Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver
The ongoing story of phony absentee ballots, and vote-buying swirling around Surrey’s current municipal election is cast with a perfect mix of characters—vulnerable immigrants, greedy developers, partisan journalists, and amoral politicians—to seem like a plot suited for an Indian soap opera, the nightly programming favoured by many of the city’s 160,000 South Asian residents.
This drama is just too tantalizing to pass up. Across Surrey-based South Asian social media threads, Whatsapp chat groups, and Punjabi-language radio talk shows, gossiping over this latest scandal—or appearance of a scandal—has become the latest guilty pleasure.
This issue, which for the past two weeks has overshadowed actual policy matters relevant to the Surrey election, has tarnished the image of the city’s politics-mad South Asian community. But in an election when the leading candidate is someone vying to become the city’s first mayor of South Asian descent, perhaps that was the point. Smearing an opponent is a common tactic in wild anything-goes democracies like India, but its a sort of "dirty politics" most South Asians living in Canada would prefer remain overseas.
But as of the latest police investigation update, it seems this entire affair may turn out to be much ado about nothing. Surrey RCMP reported it had examined 73 applications to vote by mail, and that 67 were fraudulent because they were not completed or signed by the voter listed on the application.
The Mounties added that no ballots were sent out to individuals based on these fraudulent applications.
And lastly—and most importantly here—the RCMP said it had not found any evidence to link any mayoral candidate to these phony applications.
As the RCMP investigation continues, and given all the commentary on social media are unsubstantiated allegations, most mainstream media outlets in the Lower Mainland have wisely remained circumspect in their coverage of the issue.
CBC, StarMetro, the Vancouver Sun, and the Globe and Mail have all avoided implicating any particular mayoral candidate in this alleged scandal. There is plenty of rumour-mongering online, but it won’t be found in the coverage provided by these outlets.
But there has been one notable exception: Global News. The media outlet has aggressively pursued this story and it recently stepped assertively into a no-man’s land of difficult-to-corroborate allegations via its story, “Two men say they were pressured to participate in alleged Surrey voter fraud scheme”, and published comments from two anonymous South Asian sources—Mr. X and Mr. Y—the type of material other outlets have ostensibly balked at using.
What made the Global News story stand out against all the coverage on this issue, was that it seemed to implicate one of three leading mayoral candidates. The video version of the story can be viewed here.
The piece seemed like uncharacteristically thin reporting by the staid broadcaster that still reigns as the most popular evening newscast in the Lower Mainland and that (arguably) still possesses the reporting credibility to bring down governments in the province—it was Global’s (BCTV) cameras that were first on the spot when the police came knocking on then-premier Glen Clark’s door back in 1999.
By airing its story, Global News seemed to signal that its reporters had corroborating information others outlets lacked. I did make contact with Global’s news director but I did not receive answers in how the outlet verified the statements of these anonymous sources.
But if the statements were accepted with minimal direct corroboration, then it would seem Global—at least when it comes to coverage featuring issues from diverse communities—is willing to relax its standards of reporting and use difficult-to-verify information that otherwise wouldn’t make the grade.
But before diving into that, first some background.
Let’s start with the alleged victims—these are an unknown number of Surrey residents of South Asian descent who by most accounts seem to be recent immigrants with little to no English skills, senior citizens, foreign students with "permanent residency" (though this seems like an oxymoron), and others from this community who typically do not vote. They have either been solicited (made a Godfather-like offer they can’t refuse) by various "poll captains" or their volunteer staff to cast an absentee ballot for their candidate (or made to sign over these ballots which are filled out and submitted on their behalf later).
Pulling the strings behind the scenes are apparently deep-pocketed developers who are watching over the proceedings like fat cats perched on stacks of $100 bills—apparently the going rate per vote.
A grassroots anticrime activist organization, Wake Up Surrey, formed earlier this year to combat gang violence and what it views as the city’s institutional complacency in halting gun crime, blew the whistle on this alleged scandal in September. It has taken on the capes of heroes.
And lastly, a three-term Surrey councillor of South Asian descent, Tom Gill, who is a front runner and has all the coveted endorsements, including one from former Surrey mayor Diane Watts, is seeing his campaign put on the backfoot and his aspiration to become the city’s first nonwhite mayor pulled down into the mud.
That is because it was Gill who was fingered in the Global piece that featured the two anonymous South Asian men, Mr. X and Mr. Y, both of whom work in the Lower Mainland construction trades. According to Global’s story, both men said they were approached by people from Gill’s Surrey First campaign, the difference being Mr. Y got the carrot, while Mr. X, the stick.
In Mr. X’s case, he was asked to fill out a phony mail-in ballot in support of Gill and informed if he didn’t provide assistance that money owed to him from a trades job would be in jeopardy.
Mr. Y said he was asked for the names of South Asian residents in Surrey who typically did not vote. He was promised preferential treatment in a future Gill administration from city planners in terms of his development submissions.
Neither man said they went to the Surrey RCMP with their troubles.
Global kept the identities of both men anonymous out of their fear of reprisal.
