Council for old white men: Why Burnaby's diversity isn't represented at City Hall

In a city where most residents are from a visible minority group, council members are older, whiter and more male

If Burnaby’s nine-seat council perfectly reflected the city’s adult population, there would be four or five women, five or six people from visible minority groups and three millennials.

When the new council is sworn in Nov. 5, there will be one woman and two people of colour.

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“It’s always worrying and troubling when elected government doesn’t represent the demographics of our communities,” Burnaby resident and activist Harsha Walia said.

Burnaby is part of a larger trend seen across the Lower Mainland, Walia said, including in Vancouver where the election of eight women was celebrated but the election of only one person of colour raised concerns.

One exception is next door in New Westminster, which is now almost evenly spilt by gender and where voters just elected two new women of colour as councillors.

The lack of diversity can send a message to potential future leaders that perhaps they don’t belong in the halls of power, Walia said. But, she said, it can also have a more concrete effect on decision-making in council chambers.

“There’s very specific kinds of challenges that recent immigrants and refugees face, that Indigenous people face, that single moms face, that seniors face, that youth face, that isn’t just the same,” she said. “There’s a qualitative difference in the ways that housing affordability impacts different communities based on the lived experience and their social condition and position in our community.”

Walia said one doesn’t have to be from a specific community to understand its issues, but Burnaby’s council being older, whiter and more male than the general population means its members must make an extra effort to understand the challenges of people not like them.

Structural challenges for women

Coun. Colleen Jordan will be the sole woman on council for the next four years. After the last election, she was one of two women before Anne Kang left to become an NDP MLA.

Two female councillors remains the high watermark in Burnaby, where three or more women have never sat at the table.

“That’s the thing about democratic processes – sometimes you end up lopsided in representation,” Jordan said. “That’s not something that you have that much control over.”

Laughing, Jordan added: “Sometimes I think it’s because women are really smart and they don’t want to take these jobs.”

But, she said, there are some structural issues that discourage women from running. The job of councillor was traditionally designed for professionals and small business owners without strict schedules, she said.

It not only disadvantages women, Jordan said, but also shift workers and young people with full-time jobs. That’s why retired people are over-represented, she said.

Jordan said she was “very sad” to see her fellow Burnaby Citizens Association member, Baljinder Narang, fall just over 200 votes short of a council seat.

“We lost a woman and an ethnic group representative, so that makes me very sad because it’s a contact with that community and the relationship and an understanding of their culture [and] how they participate in the process,” Jordan said. “It’s a deficit.”

But ballot-box decisions are also coloured by implicit bias, according to Walia. 

When choosing between two equally qualified candidates, she said voters will often unconsciously see a man as more professional and credible than a woman.

“We have our own implicit biases and judgments about who we assume will do the job better, the ways in which we read and understand professionalism and experience,” Walia said.

Millennials shut out

Young people were shut out from Burnaby council entirely this election, with the Green Party’s 24-year-old candidate, Joel Gibbs, falling nearly 1,000 votes short of a seat.

Gibbs said he is troubled by the lack of diversity on council on many fronts, from age to ethnic background to sexual orientation.

In concrete terms, Gibbs said he believes a younger city council would be less focused on building fiscal reserves and would spend more time thinking about how to design inclusive and affordable housing. 

But Gibbs said his election loss has not discouraged him from staying politically engaged. 

The best way to ensure the current council considers diverse perspectives in its decision-making over the next four years will be to get more fresh voices on committees, Gibbs said. 

The council’s two new members, mayor-elect Mike Hurley and Joe Keithley, are both Caucasian men. That means after Nov. 5, city council will be 78 per cent white in a town that’s 63 per cent visible minority and two per cent Indigenous.

‘Tokenism’ not the answer

Incumbent councillor James Wang is a Chinese-born immigrant and Sav Dhaliwal is of South Asian descent. Coun. Pietro Calendino's online profile says he came to Canada from Italy in 1959.

Wang did not respond to an interview request for this story, but his profile page on the city’s website says he is focused on “being a bridge between Burnaby’s diverse communities.”

 

 

Walia said there are no easy fixes to the issue of representation, and simply voting for or nominating someone simply because of their race, age, gender or sexual orientation amounts to “tokenism.”

“I do think it’s a lot more holistic conversation we have to have,” Walia said. 

Proportional representation, council seats for representatives of local First Nations and allowing permanent residents to vote are all viable options worth exploring, Walia said. 

Sanjay Jeram, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University, said ward systems and proportional representation could improve representation at city hall, but there is no panacea for the issue.

He said there is probably some truth to the notion “that not seeing yourself in government perhaps leads to disempowerment, makes people feel as though they are not listened to, makes them less likely to get involved in politics, makes them less likely to out their voice forward to their politicians.”

But Jeram said he hasn’t seen any studies proving that’s the case.

“These are all things that have been argued by philosophers,” he said.

When it comes to the policies councillors and mayors vote on –  mainly zoning and taxes – diversity may be less important than at the provincial and federal level, he said.

“It certainly can’t be a good thing to have an homogenous council, [but] maybe it’s not necessarily as bad a thing as some people may make it out to be,” he said 

“It certainly would be better if we could have a council that naturally looked like the population that the city has.”

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