Will municipal elections lead to more diverse representation on councils? Don’t hold your breath

Last October, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) launched a campaign to encourage more candidates from diverse communities to consider running in this year’s municipal elections.

“Having the voice of diverse genders and identities, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, ages, and abilities and more around the council table is key to building inclusive and sustainable communities across the province,” reads the association’s release about the initiative, “We All Win.”

Encouraging greater diversity in municipal government is a laudable goal, considering that municipal governments throughout Ontario, and across Canada, are simply not representative of the populations they serve. Yet, it’s a goal that will likely remain far out of reach for a variety of reasons, including the cost of running for a municipal seat and the lack of youth engagement.

In the 2018 municipal election, only four out of 25 Toronto city councillors were non-white in a city where 51.5 per cent of the population belong to a visible minority, as CityNews reporter Cynthia Mulligan found. Mulligan’s review showed that the dismal lack of representation was evident in other cities as well, including Montreal and Vancouver, where city councils are 94 and 80 per cent white respectively, despite highly diverse populations.

In the current election cycle, there isn’t a way to accurately assess who is or isn’t vying for the 2,864 municipal elected positions in the province because demographic data, including gender, age, race, nor ethnicity, is not collected for municipal elections. We don’t know whether there is greater diversity among this year’s roster of candidates, and won’t know until election night whether representation has improved.

However, until there’s a way to remove barriers to running for office, it will be difficult for people from varied backgrounds and experiences to participate. As Andray Domise, a Toronto writer and former candidate, pointed out in an interview with Mulligan: “You have be a very rich, very likely a white, male human being to win an election in this city.”

As Erin Tolley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, noted in a 2018 article for Policy Options, even when racialized candidates are running for office, voters aren’t necessarily selecting them.

“If racialized minorities are looking at the political landscape, and they do not see their concerns being reflected, they are less likely to engage in the process. It is thus a vicious cycle. Strategies to increase voter turnout among racialized minorities must be a part of any effort to address the persistent Whiteness of municipal politics.”

Additionally, young people are simply not as engaged in municipal politics as they are in federal or provincial politics, according to analysis of the 2020 General Social Survey released this summer by Statistics Canada.

In its “Portrait of Youth in Canada: Data Report,” the agency noted that just over 52 per cent of young people aged 18 to 30 years old voted in the last municipal elections, considerably less than the 79.7 per cent who voted in the 2019 federal election, or the 72.7 per cent who voted in the 2018 provincial election. The report also noted that visible minority youth are less likely to vote than nonvisible minorities.

The fact that visible minority youth are more likely to participate in school groups and neighbourhood, civic and community associations than nonvisible minority youth demonstrates where opportunities for fostering greater political engagement among underserved communities could lie.

There are 444 municipal governments in Ontario that invest over $50 billion annually in crucial public services and infrastructure, including the provision of clean drinking water, public transit, accessible child care and affordable housing.

These are essential services. Inadequate representation means local decision-makers will struggle to implement policies that are rooted in the needs of all of our communities.

Amira Elghawaby is an Ottawa-based human rights advocate and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star.

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