Where vote-buying with either money or liquor is a common, almost comically traditional practice in Punjabi villages (where many of Surrey’s South Asian population hails from), voter fraud in Canada is nonexistent. In 2017, the Economist’s Democracy Index ranked Canada sixth in terms of the health of its democracy. (The U.S. came 21st.)
The serious nature of these unprecedented allegations merits an aggressive approach by journalists in digging up the facts. And based on the latest RCMP update, it seems remote that the Surrey First campaign has been guilty (or the most guilty) of this illegal activity.
It seems more likely, however, that the affair has been a smear-and-distraction campaign machinated to perfection to damage one candidate’s credibility.
So while getting this story right and being first on the spot may earn your outlet some extra click-thrus and attention, getting it wrong would not only risk damaging Global’s credibility and more critically, it could unduly influence the outcome of the Surrey mayoral race, in the same way that deliberately fake news bent the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
So in coming back to Global’s recent story, it may be the case that Global took added confidence in the credibility of Mr. X and Mr. Y based on similar muddy claims being made on Punjabi language radio and on social media threads. Wake Up Surrey’s spokesperson, Sukhi Sandhu, has also been quoted for directly fingering Gill’s supportersas being behind the voting fraud.
But as someone who edited a South Asian publication for many years, I hold little value in these parallel opinions of Wake Up Surrey and various Punjabi radio talk shows. And I particularly find zero value in this content when it comes to corroborating Mr. X and Mr. Y’s statements.
As much as Wake Up Surrey has done to bring critical issues of community safety and gun crime to the surface of Surrey politics, the South Asian grassroots organization has been somewhat of a wild card in this controversy. When the group first went public with this voter fraud allegation, it claimed as many as 15,000 of Surrey’s ballots were compromised.
As recently reported, the Surrey RCMP had received only 73 mail ballot registration applications from Surrey’s chief elections officer—a barely audible whimper compared to the howls of protest originally from the group.
Punjabi-language media outlets, meanwhile, which are rarely impartial and have a tendency to play loose with the facts as best meets their agendas, have been giving air time to everyone from victims shocked to learn their signatures were forged to angry talk-back callers spewing all sorts of conspiracy theories.
For months many of these outlets have dogged Gill with negative coverage, fanning these headwinds to slow down his mayoral campaign. This has included devoting undue coverage and talk-back time earlier this spring to an anonymous flyer slandering Gill that was distributed through the city’s Indian shopping areas and neighbourhoods.
Mainstream outlets like the Vancouver Sun chose not to publish the contents of that flyer given "the unsubstantiated, vague and anonymous allegations".
Meanwhile back to Global’s story—after airing the anonymous allegations of Mr. X and Mr. Y, the story concludes by stating that “Surrey's South Asian community is now a pivotal voting group” and that as Western Canada’s second largest city, Surrey politics matter more than ever.
There seems to be an assumption here that there is one bloc of South Asian voters. Perhaps this assumption also contributed to the outlet gaining confidence in the allegations of two anonymous South Asian men that were outing the city election’s main South Asian candidate.
The problem here is that there is not one South Asian voting group—this is a multicultural myth used by xenophobes to rally the troops against the immigrants who are "taking over". In the world of South Asian politics, there are many fragmented groups, and extended families who are often at loggerheads with each other, jockeying for influence in one form or another.
Contrary to the ignorant opinions one typically finds in comment threads on news websites, the South Asian candidate in Surrey is not going to get all the South Asian votes. It is very possible Gill may only get support from one-third of these voters. More likely is that the South Asian vote will be split, possibly equally, between all three leading mayoral candidates. Bruce Hayne, Doug McCallum, and Tom Gill all have a significant South Asian following.
McCallum, in particular, is practically an honourary member of the South Asian community—he is affectionately referred to as ‘Doug Bhaaji’ or ‘Brother Doug’ because of his development-friendly policies that transformed Surrey from a smaller bedroom community in the '90s into a more sprawling bedroom community of larger strip malls and industrial parks that it is today. During McCallum’s three terms as a business-friendly mayor of Surrey from 1996 to 2005, many of Surrey’s South Asian now wealthy developers first started their rise to affluence and influence.
McCallum has been out of power long enough such that the have-nots among the South Asian voters have forgotten, or don’t know, that many of TransLink’s current woes, and hence the lack of public transit in Surrey and the Lower Mainland, began when McCallum was the chairperson of that troubled body.
But these performance issues from McCallum’s past have been glossed over in Punjabi media, which tends to be very development friendly. Both McCallum and Hayne have also generally received softer "nuanced" coverage, at least when compared to Gill.
In the nexus of Surrey’s Punjabi media outlets, activist groups, property developers, temple committees, socialites, singers, and political aspirants, there are numerous layers of family, business, ancestral, and professional alliances that obscure the intentions of anyone coming forward with an allegation. Sussing out who is connected to whom in this cat’s cradle of relationships is truly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Add to that the challenge of covering Canada’s diverse communities when there is a language barrier—it makes covering large minority groups like the South Asian, Chinese, and Filipino communities difficult work.
