Visible minorities in municipal politics

Olivia Chow at the the Sears Atrium in George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre (Cosette Schulz / Ryersonian Staff)

Olivia Chow at the the Sears Atrium in George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre (Cosette Schulz / Ryersonian Staff)

Olivia Chow is the front-runner in Toronto’s mayoral race, and the only visible minority of the top-tier candidates.

Chow is polling at 36 per cent support against Mayor Rob Ford’s 28 per cent, according to a Forum Research poll conducted in mid-March.

If Chow is able to hold on to this lead, she will be the first visible minority to be elected as Toronto’s mayor.

And in a city whose motto is “Diversity Is Our Strength,” this could be a huge change when it comes to representation in municipal politics.

The poll also showed Chow is popular among voters in the downtown area, public transit users and young voters.

In comparison, Ford ranks high with those living in Etobicoke and Scarborough and those aged 35 to 44.

John Tory, who came in at third, does best among older voters and the city residents making between $80,000 and $100,000.

The telephone poll, conducted the day Chow officially launched her campaign for mayor, sampled 1,271 Toronto voters.

Part of Chow’s strategy to gain supporters is appealing to a range of groups.

She lives downtown, but she has been campaigning in the suburbs.

She plans to help immigrant business owners.

Her NDP and city background might work in her favour.

She has shared her own family’s story of immigrating to Canada from Hong Kong and struggling to stay afloat.

This is a city where the population consists of almost half — 49.1 per cent — visible minorities, according to the 2011 census.

Only six of the 45 city council members (current mayor included) are people of colour.

Concern about underrepresentation of visible minorities in municipal politics is nothing new.

In 2011, Marcus Gee wrote about the topic in the Globe and Mail.

He highlighted not only the lack of diversity in Toronto, but in Mississauga, Montreal and Calgary as well.

It has been three years since Gee wrote the article.

In Mississauga — where the 2011 census cites 53.7 per cent of the population identify as a visible minority — zero councillors are persons of colour.

In Calgary, where Naheed Nenshi is popular for being the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, there’s only two out of 15 and that includes Nenshi.

Despite her diverse background, Chow will face challenges, said Robert Williams, retired politics professor from the University of Waterloo and president of Municipal Cultural Planning Inc., a not-for-profit organization for municipal cultural planning in Ontario.

“One of the things that might work against Olivia as a candidate is her main appeal is to people who are often low-income, tenants, probably relatively new arrivals who are not necessarily engaged in the first place or not necessarily politically aware or politically motivated,” he said.

But all candidates, not just Chow, face difficulties in getting constituents to vote, said Williams.

He says candidates of a visible minority are more likely to be elected if the majority of voters in their ward share the same ethnicity. This is because voters are looking to be represented by a candidate who can relate to their experiences as minorities.

But it’s not always the rule.

There’s a marathon ahead, with election day scheduled for Oct. 27. Diversity will remain an important factor in Toronto’s politics.

Chow will be a key player, whether she wins the election or not.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 9, 2014.

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