On October 25, I spent a day listening to academics, researchers, politicians, activists and civil society groups on the issue of representation, more specifically, visible minority representation in our political landscape at the federal, municipal and local levels.
Organized by the Institute for Research on Public Policy and Samara, “Electoral and Civic Involvement of Canada’s Immigrant Communities” brought together a small group of individuals to weigh the evidence, analysis and trends as presented by academics and researchers, on the one hand, and to consider institutional and community-based responses, on the other. All this, motivated by a common understanding that Canadian institutions must be more responsive to changes in our demography and that political institutions and parties in particular need to perform to a higher bar of representation and accountability to better serve their constituencies.
The evidence presented told a common story across the country. Our nation and in particular our cities are diverse, but the political leaders who are elected to represent the people are not. There are some variations on the local scene, with representation in Vancouver being at the highest level. By and large, however, representation lags behind the demographic share of visible minorities in the population.
I came away with the following observations:
Acceptance matters: Professor Bilodeau, drawing on his Quebec-based research, concluded that feelings of acceptance are a foundational pre-cursor to political involvement and engagement. The greater the discrimination that visible minorities face, the lower is their feeling of acceptance.
Race matters: Candidates who run for political office bear a heavy weight if they are racial minorities. It is often assumed that they can only represent the interests of their particular community and are not qualified to act in the larger public good.
Place matters: Growing visible-minority-dense ridings (particularly in the outer suburbs of the GTA) – where all parties run candidates who are minorities – pose a different kind of dilemma or opportunity. Does this mean that these are the only places where visible minorities have an opportunity to put forward their candidature? Is this yet another expression of color-coded postal code discrimination?
Time matters: We were reminded that it was not so long ago that women could not vote, and it was normal for people to participate in the Orange (anti-Catholic) marches. Time solves many problems and perhaps time will be the healer here too, but I was left with a lingering doubt about the mitigating effect of time.
Winnability matters: We heard a powerful argument that political parties, even when committed in different ways through different approaches to representation of different kinds, will eventually select candidates who can win ridings – because in an election campaign, winning matters most. This led to an interesting comment about the intersection of representation and winnability.
Political and electoral arrangements matter: The absence or presence of a party machinery at the local level, riding distributions, at-large and free votes, etc. all have an impact on muting or amplifying the voice of underrepresented groups. It was noted that the creation of 30 new ridings federally, some in visible minority dense neighbourhoods, may provide a breakthrough for candidates.
We also heard powerful and encouraging examples of new arrangements and instruments which must evolve over time to provide greater voice and participation in this arena. These range from electoral reform at the local level such as enfranchising non-citizen permanent residents in local elections to grassroots efforts to demystify running for political office and training for interested candidates.
Finally, we talked about what more we need to know and do. Ideas floated included measuring not just the share of visible minorities in elected office, but also their share in the back-rooms of political power, because it is here that many decisions are made. This could be the next frontier for gathering evidence.
- The Diversity Gap: The Electoral Under-Representation of Visible Minorities
- Public Opinion on Diverse GTA Leadership: Research Findings and the Path Forward
- School4Civics – pulling back the curtain on political engagement
- Political participation: the challenge of diversity and inclusion
- Becoming politically engaged matters for your community