To be fair, mainstream outlets like Global seem to be devoting more resources to covering diverse communities and the outlet is producing solid work when there are equally solid facts upon which to build out the story.
But there are still instances when Global has over-reached and produced ham-fisted ethnic coverage, such as a piece earlier this year that attributed Surrey gangsterism and violence to gun glamour in Punjabi bhangra videos.
In this voter fraud story, there seem to be too many unknowns—at least from my perspective as someone who has worked in South Asian media—to responsibly press ahead with a story that relies on the allegations of two individuals who didn’t first go to the police and were unwilling to disclose their identities, reprisal or not.
So a question: would Global publish a follow-up story if two other men, in parallel circumstances, came forward with similar allegations as Mr. X and Mr. Y—let’s call them Mr. B and Mr. C—but that implicated one of the other non-South Asian mayoral candidates?
It would seem the evidence on such a story would appear to be equally thin.
Commentary by: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC
Over its 132-year history since incorporation as a city, Vancouver has had 39 mayors. All of them have been white men.
Change seems to be coming, however, and suddenly.
Two of the Vancouver’s leading municipal parties will be running mayoral candidates from diverse backgrounds for the upcoming 2018 civic election now only four months away.
Recently, Ken Sim, the second-generation Canadian-born son of Chinese immigrants, won the nomination for the city’s right-of-centre Non-Partisan Association (NPA). This party, which was founded in 1937, has traditionally been aligned with the interests of the city’s business community.
In a surprising result, the entrepreneur and cofounder of Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt bagel shops, beat out the establishment candidate John Coupar, the two-time NPA Vancouver park board commissioner who had the support of other establishment figures like former councillor Suzanne Anton and former mayor Philip Owen.
Meanwhile, the currently ruling Vision Vancouver party has confirmed its mayoral candidate will be Squamish Nation hereditary chief Ian Campbell.
Internet entrepreneur Taleeb Noormohamed—who drew comparisons to Calgary’s wonder-mayor Naheed Nenshi—had been bidding for the Vision Vancouver leadership until recently, when a health matter forced him to drop out of the campaign.
On the sidelines, former federal Conservative MP, Wai Young has indicated interest in running as an independent but hasn’t confirmed her candidacy yet. Raymond Louie, the five-time Vision city councillor who would have made a strong candidate for mayor, has also declared he is not running. There is some uncertainty about why he wasn’t recruited by his own Vision party for the mayor’s nomination (or if he pre-emptively declined the possibility).
It seems 2018 may be the year when Vancouver—one of the most left-of-centre cities in North America, Canada’s commercial and cultural gateway to Asia, and the metropolis that was early to embrace Indian yoga and in gratitude paid the world back with lululemon yoga pants—finally elects a nonwhite mayor.
Leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs from smaller diverse communities have increasingly participated in Canadian politics over the past two decades. It has now become the norm to see the country’s diversity represented among its politicians, whether that be in cabinet in Ottawa or the legislative backbenches in Victoria.
But at the municipal level, and particularly in Vancouver, they have struggled to break through, or perhaps a better term is "break out" from their ethnic silos and gain a voice on a broader citywide stage.
So far, however, the run-up to the 2018 election is proving to be an inflection point in this narrative. Hollywood had its #OscarsSoWhite reckoning two years ago, so it seems apt for Hollywood North to also have its own #VancouverSoWhite moment, though one would think progressive Canadians would have beat their American counterparts to this milestone.
While there is an immigrants-coming-of-age story here, there is also a perfect storm of political conditions that have triggered the backroom players and eminences grise behind the major parties to seek out diverse candidates.
For the NPA, Ken Sim’s nomination effectively counters any potential candidacy of Stephen Harper-era conservative Wai Young, who has significant support from within the Chinese community.
Sim’s family roots go back to Hong Kong and he will pull votes from this segment of the Chinese community (he may have less of a connection among Mainland Chinese immigrants). His last-minute entry—or recruitment—into the mayoral race looks to be an efficacious use of inclusiveness by a party that has been out of power for a decade.
For the progressive left-leaning Vision Vancouver, Campbell’s nomination provides a clean break from the past and a chance to rebrand a party that many believe has much to account (or some would say atone) for after the past decade in power.
For political watchers, this greater-than-usual interest in standing for public office from qualified diverse candidates makes this year’s election intriguing.
But for the average citizen all of this may go unnoticed if it all turns out to be business-as-usual and the 40th mayor of Vancouver—like the thirty-nine previously—once again is another white person.
There are still many twists, announcements, and deals to unfold before that forecast becomes clearer. But it is worth a look to see how various local and Canadian laws, policies, and practices of exclusion over the past century-and-a-half have led to this much delayed point, where diverse candidates—in a city where half the population is not white—finally have a real shot at becoming mayor.
In four months time, this election may be remembered as the moment Vancouverites finally said “Yes We Can” instead of the usual “Yes We Can’t”.
Lack of profile exerts a high price
Among the jigsaw pieces that comprise the map of Lower Mainland municipalities, Surrey is the fastest growing city in the region. Ten thousand new people move into Surrey every year.
