A lot of interest has been generated by the composition of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. Of particular interest to the large South
Asian diaspora is the fact that there are four South Asian cabinet ministers including two turbaned Sikhs. The media has been waxing lyrical about the diversity that exists to this degree which for the first time reflects multicultural Canada.
It makes for a great picture, but I’m afraid social and political commentators are getting ahead of themselves when they say that this diversity on display in Trudeau’s Liberal cabinet is the final and most concrete piece of evidence that ethnic minorities are part of the mainstream and not part off the mainstream. That is where these learned left-leaning commentators are wrong, this is the first step and hopefully there will be a trickle down effect. Because as you read this column, what’s happening in corporate boardrooms and city halls across the land is quite the opposite.
Look at the demographic makeup of corporate Canada, ethnic minorities are inadequately represented. You would think that multicultural cities like Toronto and Vancouver would have an abundance of diversity on the respective city councils, wrong. In Toronto, despite South Asians and Chinese being highly visible minorities, you wouldn’t think so scanning the faces of the city councillors. In Vancouver where 11.1 per cent are South Asian and 30 per cent are of Chinese origin, there is just one Asian, the nine other councillors are Caucasian. In Abbotsford, another city with a large South Asian population, just two out of the 8 councillors are South Asian. Similarly in Surrey, not surprisingly not one minority councillor has made it to council. Brampton which many uncharitably dub Brown Town, it is Gurpreet Dhillon who happens to be the lone non-Caucasian councillor on council. As for Mississauga its city council looks nothing like the residents living there and is destined to remain that way for years to come.
Why aren’t ethnic candidates making it in leadership roles?
So why is it that ethnic minorities, notably South Asian fare so well at the federal level and tend to have nominal success even at provincial level but fail miserably to get anywhere at the municipal level? One reason is that in federal and provincial elections, candidates are propped up by mainstream political parties and Canadian voters tend to vote for a political party rather than a candidate. Which is why I’d be surprised if even a handful of the 22 South Asians Liberal MPs could ever hope to be elected as ‘humble’ municipal councillors. Being elected by people in your neighborhood to me is a true reflection of multiculturalism. And to borrow a headline from the Star, ‘Appointment of four Sikh cabinet ministers (read it as municipal councillors in any city) shows ‘we have arrived’. Have we now?
Political parties back ethnic candidates
Without the backing of a powerful political party, these MPs would find it hard to make a case to voters to give them a chance to be their representative at city hall.
Despite politicians at all levels of government saying how they support diversity, at the municipal level there is no urgency to take steps to ensure more representation of ethnic minorities on city councils. Ofcourse everyone talks about it, especially incumbent politicians who never miss an opportunity to display their strong support for diversity and inclusion is in their respective cities but when it comes to providing a pathway and mentorship for individuals from ethnic backgrounds to contribute their talents and skills at a municipal level as well as one day being able to serve on council, the room goes strangely quiet. And why exactly is that the case? I’ve made enquiries and here is what I found: Candidates from ethnic backgrounds tend to lack the networking and leadership skills to navigate the corridors of power. They aren’t versed with the dynamics of city hall, where everyone knows each other having worked together often for decades, ethnic minority members are made to feel like outsiders, unless ofcourse they are there to talk about celebrating diversity and thereby adding a multicultural lustre to councillors in public. Such events after all burnish the credentials of any politician and is a great opportunity to display commitment to the cause.
The wrong candidates put their names out there
Often when really talented but untested ethnic candidates put themselves out there, they find it hard to break through the glass ceilings, be it in the corporate world or city halls across the country. They are often NOT made to feel comfortable, mind you everyone is polite but very aloof. And it doesn’t help that so many members of ethnic minorities end up spending a greater portion of their time socializing among people from their own backgrounds.
With unknown and uninspiring candidates in the fray, it is little wonder that the incumbent ends up winning one term after the other. Very few councillors in any city will voluntarily give up their seats even after three terms. Now and again there is talk about term limits for councillors but that talk is empty. It is seen as a job for life. With no term limits, many actually believe holding municipal elections is a waste of taxpayer money and should only be held in a ward when a sitting councillor decides its time to retire, which should be around age 90.
In my interviews with dozens of politicians and members of the South Asian community, it is clear that what is often lacking in candidates standing for municipal elections are leadership skills.
Community ‘leaders’ don’t place leadership high on their agendas
We have community leaders who are fawn over politicians, especially if they happen to be White. Yes, it is a colonial hang-up. You see their obsequiousness on full display at community events and on social media posts. As long as sitting councillors and other politicians come to their social, cultural and religious events, South Asians seem to be more than satisfied and reassured that their representatives have their best interests at heart and the gullible voter believes all’s well with multiculturalism even though they aren’t involved in decision making, have no real power, money and prestige. And politicians at all levels find that showing up to events, posing for pictures and talking about how great it is to have such a diverse population, is the simplest way to continue to be returned to city halls everywhere. At the corporate level, for every one ethnic minority that has made it to the top management echelons, dozens more languish at middle level positions because they lack the ‘soft skills’ so necessary for advancement to the next level! No one will ask uncomfortable questions about representation at city halls or representation at levels that matter across the country. It would be pertinent to point out that many newspapers and other media outlets that have been praising the diversity on display on Parliament Hill themselves have few if any writers or presenters of color on their staff! So much for giving writers of South Asian and other ethnic backgrounds a national or regional platform to air their views!
The Peel Region one of the most ethnically diverse areas in North America has just one city councillor who happens to be a turbaned Sikh. So while the world looks at Canada’s diversity on display on Parliament Hill, no one looks at what’s happening off camera. It is almost like when US President Barrack Obama was elected to office, some saw it as evidence that racism was a thing of the past and a Canadian journalist might have incorrectly inferred it to mean blacks had ‘arrived’. And yet despite it being 2015, we have a movement like Black Lives Matter dominating the headlines.
What is real diversity?
True diversity required harnessing leadership skills. The only way cities can thrive is by providing ethnic minorities pathways to leaderships and encouraging them to contribute their talent, creativity and ideas. There should be a diversity of ideas and opinions on city councils. When that happens, it will be a sign that we have truly taken our seats at the table.
Very often it isn’t just new immigrants who lack ‘Canadian Experience’, To get a crack at top management jobs and to be considered a Canadian as opposed to a hyphenated Canadian, ethnic minorities may really need to get exposed to some real “Canadian Experiences”.