Kennedy Stewart's director of communications directly felt the impact of Vancouver's discriminatory at-large system

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      Today, I received my first news release from "Mayor Kennedy Stewart". And I was delighted to learn that his director of communications is Alvin Singh.

      The news release contained the usual positive spin for a recently sworn-in mayor, noting that Stewart has met with various ministers in Victoria to advance issues of interest to Vancouver voters.

      Finance Minister Carole James was urged to protect film industry tax credits for Vancouver's thriving TV and movie industry.

      Stewart was also able to meet Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Selena Robinson, Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Claire Trevena, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy, and Katrina Chen, the minister of state for childcare.

      So why am I pleased to find out that Singh is Stewart's director of communications?

      There are several reasons, actually.

      One is that he used to work for the David Suzuki Foundation, so he'll bring a strong environmental ethos into the mayor's office. 

      Secondly, Singh is a former executive director of COPE with a long-standing interest in educational issues. So he will probably help boost the mayor's awareness about issues of concern to the Vancouver Board of Education.

      Thirdly, it's encouraging to see Singh still finding a place in civic politics after what happened in the 2008 election.

      At the time, he was a brilliant young candidate for school board. We at the Straight used to refer to him as the "South Asian Spencer Herbert" because he was so articulate. (Now, we would say "South Asian Spencer Chandra Herbert".)

      Despite his obvious political talents, Singh came last on his party's school-board slate that year. All five other candidates with South Asian surnames with major Vancouver parties also came last on their slates in 2008. Often, they trailed fellow slate members by several thousand votes.

      None of those losing candidates has ever run for office again in Vancouver.

      This is what Vancouver's at-large system did to so many people of South Asian ancestry in election after election after election from 1990 to 2008.

      Some, like Singh or B.C. NDP executive director Raj Sihota, have been able to find important jobs supporting other politicians. Others have drifted away from politics, feeling discouraged by their experience.

      And 104 years after the Komagata Maru was forced to leave Vancouver's harbour with more than 350 South Asian passengers, there has never been a single person of Punjabi ancestry elected to Vancouver city council. There has never been a woman of South Asian ancestry elected to council, either.

      Mayor Stewart has promised that we just went through the last at-large election in Vancouver's history.

      If he keeps his pledge, perhaps this will mean that the next generation of Alvin Singhs and Raj Sihotas will be able to find a seat in the council chamber or at the park board, rather than spending their political careers in the backrooms.

      Fortunately, Vancouver finally has a mayor who understands the discriminatory nature of the at-large system. In fact, Stewart has spent a great deal of time as an academic researching this issue—and he gets it on an intellectual level as well as anyone in Canada.

      Having Singh by his side in his office every day will also provide a visceral reminder to the mayor. No doubt, Stewart recognizes that Singh has the energy, intellect, and civic spirit to be an outstanding member of city council should he ever choose to run for office again.

      But Singh will likely never get there with his surname under our current at-large voting system, in which councillors are elected on a citywide basis. That's because voters have traditionally shied away in significant numbers from casting ballots for candidates with Indian names.

      As I wrote in the Straight back in 2004, it's truly time to shred the system. Let's replace it with something that offers far greater fairness to those whose names didn't originate in the United Kingdom.