Barinder Rasode, a former two-term Surrey city councillor, has come the closest among nonwhite candidates in the Lower Mainland to winning a coveted mayor’s seat.
There have been a small number of nonwhite politicians who have won mayoral races in B.C., but all have been outside the Lower Mainland: Jamese Atebe in Mission, Alan Lowe in Victoria, Akbal Mund in Vernon, and Colin Basran in Kelowna.
Naranjan Grewal of Mission was the first nonwhite mayor in all of B.C. when he was elected in 1954. He died under suspicious circumstances three years later.
Despite late entry to the race, Rasode garnered an impressive 21 percent of the votes in the 2014 Surrey municipal election. She has been one of the few individuals to cross over in appeal to the broader community, a feat not easily achieved given the tendency of potential candidates from diverse communities to remain in their comfort zones, or even self-segregate, when encountering barriers of entry to mainstream political organizations.
“When it comes to municipal elections, if a candidate hopes to compete or have any chance at winning, they must have a profile beyond their own community,” explained Rasode, who served on board of directors for Fraser Health and served as a Surrey city councillor from 2008 to 2014. “This is evident in electoral results. Even when minorities run for council seats as part of recognized slates, they tend to be the ones who fall short or to the bottom of the slate.”
Rasode’s observation holds true whether in Surrey or in Vancouver. In the 2014 Vancouver election, only two Vision Vancouver council candidates out of eight on the slate failed to win seats: Niki Sharma and Tony Tang, candidates from South Asian and Chinese backgrounds.
In 2008, the lone Vision councillor out of eight on the slate who failed to win a seat was Kashmir Dhaliwal, the former president of the Khalsa Diwan Society (Ross Street Sikh Temple). Despite being a power broker within one of B.C.’s biggest Sikh temples, and one with a very politically active congregation, Dhaliwal still fell short of being elected—he just lacked a wider profile beyond his South Vancouver neighbourhood.
Fast forward 10 years and back to the upcoming election. This lack of profile is still an Achilles heel for both the NPA nominee Ken Sim and Ian Campbell. Both will be hampered by being relatively unknown to broader sections of Vancouver’s voting public (Sim likely more than Campbell).
Unlike previous diverse candidates, however, who have in the past ran as independents, both Sim and Campbell will have the party machines of the NPA and Vision to help remedy some of this lack of profile.
But there is a caveat emptor here, particularly for Vision. Ian Campbell will first have much work to do in rebuilding a damaged Vision brand before he hopes to reap any of the rewards of membership.
It is clear the 2018 version of Vision does not have the potency it once did circa 2011 or even in 2014. It looks to be sinking ship with neither Mayor Gregor Robertson seeking re-election, nor three of its councillors. One veteran city hall reporter has even suggested the party may want to consider disbanding for a dignified end to its political life.
For these two newcomers, the mission will be to "get their names out there" into a congested daily news cycle. Bonus points if they edge out other candidates.
This, however, is much more easily said than done.
Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline was meant to deliver oil to offshore tankers for lighting up cities abroad. In actuality, the pipeline has pumped media exposure to antagonistic local politicians and lit up their approval rating numbers.
The fight against Kinder Morgan—the news story of the year in Vancouver—has been a gift to the other anti-pipeline mayoral candidates like NDP member of Parliament Kennedy Stewart, and SFU professor of public practice Shauna Sylvester. It would have also helped popular Green party city councilor Adriane Carr but she has recently decided not to run for mayor. Still, if Vancouver doesn’t elect its first nonwhite mayor, it may be due to voters electing Sylvester as their first woman mayor, no less a milestone-in-waiting.
Depending on how the Kinder Morgan narrative unfolds, the pipelines and oil tankers debate could end up overshadowing other hot-button issues, possibly even housing affordability. This would be a boon particularly for Stewart, who was recently arrested in March for contempt after he marched to British Columbia’s frontline and deliberately breached the five-meter exclusion zone buffering "The Fence" that safeguards the Kinder Morgan’s tanker farm on Burnaby Mountain.
His act of civil disobedience against a heavy-handed Trudeau government bulldozing ahead with now their pipeline project has transformed the staid NDP politician into a sort of Gandhi-of-Burnaby.
No doubt this act will add some swagger to Stewart’s campaign. When it counted, he could be counted, standing among those lined up against the carbon-spewing machinery of Big Oil. Stewart’s chances of winning will increase further if the muscle of B.C.’s local NDP machine gets behind him.
Given the vocal opposition to the pipeline by the Squamish Nation, and Vision Vancouver, Ian Campbell also stands to gain on this issue. But he will need to find a way to "out-activist" Stewart, who has gotten to the front of the line on this issue.
Getting arrested and having a record, however, isn’t always a viable strategy for most candidates to gain the profile necessary to win a municipal election—or to stay if office, given they usually have day jobs and other real-life entanglements. Besides, historically speaking, getting arrested for most people, and notably for people of colour, has never been an ideal path to career advancement. Ultimately, diversifying Vancouver city politics is not the same thing as integrating an Alabama lunch counter.
But the real obstacle for diverse candidates seeking to gain name recognition runs deeper than being able to generate viral hashtags, or skillfully jockeying for media airtime.
