City councillors who benefit from systemic discrimination refuse to take real action to address the status quo

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      With the election of Kevin Falcon in Vancouver-Quilchena, the city will once again have 11 MLAs after he's sworn into office.

      They all bring a breadth of professional and lived experiences to their jobs, reflecting the diversity of the city.

      They include two openly LGBT members. There are also Vancouver MLAs of Indigenous, South Asian, Chinese (two, in fact), Jewish, Mennonite, Filipino, Scottish, and other backgrounds.

      There's also a great deal of professional and lived experiences among the six Vancouver MPs. They include an Ismaili Muslim, a Sikh immigrant, a South African immigrant, an immigrant from Hong Kong, an immigrant from Trinidad, and an Edmonton-born lawyer who moved to Vancouver in his late 20s.

      Now, let's look at the mayor and 10 members of Vancouver city council. There is one LGBT community member, one member of mixed ancestry, a couple of councillors of Italian ancestry, and one whose double-barreled surname is half Chinese.

      In that group on council, there is not one with lived experience as an Indigenous, Chinese, Filipino, Latin American, Persian, Black, Vietnamese or South Asian person. Every mayor in Vancouver history has been a white male.

      Why is there so little diversity on city council when the groups of federal and provincial politicians more closely reflect the makeup of the city?

      I would argue it's because MPs and MLAs are elected in smaller geographic areas.

      We can call them "wards", even though their official names are "constituencies" for MLAs and "ridings" for MPs. Parties run candidates who are most likely to attract votes in these wards.

      Kevin Falcon is, in many ways, emblematic of the ward he will represent. He's been a successful businessman over the past decade. His ward is the second-wealthiest in the province, encompassing Southlands, Kerrisdale, Dunbar, and part of Shaughnessy.

      Jenny Kwan's federal ward of Vancouver East includes a large number of residents of Chinese ancestry. Many of them probably like that their member of Parliament is fluent in a Chinese language, but voters of all backgrounds appreciate her record fighting for the marginalized. 

      Melanie Mark's provincial ward of Vancouver–Mount Pleasant has a larger concentration of Indigenous residents than many other areas of the city. She had been very active in this community before getting elected in 2016, even serving for a while as president of the Urban Native Youth Association. She's a good fit for this ward.

      The same can be said for Harjit Sajjan, who represents the federal ward of Vancouver South, home to the oldest gurdwara in the city. When he was a Vancouver police officer, Sajjan spent a fair amount of time in this ward, forging relationships with the residents.

      In Vancouver civic politics, councillors are elected on an "at-large" basis in a citywide vote.

      If our provincial elections were run this way, it would mean that all the Liberals and New Democrats would all appear on the same ballot and the top 11 vote-getters would be elected. There wouldn't necessarily be elected officials reflecting different wards in this multimember system.

      The courts have often frowned on multimember districts.

      In 1989, then B.C. Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin struck down provincial dual-member constituencies following a challenge by then B.C. Civil Liberties Association head John Dixon.

      "Each citizen is entitled to be represented in government," McLachlin wrote. "Representation comprehends the idea of having a voice in the deliberations of government as well as the idea of the right to bring one's grievances and concerns to the attention of one's government representative..."

      U.S. court rulings have found that at-large systems, a.k.a. multimember systems, discriminate against minorities and are therefore unconstitutional.

      Mayor Kennedy Stewart knows all these things because this was his area of expertise as an academic. He's fully aware that Vancouver's at-large system traditionally favoured candidates with anglicized names. That was demonstrated once again in the 2018 election.

      The effect of the at-large system has been to marginalize many civic candidates whose surnames don't reflect European colonization of these lands.

      Most cities in Canada elect their city councillors in wards, but not Vancouver. In 1935, voters here chose to abolish it in favour of the at-large system.

      Over the past three-and-a-half years, the nearly all-white Vancouver city council had a chance to fix this injustice.

      Under section 138 of the Vancouver Charter, council could have introduced a motion to change the voting system from at-large to wards. That would then require the approval of the provincial cabinet to be put into effect.

      Alternatively, argues former B.C. Green party leader Stuart Parker, council could have introduced three forms of proportional representation—cumulative vote, limited vote, and single nontransferable vote—through a motion by city council.

      Council did none of these things since being elected in 2018. Instead, it passed a motion asking the Union of B.C. Municipalities executive to write a letter to the attorney general and minister of municipal affairs.

      The sought-after letter was for legislation granting cities the power to choose more inclusive voting systems "as a means of improving representation and racial diversity on Council in future elections".

      This is called kicking the can down the road.

      Legislation takes a great deal of time to draft and the provincial government has many other pressing priorities. A cabinet order, on the other hand, can be obtained in a jiffy had council simply voted for a ward system.

      And if council didn't want a ward system, it had three options for proportional representation that didn't require provincial approval.

      As a result of council kicking the can down the road, the City of Vancouver's discriminatory voting system will be in place for yet another election.

      Amazingly, this is occurring 28 years after Kennedy Stewart and then councillor Jenny Kwan were complaining about it in a feature article in the Georgia Straight.

      When Stewart ran for mayor in 2018, he told the Straight that he would "do everything I can" to dump the at-large system.

      "In fact, I would also consider legal challenges as well, if I'm blocked," Stewart said.

      He also brazenly declared that 2018 would be the last in Vancouver held under the at-large system.

      What a joke. In three-and-a-half years, there's not even been a motion for real change—just a request to a provincial association to write a letter.

      It's time for Vancouver voters to recognize this reality: we have a lame city council that can't get off its ass to address systemic discrimination that benefits them.

      It's a classic NIMTOO moment in Vancouver history.

      And if you don't understand that acronym, it stands for Not In My Term Of Office.