Will our new city councils have more diversity?
Women and visible minorities remain under-represented around council tables
When Andy Yan looks at the chaotic civic election landscape with its many independents following the collapse of long-standing parties and so many incumbents packing it in, he’s not surprised.
“It’s because the city has changed so much,” says Yan, the director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.
He’s not talking about bricks and mortar. Yan is talking about citizens and how the civic parties and the civic politicians look nothing like the population.
At 51 per cent of the population, female representation in politics has never measured up to that. It surprised Yan. But for women, this is nothing new.
Fewer than a third of B.C.’s current mayors are women, according to Equal Voice. It doesn’t have statistics on the percentage of female councillors.
There are anomalies. During her three terms as Surrey’s mayor, Dianne Watts led councils that had a majority of women, as does the current council under Mayor Linda Hepner. At first, those female-dominated councils got a lot of media coverage, which is funny since the maledominated ones are rarely written about in those terms.
But this time around, only one of the eight mayoral candidates is a woman and only 11 women are among the 48 council candidates. In Vancouver, a third of the mayoral candidates and 46 per cent of the council candidates are women.
The whys of women’s chronic under-representation have been widely studied, discussed and written to little effect. Social media is just the latest reason fewer women may be willing to run or run again. Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read, for example, isn’t running again. Her single term was marred by credible death threats that forced her out of the public eye briefly.
Visible minorities, even in municipalities where they comprise roughly half the population, are also not well represented.
Over the years, old-line civic parties have been slow to recruit and mentor non-male and nonwhite candidates.
This time, women and minorities with political aspirations have gone elsewhere. They’ve formed new parties or are running as independents.
They’ve been helped by changes to the election financing rules that limit donations to $1,200 and make it easier to compete.
With less money being spent on campaigning, it’s possible that turnout will be low on Oct. 20. That too may be an advantage to candidates closely connected to a specific group — whether it’s geographic, ethnic, gender-based or LGBTQ. Of course, candidates still need to ensure that their supporters get to the polls.
The discrepancy between who governs and who is governed is starkly obvious on Yan’s charts that use 2016 census numbers to calculate the percentages of women, visible minorities and immigrants in Metro Vancouver.
Across Metro Vancouver, 49 per cent of the residents identify as members of a visible minority. Nowhere near that percentage sit at the council tables or in the Metro Vancouver boardroom.
Richmond is the most dramatic example. There, 76 per cent of residents are “visible minorities” and nearly two-thirds are immigrants. On the current council, only three are of Chinese ancestry and only one is an immigrant.
In Surrey, 58 per cent of the residents are not white. Most are South Asian, but Tom Gill is the only South Asian on the current council. He’s running for mayor this time and his Surrey First slate has three “minority” council candidates.
Three of Surrey’s mayoral candidates are non-white, as are 23 of the 48 registered council candidates.
But there are only 11 women running for council and only one for mayor.
Vancouver’s record is worse. It has never had a female mayor and the last South Asian elected to council was Setty Pendakur in 1972. While just over half of the residents are so-called visible minorities, nearly two-thirds of the 21 mayoral candidates and 71 council candidates are what we still mistakenly call “the majority.”
With so many incumbents across Metro retiring, there is a chance to rebalance gender and ethnic representation.
As well, there also appears to be an appetite for generational change.
Earlier this month, a poll by Research Co. done for the Forum for Millennial Leadership found that 75 per cent of British Columbians want younger leaders with that percentage rising to 77 per cent among both the 18- to 34-year-olds and those over 55. Why does diversity matter? First, it isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be — window dressing or crass vote getting. It should be about finding the best people for the hard work.
That’s especially so as Metro municipalities face a crisis in housing affordability, transportation gaps, overdose deaths and stagnant wages as costs keep rising.
Reams of studies on the lack of diversity on corporate boards have concluded that better decisions are made when the people making them have different perspectives and a variety of lived experiences. The benefits include improved financial performance, better governance and increased innovation.
There’s reason to expect that with diverse councils, legislatures or parliaments, citizens might also reap those benefits. Women, minorities, millennials, even Gen-Xers may have very different views about where money should be spent, how safe their community is, how unaffordable housing is, and whether schools or other community services meet their needs.
They’ve already disrupted the old-line parties and they’re not seeking special seats at the table. What non-traditional candidates are asking for is a chance to fully participate in their communities because, as Yan says, “You can rule as a tribe, but in a liberal democracy you need to govern as a coalition.”
Women and minorities with political aspirations have gone elsewhere. They’ve formed new parties or are running as independents.