It is a more permanent and seemingly intractable structural barrier at the heart of Vancouver’s municipal electoral system.
No wards led to more exclusion from power
A ward system divides a city into neighbourhoods with each electing one councillor.
Virtually all major Canadian cities have implemented a ward system to ensure individual neighbourhoods are represented at the council level by an individual who has ties to or lives in that neighbourhood.
These cities include Calgary, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, Hamilton, Halifax, and so forth. I think you get the point.
Vancouver, however, is the largest Canadian city that uses an at-large system. It is based on a "to-the-victors-the-spoils" approach to city politics.
Vancouver city council is comprised of the 10 candidates who receive the most votes from across all the neighbourhoods of the city. It is a system that has some benefits as it requires candidates to see the bigger picture and know all of the issues in the city, but it is a system that has also been criticized as been exclusionary, even racist, for blocking out candidates of diverse backgrounds.
There have been a number of cases in the United States where at-large systems were found by the courts to be discriminatory toward minority black and Hispanic populations.
Unlike the at-large system, wards allow more localized neighbourhood candidates a channel to access the bigger citywide stage.
Vancouver is a city that is simultaneously diverse but ethnically siloed—it is a place where people from different backgrounds peacefully co-exist but don’t necessarily coalesce. A ward system makes the difference between a candidate from a diverse background getting heard or getting crowded out. It ameliorates the "lack of profile" issue for diverse candidates.
In 2004, the city held a referendum asking Vancouver voters about moving to a wards system. The No side rejected the proposition by a small majority of 54 percent.
Given the momentum currently building for British Columbia to adopt a proportional-representation electoral system, it seems likely that a referendum on ward system would receive more support today than it did 14 years ago.
RJ Aquino, who has previously run for council in 2011 for COPE and in 2014 for the then-nascent OneCity party, believes a ward system would have altered the outcomes of his previous campaigns.
Aquino, who was born in the Philippines and has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years, serves on the board of Collingwood Neighbourhood House. He is active in various initiatives in his part of Vancouver.
In 2014, Aquino was among the top vote-getters in Collingwood-Renfrew, Vancouver-Kensington, and the Fraser Street and King Edward area, all neighbourhoods with a significant population of Filipinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in B.C.
According to the recent census, there are 94,000 Filipinos living in the Metro Vancouver region, yet there has never been anyone of Filipino descent on Vancouver council, or the Vancouver park board.
“For people from diverse communities, we really have to work that much harder to get our name out there,” said Aquino, who is seeking a OneCity nomination for council this year. “Every time I encounter new people, there is always that extra step of explaining my background, how I fit into Vancouver, and how my values connect with the city’s values.”
But there has always been that extra distance to make up for diverse candidates. For this current generation, this means a "lack of profile" problem. Two generations ago, it was a matter of lacking the requisite language skills.
But going back even further, it was a matter of being barred from participating in the political process altogether.
Institutional racism plays a role
Amid Vancouver’s picturesque surroundings and its generally polite daily exchanges between its multicultural residents of all backgrounds, it is easy to forget the city was once the gateway to enforcing the country’s "white Canada" policy that deterred non-European immigration until the mid 20th century.
This policy was best articulated by former Canadian prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose face has been featured on Canada’s five-dollar bill.
In a parliamentary debate on Asian immigration in October 1914, he said: “The people of Canada want to have a white country, and certain of our fellow subjects who are not of the white race want to come to Canada and be admitted to all the rights of Canadian citizenship . . . These men have been taught by a certain school of politics that they are equals of British subjects; unfortunately they are brought face to face with the hard facts when it’s too late.”
It was this racist vision for the country that led to the Canadian government refusing permission to the Komagata Maru to dock in 1914 when the infamous Japanese tramp steamer arrived in Burrard Inlet with 376 would-be immigrants from India. The Vancouver Sun reported on the incident with toxic headlines like “Hindu invaders now in the city harbour on Komagata Maru”.
During that time other publications, like the Vancouver World, routinely railed against Chinese and Japanese residents with their poison pens and the World openly bragged that it was the “the one daily paper in Vancouver which has consistently set its face against the Orientals”.
While this "white Canada" policy blocked non-European immigrants from entering Canada for much of the 20th century, those who were already living here were not granted the full rights of citizenship.
It wasn’t until 1947 that Asian Canadians from Indian and Chinese backgrounds were permitted to vote and participate in the political process.
Meanwhile, in terms of its treatment of the Indigenous population, when the Canadian government wasn’t tearing Indigenous children away from their families and sending them to odious residential schools, it was also maintaining the ban on status Indigenous people from voting in elections, finally repealed only in 1960.
While that may seem like a long time ago for some too quick to dismiss the institutionalized racism of Canada’s past, consider this: some of the community elders who may be advising Squamish Nation hereditary Chief Ian Campbell on his mayoral bid were in their own lifetime once prohibited from voting in civic elections.
