Many Canadians boast about their country’s diversity. There is a sense of pride attached to it. Yet, when it comes to the foundation of Canada’s democracy, proportionate representation fails miserably.
From municipal levels straight up the parliamentary halls of Ottawa, the demographic remains largely the same — middle-aged, white males.
A study by macro economist, Kai L. Chan titled “Canada’s governing class: Who rules the country?”, reveals that as of September 2014 there were, “relative to the makeup of the [country’s] population, 107 ‘extra’ white males in Parliament, 64 ‘missing’ white females and 45 ‘missing’ minorities.”
“The numbers are the numbers . . . and the under-representation is relative to the general population,” Chan says. “I am not surprised by the findings, but it was interesting to note that women and minorities are equally under-represented relative to their levels in the population.”
Chan, a government and public policy professional who moved from China to Toronto when he was four years old, conducted the study to highlight the political issues he felt were important to address in the western world.
As he states in his study, since Parliament is the highest policymaking and political governing body, it is also the final decision maker when it comes to issues that affect minorities. He believes those decisions are at a high risk of being uninformed and may not be reflective of the general population.
“As a racial minority and as an immigrant woman I come to the table with different experiences. “As a racial minority and as an immigrant woman I come to the table with different experiences.” – Kristyn Wong-Tam, Toronto city councillor.
The country’s political parties will have to do better than just skin colour. They need to attract people with real life experiences and thoughts reflective of the populations they’re supposed to represent. Politicians need to be qualified and be able to push for change, he explains.
In the 2011 National Household Survey more than 200 ethnic origins were reported living in the country revealing that about one out of five people in Canada is a visible minority; in Ontario, it’s one in four.
In Toronto, the country’s largest city, where half the population is foreign born, out of the 45 city councillors that serve the GTA, only six are from visible minority backgrounds. City councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, representing Ward 27 Toronto Centre-Rosedale, is one of them.
Wong-Tam, an immigrant and a member of the LGBT community, arrived in Canada when she was four years old. In 2010, with the odds already stacked against her as the only racialized woman at Toronto City Hall, she also became the first ever gay woman elected to public office in Ontario, a few years before Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne took office.
“As a racial minority and as an immigrant woman I come to the table with different experiences,” Wong-Tam says. “I come from a working class family where my parents worked in hotels and factories, and English is not my first language.”
“Since we are not doing anything actively to fix it we are probably a generation away from it at least. The change will just happen as the younger generation, who is colour blind or gender blind, start to be the elites.” – Bruce Hicks, York University professor
Wong-Tam, with her petite stature, is not in a conventional sense what you might imagine a political leader to be. Yet, she serves the second most populous ward in Toronto, considered to be a major employment zone and tax base. “From the city’s perspective this is where the wealth is created,” she says.
Statistically speaking, Wong-Tam faced tremendous hurdles to win her seat. Based on her minority statuses, she traditionally would be seen as a weak candidate — a person unable to gather a large number of votes. But she’s come out on top, twice, as she was re-elected in the last city election in 2014.
Time to Get On Board
At the time of Chan’s research (September 2014), Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) had the highest number of racialized MPs, while the Liberals and Conservatives trailed behind. As of this year the NDP is still on top with 14 visible minority MPs representing 13.6 per cent of the party’s caucus. The Conservatives have 12 representing 7.2 per cent and the Liberal Party have just two members, representing 5.9 per cent.
In total there are 49 parliamentarians of visible minority background (including First Nations), but since minorities represent 23.3 per cent of the population they should be holding somewhere around 93 seats instead.
“Historically there is a belief that if you choose someone from an ethnic minority group you risk alienating other ethnic minority groups . . . therefore they (political parties) are hesitant, but it just doesn’t work that way.” – Bruce Hicks, York University professor
Political scientist and Concordia/York University professor Bruce M. Hicks is well versed on the low count of visible minorities in Ottawa. He says no political party has really put diversity onto its radar even though it’s clear they’ve fallen way behind.
“Since we are not doing anything actively to fix it we are probably a generation away from it at least,” Hicks says. “The change will just happen as the younger generation, who is colour blind or gender blind, start to be the elites.”
And it’s getting better, at least for women, Hicks says. On one hand more and more women are starting to hold political positions, but on the other there has only been a slight shift forward for visible minorities. Over the years parties have acknowledged the gender gap and made efforts to improve it, that can’t be said for visible minorities. “No party is going out and recruiting actively, there are no programs in place for them,” Hicks says.
“Historically there is a belief that if you choose someone from an ethnic minority group you risk alienating other ethnic minority groups . . . therefore they (political parties) are hesitant, but it just doesn’t work that way,” he continues.
Deeper Social Issues
After she was first elected as city councillor, Wong-Tam unexpectedly received calls from the LGBT community from across the city and parts of southern Ontario voicing challenges and concerns, essentially looking for her help.
At the same time residents of the Chinese-Canadian community from other parts of Toronto like North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough have also turned to Wong-Tam instead of their local councillor, because they think she will have a better understanding of their issues.
“They (Chinese-Canadian community) specifically want to work with me . . . This is a real condition and a real set of circumstances that I do my job in,” she says. “I don’t believe other councillors are being called from across the city on these issues where residents don’t feel their councillors will understand.”
There are many good councillors, she adds, but she thinks they will have to go above and beyond of what they normally do in order to connect with the minority groups they serve in their wards.
Her experiences as a councillor are warning signs at the municipal level that should be taken seriously as they may be applicable at all levels of government.
“How odd would it be for a society in which the majority population is from one group while the ruling class is from another? This is what transpires in colonialism and certain dictatorships.” – Kai Chan, macro economist
Wong-Tam has tried to address some issues informally assigned to her by residents outside her ward, but there is only so much one person can do.
“Actually I think it’s wrong for me to be given this additional work, simply because I happen to be racial minority, an immigrant and a woman of colour,” she said.
In the last census (2011) nearly 6,264,800 people identified themselves as a member of the visible minority population (not including First Nations people). That number has definitely grown since then.
“I think it’s really important that we have members of city council and elected officials reflect the populations they serve,” Wong-Tam adds. “And it’s not possible if the majority of the elected officials don’t look like the people riding public transit.”
Chan agrees, saying it is absolutely paramount that the governing body reflect the diversity of a country, or its legitimacy is threatened.
“How odd would it be for a society in which the majority population is from one group while the ruling class is from another?” Chan asks. “This is what transpires in colonialism and certain dictatorships. If a democracy yields such anomalies, I suspect that it’s a reflection of deeper social issues.”