How ethnic candidates can end up on municipal council

Pradip Rodrigues

In a column I wrote late last year, ( I outlined reasonscouncil why Mississauga city council would continue to be an all-White affair for a very long time to come even as the complexion of the population changes to many shades of brown. It isn’t just Mississauga that is dealing with this rather embarrassing situation, but municipalities across the GTA and beyond.
The reason is fairly simply and complex at the same time- often ethnic candidates who stand for elections haven’t done their homework, know little or nothing how things work at city hall and act more like community leaders looking out for the narrow interests of their fellow ethnic residents. So quite understandably, residents who share the candidate’s ethnicity as well as others who don’t wisely pick the only default candidate most qualified for the job- the incumbent councillor.

Diversity at the top is rare

Across the GTA there is a lot of hand-wringing by intellectuals and thinkers who are grappling with the issue of lack of diversity in the upper echelons of managements, in corporate boardrooms and in city halls which continue to be largely dominated by Caucasian baby boomers. It is not that ethnic minorities lack the skills or the intelligence required for the job, it is simply that many lack leadership, networking and communication skills.
Last week I was talking to a 26-year-old school trustee who wanted to stay anonymous. She belongs to an ethnic minority, came to Canada as a young teenager, is very socially active and engaged in everything happening in her city. Poised, sophisticated, politically savvy, she was just the kind of person who I could envisage on city council and I had a hunch she was thinking along the same lines. She was hoping to make the leap into municipal politics in the future, but refused to run against the incumbent councillor in the next municipal elections to be held in 2018. The sitting incumbent has made it very clear that she has every intention of representing her ward for quite possibly as long as she lives! Under these circumstances this young and enthusiastic woman will only consider a run if the seat becomes vacant. By which time she won’t be young anymore. She believed that incumbents who’ve occupied the position for decades are impossible to beat. Running against them is an exercise in futility. Besides, there would be atleast half-a-dozen if not more non-serious ethnic candidates who’d bad-mouth her, divide the vote and the incumbent would once again win. Being insiders, they have the experience of knowing how city hall runs and can get things done for the residents. Truth is anyone in that position could do it. Residents by and large are wary of upsetting the status quo because of apathy and fear of electing someone inexperienced. It is almost the same situation when newcomers seeking employment are asked if they had Canadian experience.

Frivolous candidates run spoiler campaigns

While inexperienced and frivolous ethnic candidates have no shame in losing municipal elections because they often simply want some attention and publicity for their small businesses, serious ethnic candidates don’t want to risk the wrath of running against a powerful incumbent.
Very few if any municipal councilors voluntarily give up their seats once they pass a particular age or they find something better like Mississauga’s Ward 4 Councillor, Frank Dale who resigned his seat weeks after winning it in the 2014 municipal election when he was appointed as Peel Regional Chair. A by-election saw over two dozen candidates vying for the seat. So unless an incumbent municipal councillor drops dead, takes ill or decides to give someone like their family member an opportunity to take over the family business, seats don’t just become available.
And if no ethnic minority candidate ever gets an opportunity to get on city hall, they will never have the experience. Catch-22. So the only way out would be to impose term limits on municipal councilors. Once councilors have been on council for two consecutive terms, they should step aside and should be permitted to run for re-election after skipping one. This way a newbie gets the opportunity to serve and if residents genuinely believe that the previous councillor was better, they could vote to bring the old-hand back. Otherwise cities across the country will continue to have councilors for life. Municipal councilors need to be young, vibrant and definitely reflective of the community they serve. There are dozens of young people out there with fantastic ideas that could revolutionize the way our cities run if only they got the opportunity.

Ethnic minorities need the tools to develop leadership skills

In order to ensure ethnic minorities get elected on their own merit to city councils, it is imperative they develop leadership skills. Perhaps there could be a City Hall Boot Camp, where 12 participants each year are given a thorough orientation about how cities function, the protocol, the rules etc. They could have mock council meetings and debates. Accent reduction courses could be provided to improve communication if required. These individuals can then decide if they want to run for a seat. At election time, these candidates can then assuage the fears of residents by talking about their Boot Camp experience.
In Federal and Provincial elections, ethnic candidates are quite well represented and that is because ethnic minorities have the backing of their respective political parties and voters vote based on their party affiliations and not on the basis of a candidate’s appeal. In municipal politics, a councillor has to demonstrate a wide skillset. And if sitting municipal councilors were really eager to have more ethnic minorities serve their cities in elected and non-elected capacities, they would have to take a different approach. But on the other hand, why would councillors be in a hurry to implement any policies that would undermine their own positions? After all why would councillors in the GTA or anywhere want to promote the interests of ethnic minorities at the risk of knocking themselves off the Sunshine List?

Pradip Rodrigues started out as a journalist at Society magazine, part of the Magna Group in Mumbai. He wrote extensively on a variety of subjects. He later moved to the Times of India where he was instrumental in starting the now defunct E-times, a television magazine. He conceptualized Bombay Times and became its first assistant editor where he handled features and page three. Since coming to Canada in 2000, he has freelanced for newspapers and magazines in India and written autobiographies for seniors.

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