It doesn’t take much digging to unearth the artifacts of Vancouver’s racist history. According to local journalist Francis Bula, the covenant on NPA nominee Ken Sim’s house in the Arbutus neighbourhood on the West Side of the city prohibits someone of Chinese descent from owning the property. Many houses in the city’s elite neighbourhoods still have similar racist clauses in their covenants though they are no longer enforced.
It is understandable for Vancouverites to want to move on, or to forget, Canada’s own Jim Crow-like era. But it has not been as easy for those disenfranchised communities. Even after these race-based antivoting acts were repealed, it would take decades before nonwhite Canadians began putting their names forward to participate in politics.
It would take 25 years after the repeal of Canada racist voting legislation until the first resident of South Asian descent would win a seat on Vancouver council. Since V.S. Pendakur’s lone two-year term ended in 1974, no other person of South Asian descent has been on Vancouver council.
For the Chinese community, the wait was even longer. It would take 35 years before the first resident of Chinese descent, Bill Yee, won a council seat in 1982.
Three decades on, seeing diverse candidates come forward for elections has become normalized. But that doesn’t mean they still don’t encounter the racial slurs and broadsides of yesterday.
In 2016, when Niki Sharma, the former park board commissioner and Vision candidate for council, ran for the Vancity board of directors, someone trolling her Facebook page posted: “We don’t want packys (sic) in politics you people are taking over our country”.
Rather than deleting the comment, Sharma responded to it. Readers shared and commented on her post hundreds of times.
“I was going to delete your comment. As my hand went over to the delete button, something stopped me,” she wrote in the middle of that sleepless night. “As much as we both might want to, you and I cannot delete each other.”
Where diverse Canadians have been under-represented on municipal councils, it has been the reverse for white Canadians. Generation upon generation of white politicians have benefited from an under-acknowledged privilege of being allowed to vote, stand for elections, and get ahead thanks to a wielding a disproportionate voice in the political sphere.
This has created its own adverse consequences, such as encouraging ethnic pandering where white politician seem to show up at temples, and mosques every so often, often in ethnic garb, to hit up vote banks or follow the instructions of cooked up "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plans".
It also led to cringing moments of white paternalism. This white-on-nonwhite crime was most recently witnessed in 2015 when the current Vancouver mayor thought he had a "teachable moment" and tried to educate a prominent local Chinese-Canadian professional about what is and isn’t racist.
Andy Yan, then an urban planner with Bing Thom Architects, produced a study that looked at the names of buyers of homes on Vancouver’s tony west side. He found that buyers with non-Anglicized Chinese names were purchasing the majority of the homes in that neighbourhood.
Gregor Robertson publicly dismissed Yan’s work as racist, failing to see the irony of his criticism of Yan, given his great-grandfather was forced to pay the actually-racist Chinese Head Tax that was designed to keep Chinese immigrants out of B.C. As a social scientist, Yan was just looking at the data and sharing his observations, which were in plain sight.
The irony of the mayor’s response, however, was not lost on Brandon Yan, who is currently seeking to run for city council on the OneCity slate. He countered the mayor’s misguided comments in a line that should be quoted in a Dear White People racism primer, “Let’s leave it to the rich white dudes to decide what’s racist, right?”
This kind of paternalism is a natural outcome of a long history of exclusion. Out a total of 1,080 council and mayor’s seats across 102 administrations, 98 percent have been occupied by white politicians—like Andy Yan, I ran my own name analysis, through of all the city councillors and mayors over Vancouver’s history.
And of the seats occupied by councillors from diverse backgrounds: half have been won only in the past two decades since 2000.
When 98 percent of "leaders" in Vancouver’s brief history have been white but the population has steadily diversified to point of being 50 percent nonwhite, there is bound to be a disconnect between city hall’s perception and the reality on the ground.
Diversity: an optical illusion?
Because of their low turnout rates, municipal elections are notoriously difficult to poll. This is a point that Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, stressed repeatedly in our recent conversation.
“Compared to provincial and federal elections, turnout rates for municipal elections are around 30 percent. The X-factor is turnout, and it’s more exaggerated in city elections,” explained Kurl, who heads the public opinion polling organization.
In the 2017 by-election when Hector Bremner from the NPA was elected to city council, only 11 percent of voters turned out to vote.
“Just look at the recent example in Calgary. The polling for that election was not close to the final results. The polls had (Naheed) Nenshi running neck-in-neck. In the end, Nenshi won extremely comfortably for his 3rd term.”
In the 2014 council election, Vision candidate Niki Sharma placed 17th out of 49 candidates, receiving close to 50,000 votes. She fell short of winning by only 8,000 votes.
From her perspective, every percentage increase in turnout has the potential to reverse a loss into a victory, “In an election with low voter turnout, it doesn’t take many people deciding not to vote for you to be the difference between getting elected and not getting elected.”
The NPA may be hoping Ken Sim can trigger this X-factor in his favour and lure more voters from the Chinese community to participate. It could be all the difference he needs to win the coveted mayor’s gavel.
But as in the case of Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, the three-term Muslim mayor at the head of one of the more conservative cities in the country, the success of an ethnic candidate is not determined by the strength of his support from within his ethnic base, but rather from beyond it.
