Vancouver remains a lower-order democracy 25 years after Kennedy Stewart blew the whistle as an academic
A quarter-century ago, a PhD student at the London School of Economics wrote a fascinating research paper on Vancouver's municipal political system.
Kennedy Stewart, now the mayor of Vancouver, described it as a "lower-order democracy".
That's because Vancouver's municipal system failed to meet the minimum requirements of a higher-order democracy, as defined by political scientist Robert Dahl in a landmark study in 1961.
At the time Stewart's paper was written, the city did not have a competitive party system and election turnouts consistently failed to reach 50 percent, thereby failing to meet two of Dahl's three thresholds. The third threshold was universal suffrage.
Today, there is a competitive party system, but turnout remained low in the last election.
Yet it's still easy to make the case that Vancouver's political system is still not a higher-order democracy, even if you ignore Dahl's three criteria.
Money still talks in elections, even after the NDP government reformed municipal-campaign financing to limit individual donations to $1,250.
If you're a mayoral candidate who can persuade 26 development-industry executives to raise more than $300,000 for your campaign, you're in a better position to win than someone who doesn't have these connections.
I'm talking about Kennedy Stewart, of course. I wonder if he ever considered back in 1997 that one day, he would be seeking reelection as mayor with the backing of a who's who of the Urban Development Institute.
Let's say you're another mayoral candidate backed by a bunch of other rich people, including billionaires, and you can hold a fundraising dinner with about 100 tables at Floata Restaurant. Don't you think you'll have a better chance of winning than a schoolteacher who doesn't have this type of financial backing?
I'm talking here about ABC Vancouver's Ken Sim.
There are other systemic reasons why Vancouver still isn't a higher-order democracy.
In the upcoming election, there will be 138 names on the ballot, including 60 for council, 32 for park board, and 31 for school board.
That's absurd. Most voters simply don't have the time to become familiar with so many candidates.
Had the council and province decided to allow candidates to run in districts of the city—as recommended by deceased lawyer Tom Berger in a 2004 report—voters would find it far easier to cast a ballot on election day.
Berger called for expanding the number of councillors from 10 to 14, with each electoral district voting for a single member. That's how it's done in cities across Canada outside of B.C.
What's in a name?
As things stand now, voters will end up choosing names of people with whom they feel comfortable, even if they don't know who they are.
As history has repeatedly demonstrated, that's often someone with an anglicized name, which invariably makes the council much whiter than the population as a whole.
The City of Vancouver has even gone to court to stop some candidates from putting their names in Chinese characters alongside their English names. If the city succeeds, that will prevent voters who speak a Chinese dialect as a first language from becoming more comfortable with certain candidates who've taken the effort to reach out to them in their own language.
One can make a case that our at-large system of electing councillors on a citywide basis was a significant contributing factor behind the lack of diversity in the chamber from 2018 to 2022.
There has never been a councillor elected in Vancouver who's Sikh or speaks Punjabi. There's never been a woman of South Asian ancestry on council. There's never been a Muslim Vancouver councillor or a Vancouver councillor who traces their roots back to the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Latin America or Africa.
Vancouver has yet to elect an Indigenous city councillor. There are no role models at the local level like a Jody Wilson-Raybould or Melanie Mark. Imagine what's lost by that.
But if your surname is Bligh or Boyle or Wiebe or Hardwick or Carr, you have a reasonable chance of getting elected even if the candidates with Asian names on your slate go down to defeat.
In the United States, courts have struck down multi-member districts (which is what we have in Vancouver) because they discriminated against concentrated racial minorities.
Compare the local elections with those for the B.C. legislature or Parliament. Vancouverites have elected Indigenous and Sikh people as MLAs and MPs.
The federal riding of Vancouver Granville is represented by a Muslim whose family roots go back to Uganda and the Indian state of Gujarat. Another federal riding, Vancouver Centre, has been represented by an immigrant from Trinidad for 29 years. There are Vancouver MLAs who trace their roots back to the Philippines, India, and Hong Kong.
Keep in mind that several people of Chinese ancestry have been elected to council over the years. But those of Chinese descent are not a "concentrated" racial minority in that they've been living in significant numbers across the city ever since a wave of immigration from Hong Kong in the late 1980s. That's been documented by UBC historian Henry Yu.
The same can't be said for people from many other communities with lower populations who are consistently shut out when they run for municipal office.
It's not just that they lack anglicized names. It's that voters cannot get to know them when there are so many names on the ballot.
At the federal and provincial levels, it's much easier to know whom you're casting a ballot for when there might be five or six candidates. You become familiar with Taleeb Noormohamed or Anjali Appadurai or Imtiaz Popat if you live in Vancouver Granville. You are aware of who Hedy Fry is if you're in Vancouver Centre. Harjit Sajjan is a household name in Vancouver South just as Don Davies is in Vancouver Kingsway and Jenny Kwan is in Vancouver East.
Election will be a laboratory test
Here are three things that I'll be watching for in the upcoming Vancouver civic election on October 15.
1. How will Devyani Singh, a brilliant climate scientist with a PhD, fare in comparison with the other nonincumbent Green candidate for council, labour and social-justice activist Stephanie Smith?
2. How will voters rank the Forward Together council candidates? All are newbies in a Vancouver council race. Will Dulcy Anderson, Jeanette Ashe, and Hilary Brown come out ahead of their compatriots and very qualified council candidates Alvin Singh, Tessica Truong, and Russil Wvong? Or will the results suggest that perhaps, in our at-large system, there's less discrimination on the basis of one's surname?
3. Where will Arezo Zarrabian rank in comparison to other nonincumbents with anglicized names running for council with the Vancouver NPA?
This election will prove to be another laboratory test of unconscious bias of voters in an at-large system. Does it still exist or have we finally moved beyond that?
For decades, I've been privately wishing that some Vancouver lawyer with a social conscience and a keen interest in fighting discrimination would launch a charter challenge against the city's at-large system.
The evidence of discrimination has been on display in election after election after election.
Yet our elected officials—the beneficiaries of this bias—have not taken concrete action to fix it by introducing a motion in council to change it.
This is the case even as they lure people onto their slates who sometimes have faint hope of winning simply because of their surname.
That has to be one of the saddest aspects of our lower-order democracy in Vancouver.
The problem has been ignored for decades by provincial legislatures, be they controlled by the B.C. Liberals, B.C. NDP, or the B.C. NDP with the support of the B.C. Greens.
Voters go to the polls on October 15.
I hope I don't have to write this column again a month before the 2026 Vancouver municipal election.