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“Visible minorities” underrepresented in municipal politics

Electoral process characterized by cycle of marginalization

Approximately sixty people gathered on January 18, the 87th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, at the Ligue des Noirs du Québec in Côte-des-Neiges to attend a press conference. According to an English press release from Marvin Rotrand, City Councillor of Snowdon, the conference was to focus on the fact that “visible minorities remain severely underrepresented” in municipal councils across Canada and specifically in Montreal, as well as to announce an upcoming motion that will raise this issue in the 2017 municipal elections. Statistics Canada defines a “visible minority,” as a “category [that] includes persons who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour and who do not report being Aboriginal.”

The panel was chaired by Rotrand, who was joined by Sud-Ouest borough mayor Benoit Dorais, Peter-McGill councillor and Vrai changement pour Montréalrepresentative Steve Shanahan, Vieux-Rosemont councillor Érika Duchesne, school board councillor of Côte-des-Neiges-Snowdon Khokon Maniruzzaman, and Erik Hamon, who was a candidate in the municipal elections of 2013

The press release revealed that while Montreal has a 32.3 per cent visible minority population, only 6 of 208 municipal elected officials on the island of Montreal are visible minorities. These six officials are Frantz Benjamin and Alan De Sousa, members of the Montreal City Council; Monica Rincourt and Nathalie Pierre-Antoine, members of various Montreal Borough Councils; and Errol Johnson and Minh Diem Li Thi, members of Dollard des Ormeaux council and Town of Mount Royal council, respectively.

“Montreal is unique in that it has a party system at a municipal level.”

Rotrand organized the conference to stimulate public debate in anticipation for his motion tabled for the January 25 session of the City Council. This motion will address lack of representation in the upcoming 2017 election. The Montreal Gazette reported that in the 2013 election, a record number of visible minorities ran for positions. According to Rotrand, however, several were last-minute additions in districts where they had no chance of winning.

Rotrand’s motion is supported by Coalition Montréal, Vrai changement pour Montréal, and five independent councillors.

In an interview with The Daily, Rotrand explained that the goal of the motion is not to impose a minority quota for Montreal political parties.

“Montreal is unique in that it has a party system at a municipal level,” he said. “In a perfect world, we will use [the municipal party system] to change the complexion of City Hall.”

“I would like to see a slate of candidates across the board that is a lot more representative of this city.”

A repeated topic of the conference was that some political parties typically nominate a candidate based on “electability,” complicating the municipal electoral process. Visible minority candidates often do not perform as well as candidates who are not visible minorities because, in Shanahan’s words, “voters want people who they feel represent them, and often those are people who look like them.” As such, municipal parties may be tempted to nominate only non-visible minority candidates – fuelling a cycle of a lack of representation of visible minority candidates, Shanahan explained.

The Daily spoke with panel member Erik Hamon, a Coalition Montreal candidate of Filipino descent who lost the 2013 election by roughly 300 votes to Équipe Coderre’s Lionel Perez in the Darlington district.

“I would just like to see [visible minorities] in the party who make the decisions about who the candidates should be, or the [unaffiliated] people who are becoming candidates themselves,” explained Hamon. “I would like to see a slate of candidates across the board that is a lot more representative of this city.”

Canadian municipal governments are grossly underrepresentative of their racialized populations; even cities with ‘visible minority’ populations that are above 50 per cent. For example, in Brampton, Ontario, despite its 67.1 per cent ‘visible minority’ population, only one city councillor of ten (Gurpreet Dhillon) is a ‘visible minority.’ Similarly, Surrey, British Columbia has a ‘visible minority’ population of 55.5 per cent, but only one councillor of eight is a ‘visible minority’ (Tom Gill).

“If you look at the political system, it’s white. It’s a reflection of the political system.”

In an email to The Daily, Rotrand elaborated that “there are several persons of Chinese origin or heritage on some municipal councils such as in Vancouver. Indeed, most of the visible minority councillors are southeast, east or south Asian origin or heritage. [However,] there are really very few Black elected councillors.”

The Daily spoke with Dan Philip, Director of the Ligue Des Noirs du Québec, after the event, who said that panels like these are important and necessary in the electoral process because they “awaken consciousness as to the necessity of everybody participating within the political system, so people can be adequately represented.”

Philip noted that while the seven-member panel had only three visible minority panelists sitting on it, “if you look at the political system, it’s white. It’s a reflection of the political system. […] People will help us to move, but we have to move ourselves. We have to create this type of desire for [representation] at all levels of the political system. Not just municipally, but provincially and federally as well.”