Nenshi, the only nonwhite mayor of a major Canadian city, has become a celebrity politician in Calgary, and across Alberta, because of his competence and ability to engage with the electorate.
But this does raise a question about diversity and politics—is there a causal link between Naheed Nenshi’s skills as a politician and his ethnicity?
Consider this hypothetical: if Nenshi had been a white Protestant instead of a brown Muslim, and still produced the same outcomes for Calgarians, then wouldn’t "celebrating diversity" only be emphasizing difference and fostering identity politics? In other words, shouldn’t Canadians focus their "celebration" solely on the actual achievements of their leaders instead of also on their "diversity"?
RJ Aquino, the aspiring city council candidate for OneCity, addressed this criticism often levelled from the right through a personal anecdote.
“In 2011, when I first ran for office, I started getting local university students from my community contacting me because they recognized my last name as Filipino. These were students who otherwise weren’t paying attention or engaged in civic politics, but when they learned I was from the same background, they looked me up and inquired about me.”
“Because I looked like them and because I was in the public eye, it showed to younger generations that it was possible to do this, that we can be represented.”
Where there is under-representation—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—it does not invite wider participation from all citizens, ultimately at the expense of our democratic institutions.
This segues to the other potential benefit of diversity: that diverse candidates bring unique experiences and insights, which may in turn lead to solutions and policies otherwise overlooked.
This claim is also open to some scrutiny given second- and third-generation Canadians—regardless of background—end up sharing common experiences. Or in other words, eventually all Canadians, if you live here long enough, end up being different but in the same way.
A diversity of faces may make for good optics—as in the current Trudeau’s cabinet—but may still be little more than an optical illusion when it comes to actual diversity of ideas.
To be fair, it is a reasonable conclusion that looking "different" does not necessarily translate into thinking differently.
But—and this is the crucial point—this flattening of Canadian diversity over time doesn’t mean that people from different backgrounds don’t empathize differently.
Let’s bring it back to the Vancouver context.
Should either Ian Campbell or Ken Sim become mayor, it is reasonable to conclude neither may have novel approaches to age-old issues facing the city. And as complete outsiders, particularly for Sim, they will likely struggle to learn the in-and-outs of city hall management and governance conventions.
But that does not mean they wouldn’t bring much-needed new empathy on age-old issues that, if nothing else, prevent these issues from being ignored.
Some examples to illustrate.
The past decade have been halcyon years for developers who have made more profits than ever while recasting Vancouver into an Eden of gleaming glass towers. Out of the billions flowing through Vancouver’s real estate market, a tiny infintesimal fraction could have been diverted to provide a lasting and sustainable solution to the city’s chronic problem of homelessness.
Yet 10 years after Vision took power having promised to end homelessness, the issue remains as chronic as ever.
It is a fitting metaphor for what Vancouver has become when one encounters its homeless residents trying to sleep in the cold-concrete nooks and doorways of its half-empty, but ecofriendly LEED skyscrapers.
It seems unlikely Campbell, someone from an indigenous background, would only pay lip service to this homelessness issue given that 40 percent of homeless people in the city are from an indigenous background, a staggering 20 times greater than their actual percentage of the overall population.
And perhaps it will require a Vancouver mayor from an Indigenous background like Ian Campbell to advance the reconciliation agenda and create new community initiatives that go beyond declarations of recognizing Vancouver as the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
In the case of Ken Sim, he is a second-generation Canadian who witnessed firsthand the struggles of his immigrant parents. He took menial jobs, worked as a janitor during high school, and like other second-generation Canadians found a way to sacrifice and forge ahead.
Would Sim not be more empathetic to Vancouver’s affordability issues than the current mayor, even if he is representing the right-of-centre NPA?
I worked as a janitor during high school and I had immigrant parents who struggled like others in a similar position. Back then it seemed inconceivable that those sweeping up the offices could one day be the ones sweeping into them.
For me, the candidacies and civic participation of Ken Sim, Ian Campbell, RJ Aquino, Brandon Yan, and a growing number of other diverse candidates in this coming 2018 election has piqued my interest in civic politics more than ever.
These candidates represent the other half of Vancouver that rarely gets to be heard in our city affairs, and the half that historically has been discouraged and once even banned from participating.
It may turn out that 2018 is still not the year a nonwhite candidate becomes mayor of Vancouver, but it seems 2018 will be the year that finally shows it is possible.
And that is an inflection point when truly "diversity becomes our strength", not just for half our city residents but for us all.
Jagdeesh Mann is the executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. Based in Vancouver, he is also an active contributor to a number of publications and a member of the NCM Collective.
Commentary by Surjit Singh Flora in Brampton
Kathleen Wynne, the current premier of Ontario, and Linda Jeffrey, the past Wynne Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Brampton’s current Mayor, are a study in contrasts.
As Ontario’s 25th Premier, Wynne is both at the height of her power and the low depths of popularity. But even with her popularity at below 20 per cent, she remains a powerful politician in control of her cabinet and caucus and with the ability to set and implement her political agenda.
