asian, Filipino, and in this election, Chinese surnames to ensure that city councils continue to be whiter than the population as a whole. I suspect for some voters, this is done unconsciously as they check off names they don't know on a ballot.

      The public will be hard-pressed to find Asian faces on the board of regional government bodies, especially now that Vancouver councillor Raymond Louie is no longer in politics.

      Fortunately, Vancouver has elected a mayor who sees all of this as a grave injustice. An injustice worth fighting. An injustice that he's even considering going to court over.

      Kennedy Stewart has never made a secret of his disgust for the at-large system, in which councillors are elected on a citywide basis.

      The Straight has been quoting him, at various times, for more than two decades on this topic.

      Stewart, more than anyone in B.C., knows about all the U.S. court decisions finding that multimember districts discriminate against concentrated minorities.

      This was noted in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Rogers v. Lodge, in which eight African Americans from Burke County in Georgia filed a class action.

      They alleged that their constitutional and federal civil rights were violated by having to vote in a multimember district. 

      "At-large voting schemes and multimember districts tend to minimize the voting strength of minority groups by permitting the political majority to elect all representatives of the district," Justice Byron White wrote in his 1982 ruling. "A distinct minority, whether it be a racial, ethnic, economic, or political group, may be unable to elect any representatives in an at-large election, yet may be able to elect several representatives if the political unit is divided into single-member districts.

      "The minority's voting power in a multimember district is particularly diluted when bloc voting occurs and ballots are cast along strict majority-minority lines."

      As a result, the highest court in the United States ruled that the multimember district in Georgia violated the equal-protection clause of the U.S. constitution.

      Thirty-six years later, the at-large system prevails in Vancouver. This multimember district continues to corrode trust in elections, city government, and even our democracy itself.

      That's because it impairs the capacity of concentrated minorities to have an equal chance of being elected to city council as those candidates with anglicized names.

      Ask yourself how often you've heard people complaining about the Vancouver election ballot over the past week.

      It was a travesty having to select up to 10 councillors from a list of 71 names.

      Some council candidates were so far down that they appeared after the ballot extended off the bottom of the table.

      Stewart says he wants to make this the last at-large election in Vancouver.

      To achieve this laudable goal, he's going to need help from residents of the city.

      A citizens' movement to dump the at-large system must get organized—and quickly.

      Perhaps those working in favour of a "yes" vote in the provincewide referendum on electoral reform can transfer their energies in this direction after those mail-in ballots are counted.

      Secondly, we have to stop the bickering between those who support wards and those who favour proportional representation.

      Get rid of the racist at-large system, then let's battle it out over what it should be replaced with.

      Stewart has a good plan. He says if Vancouver voters favour proportional representation in the provincewide vote, that's what he'll push for in the city.

      But if they reject proportional representation, he'll go for wards.

      Former candidates who've been shafted by the at-large system—and there are many—need to start submitting commentaries to websites and newspapers to tell how this situation affected them and their families. I hope they talk to TV reporters and phone into radio shows.

      The mayor-elect should also think about creating a task force to send a message to the premier's office that he's serious about this issue.

      He might want to consider appointing defeated COPE candidate Derrick O'Keefe, who's demonstrated remarkable communications skills in his advocacy for tenants. Or Niki Sharma, a lawyer and Vancity director who was defeated in 2014 as most of the other members of her slate were elected. Or Dr. Lakhbir Singh, who felt the sting of discrimination while running with the NPA for the school board in 2008. Or OneCity's Yan, who can also bring forth the perspective of the LGBT community.

      In the meantime, lawyers should make the case with their friends and associates that the status quo violates section 15 and quite possible section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

      They can read the Rogers v. Lodge ruling to learn more about how the U.S. Supreme Court arrived at its decision.

      Organizations like the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Pivot Legal Society could review this issue and release policy papers to help educate the public.

      The B.C. Civil Liberties Association went to court in the 1980s to get rid of multimember districts at the provincial level.

      Why not make this an issue at the local level? Is local democracy less important than provincial democracy? Certainly not.

      Finally, Stewart needs to work on becoming a better orator so he can get his supporters more emotionally connected to this issue.

      When Gordon Campbell became mayor in 1986, he was a wooden speaker. But he improved over time—to the point where I once asked him if he had been taking acting lessons. He said that he hadn't.

      Similarly, Sam Sullivan and Gregor Robertson were not the most dynamic speakers when they became mayor. But they improved (some might say "only somewhat") over time.

      Public speaking takes practice. It takes preparation. It doesn't come naturally to most people.

      But it can be a powerful political tool, as civil-rights pioneers like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jessie Jackson repeatedly demonstrated.

      Most of all, public speaking takes having the confidence to dump the prepared text from time to time and communicating extemporaneously from the heart.

      It's an outrage that Vancouver has maintained a racist electoral system well into the 21st century—even after Stewart was blowing the whistle on this as an academic as far back as 1995.

      It's an outrage that people in power didn't listen to Stewart when he was raising such an important issue for so many years.

      It's an outrage that the Vision Vancouver–controlled council never once brought forward a motion to dump the racist at-large system, thereby challenging the province to reject the will of elected local politicians.

      Stewart has an opportunity to be a leader and share his thoughts about all of that.

      If he speaks from the heart about how it makes him feel that Vancouver is still bogged down with the racist at-large system, he might be surprised by how many people come around to his point of view.

      Voters just gave him a massive megaphone to make this case.

      Advancing well-crafted arguments that the at-large system is an abomination will resonate among the many Vancouverites who trace their roots back to the Philippines and who've never had a decent shot at being elected to park board, let alone city council.

      It will be appreciated by people in the South Asian community who've given so much to build the city, only to realize they have very little chance of getting elected to city council.

      Stewart would likely receive a roaring applause if he took to the stage at East 49th and Main during the Vaisakhi parade and told the audience how he's going to get rid of the racist at-large system.

      Vietnamese Canadians, who've never had a member of their community on council, might also be a receptive audience.

      Nowadays, this message will even resonate within significant segments of the Chinese community, which always fared better than other minorities under the at-large system.

      That changed in this election. And I would argue that it's related to the backlash against Chinese Canadians because of what's been happening in real estate.

      This is Stewart's opportunity to expand his political appeal to new Canadians—as well as Canadians whose families have been here for several generations—and leave a lasting historical legacy.

      At this point, some readers might be asking themselves: "What the hell is this writer talking about? How can he say an electoral system is racist?"

      To that, I respond: talk to candidates who've invested months of time running for public office, only to feel the pain on election night from recognizing that they lost primarily because of their family heritage.

      In Canada.

      In 2018.

      Kennedy Stewart knows what I'm talking about.

      He has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to set it straight.

      Let's help him get there and show that Vancouver can be a leader, not a laggard, when it comes to stamping out institutional racism and creating a more egalitarian democracy.