This is despite Wynne’s now self-admitted mismanagement of our province’s electricity system, which she now concedes has caused such hardship in the province that some are forced to choose between feeding themselves or heating their homes.
It is a sad reality that Premier Wynne and her Liberals are looking more and more likely to hold on to power in the 2018 election as both the NDP and Conservatives appear to be parties struggling to seize any of the public’s attention, let alone imagination.
On one hand, Andrea Horwath and her NDP seem to have little ground to stand on, given that the Liberals have all but assumed much of the left’s territory, leaving the NDP with few policy options and little to say.
And, then, there is Patrick Brown, who with so many opportunities to pillory a Liberal government mired in scandal, continues to squander his opportunities to effectively hold this government to account while failing to be consistent in publicly expressing his own party’s policies and platform.
The recent by-elections in Ottawa and Niagara were an indictment of an ineffective opposition that bodes well for Wynne going into her pre-election year.
Contrast Wynne with Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey. Like Wynne, Jeffrey served as an Ontario Liberal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, as well as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Her predecessor, Susan Fennell, had presided over a virtual renaissance in Brampton.
During her tenure as Mayor, Brampton saw major investments in public infrastructure, and a massive $300 million expansion of public transit funded jointly by all three levels of government despite the fact that, at the time, there was no formal program in place from the Federal and Provincial governments to fund it.
All of that travelling to Ottawa paved the way for the single largest provincial/federal investment in Brampton’s history, but was ultimately part of what I have always believed to be an organized campaign to run her out of office.
Her frequent travel was at the heart of unfounded accusations, innuendo and vicious allegations that lasted all of two years. After having been cleared of all but two ridiculously minor issues just days prior to the 2014 municipal election, Fennell lost to Jeffrey, who promised to clean up City Hall.
Two years later, under Jeffrey’s leadership, Brampton's reputation has sunk to new lows. Jeffrey presides over a fractious Council that cannot agree on anything. An LRT line that had unprecedented public support was defeated despite over $300 million in approved provincial funding.
A search for a new chief administrative officer attracted only one candidate, who, since being hired has been on a rampage at City Hall that has seen virtually the entire senior management fired, drawing comparisons to a mini “reign of terror” with blood-soaked corridors and a civil service in disarray.
And even when she wins, Jeffrey loses. After recently scoring a coveted nod from her former Liberal government colleagues to locate a university in Brampton, it was revealed that even that effort is plagued with a lack of organization and little in the way of a plan, leaving Council slack-jawed, asking, “What do we do now?”
Wynne and Jeffrey are Liberals, but complete opposites: Wynne is powerful and blessed with a weak opposition; Jeffrey, powerless and cursed with a fractious and ineffective Council.
But both have one thing in common: they both need to be replaced and 2018 can’t come soon enough.
Brampton-based Surjit Singh Flora is a veteran journalist and freelance writer.
SADIQ Khan has won the London mayoral election, beating Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith, on second preference votes after failing to gain more than 50% in the first round, BBC reports. Khan said: “I’m so proud that Londoners have today chosen hope over fear and unity over division.” Goldsmith had tried every mean trick in the book, even […]
In his acceptance speech, Basran thanked voters for “embracing the next generation of leadership,” and vowed to keep the city moving ahead.
KELOWNA – Kelowna voters elected their first Indo-Canadian mayor, overwhelmingly choosing Colin Basran, 37, as the city’s youngest person and first person of [...]
SURREY Mayoral candidate Barinder Rasode rolled-out an experienced team of community leaders committed to fixing Surrey’s crime problem and making the tough decisions necessary to move the city forward. “The One Surrey team is united by a commitment to building a safer and stronger Surrey,” said Rasode on Friday. “It’s time for new ideas […]
by PATRICK HUNTER
So, at the last moment, the Fords did another number. At this stage of the game, with all that have transpired with this family, we should not be surprised at this maneuver.
In case you missed it, Rob Ford has withdrawn from the mayoralty race due to illness, but he will seek his old seat in Ward 2. That seat was being vacated by his brother, Doug.
Mike Ford, their nephew, has withdrawn from contesting that council seat to run for trustee at the Board of Education. Are you with me so far? It’s not done yet. Now, sliding in to take challenge for the mayoralty is Doug Ford.
Richmond: Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie announced that he is running again for Mayor. “We’ve achieved so much in Richmond over the last term and in my years as Mayor, yet so much lies ahead,” Mayor Malcolm Brodie stated as he officially announced his intention to run again for Mayor of Richmond on Sept 10. He added, “Richmond has become an international city. With the Canada Line, the Olympic Oval, the 2010 Winter Olympics and our relationships with Pacific Rim countries,
SURREY – Veteran Surrey councillor and former mayor Bob Bose is backing Barinder Rasode in her bid to become mayor.
Bose, who served on Surrey council for 28 years, told the Surrey Leader that until recently, he was waiting for a dark horse candidate to come forward and run for mayor.
That candidacy didn’t materialize.
Bose is now saying he will back Rasode, who has not yet officially declared her intention to run for the centre chair, but told The Leader in April she will run for mayor.
Bose said he’s drawn to Rasode’s position on wards.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit