Ken Sim of the NPA narrowly defeated Kennedy Stewart of Vision Vancouver in the 2018 elections. (Vancouver Courier photo)

Updated: June 20,2020, 9:10 AM

OPINION

Why white-privilege training can’t fix Vancouver politics — or many other broken institutions

By Jagdeesh Mann

Contributing columnist

The Star.com

June 19, 2020

The City of Vancouver, in tune with ongoing Canada and America-wide protests against systemic racism, recently put forward a dizzying spread of anti-racism measures.

This equity-infused smorgasbord of actionable items includes: piloting anti-Black-racism and white-privilege awareness training, declaring a new Day of Action Against Racism and developing an “Equity Framework” to implement a race-forward equity and intersectional lens on city decision-making.

Also this week — at the same time and place, if you can believe it — the City of Vancouver put forward a dizzying spread of anti-racism measures, but in this case intended to preserve the systemic racism deeply rooted in Vancouver municipal politics.

Yes, they are the same set of measures.

That these two statements can both be simultaneously true (or at least appear to be true) to different groups of people, is what makes institutional racism such a vexing and seemingly intractable problem. But it doesn’t have to be.

So let me be blunt, City of Vancouver: Fixing institutional racism doesn’t need more sensitivity training, it requires real measures, such as electoral reform, that end exclusion.

These types of in-case-of-fire-break-glass boilerplate solutions — issuing pro-diversity statements or recommending anti-racism training — are not a new tactic. They are used frequently by all range of companies, politicians and sports team owners, often when scrambling to respond (or deflect attention) from some form of crisis.

And while these gestures sparkle with the right PR optics, they are little more than an illusion when it comes to actual progress.

To wit, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination already exists on March 21. Vancouver residents don’t need another calendar date to fix this city’s broken political system, which has one big, fat, root systemic issue: representation.

Every elected Vancouver city councillor or mayor, almost without exception, is white. This despite Vancouver being a city where half the population is not.

Yes, they are the same set of measures.

That these two statements can both be simultaneously true (or at least appear to be true) to different groups of people, is what makes institutional racism such a vexing and seemingly intractable problem. But it doesn’t have to be.

So let me be blunt, City of Vancouver: Fixing institutional racism doesn’t need more sensitivity training, it requires real measures, such as electoral reform, that end exclusion.

These types of in-case-of-fire-break-glass boilerplate solutions — issuing pro-diversity statements or recommending anti-racism training — are not a new tactic. They are used frequently by all range of companies, politicians and sports team owners, often when scrambling to respond (or deflect attention) from some form of crisis.

And while these gestures sparkle with the right PR optics, they are little more than an illusion when it comes to actual progress.

To wit, International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination already exists on March 21. Vancouver residents don’t need another calendar date to fix this city’s broken political system, which has one big, fat, root systemic issue: representation.

Every elected Vancouver city councillor or mayor, almost without exception, is white. This despite Vancouver being a city where half the population is not.

This core problem will not be resolved by numbing city staff with more diversity workshops. It can and will, however, be resolved by the mayor and council committing to the only efficacious diversity measure at their disposal: upgrading the current at-large based election system to a ward-based version.

Since Vancouver’s incorporation as a city in 1886, it has had 40 mayors, including current incumbent Kennedy Stewart. All have been white men. In that time period of nearly 150 years, there has been one councillor of South Asian descent, a handful from Chinese backgrounds, and no Filipinos. Indigenous people have also thoroughly been non-represented on city council.

Ken Sim of the NPA narrolwly defeated Kennedy Stewart of Vision Vancouver in the 2018 elections. (Vancouver Courier photo)

And yet again this term, Vancouver has a nearly all-white council. Ironically, it is now charged with leading the purging of systemic racism from our municipal institutions.

So it’s not surprising the city’s communication office views the creation of a specialist Equity and Diversity Officer to advise the city manager — a paid position to be occupied by a non-white person, no doubt — as sufficient forward progress.

It’s not. Keep the “Equity and Diversity Officer” posting. Change the electoral system.

The implementation of a standard ward system — one used in cities such as Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and others — would finally allow Vancouver residents from all racial backgrounds much greater access to real power in the city.

Vancouver is the last major holdout and by far the largest Canadian city that still utilizes an antiquated at-large system. The city’s 10 elected councillors are those who receive the most votes from across the city, as opposed to from their own neighbourhood constituencies.

An at-large system has its own unique benefits. For example, it encourages candidates to run on platforms based on a wider perspective of city politics. But in this very multicultural city, it has a far greater downside. It is instrumental in blocking diverse candidates from winning seats on council. These are typically candidates who, while popular in their own quarters of the city, can lack standing beyond it.

This has been confirmed empirically through the city’s past few elections.

In 2008, the lone candidate from the dominant Vision Vancouver party slate who failed to win a seat was South Asian. In 2014, when Vision was still the most formidable party, the only two candidates out of its slate of eight who failed to win seats were from South Asian and Chinese backgrounds. And this pattern was again evident in 2018.

In all of these examples, the candidates lacked a wider profile beyond their communities. But they didn’t just lack visibility to the voting public.

They also remained unseen in some of Vancouver’s predominantly white newsrooms, which chose to focus on the election results as a triumph for white women (there are currently eight women on the council) rather than on another failure for diverse candidates.

That at-large voting systems can be racist is neither a new nor a radical statement. It’s been acknowledged for decades. The U.S. court ruling Rogers v. Lodge (1982), for example, found that at-large system can be discriminatory, and in that particular case toward Black voters.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart can’t be accused of being tone deaf given his administration’s call for new equity initiatives. With the culture war discourse as heated as it currently is, he’s right on political cue.

But Stewart is being deliberately obtuse about offering a real institution-changing solution to the perpetual whiteness of Vancouver municipal politics.

In 2018, the pre-election Stewart Kennedy openly stated he wanted to rid Vancouver of its at-large system and that he wanted to be the mayor under whom Vancouver would finally achieve electoral reform. But now that the big moment is here, that reform candidate has gone silent on true reform.

And in his place is a mayor and a city administration trying to look action-oriented in ending institutional racism while simultaneously hoping things remain as they always were, and exactly in the same spot.

It’s a tired old ruse feigning progress. Voters should remember it, come the next election.

Here is what I wrote 10 years ago.

Teodoro Alcuitas

Editor, philippinecanadianews.com

Why is Vancouver dragging its feet on the issue of racism?

As if rubbing salt to the wound, Vancouver City Council has just rejected a resolution to join the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination. This follows on the heels of the Vancouver Olympics and its exclusion of minorities in its opening ceremonies and merely presenting only the Four First Nations Host. The provincial government’s tourism ad was another slap in our faces for excluding ethnic face personalities.

This recent imbroglio stokes my fire like any other.

To think that two Chinese Canadian councilors played significant roles in blocking its approval is beyond me. In responding to the outcry, the two, Kerry Jang and George Chow told the Georgia Straight that they wanted the resolution vetted first by the city’s own multicultural committee.

But why did the two thought of this issue just now? When we researched about the coalition, it turns out it was launched in 2005 in Saskatoon. Calls were made to all municipalities to join by no less than the UNESCO. About 20 municipalities have since joined the coalition including Calgary, Toronto, Winnipeg, Windsor and Montreal among others.

Why in heaven’s name does Vancouver choose not to join it after all these years?

The answer in my mind is a question of class bias. The so-called minorities in this city (by the way, if these councilors need to be reminded, we are no longer minorities ) do not see any need to protect people from racism or discrimination. Even if they come from the Chinese community, they do not seem to see themselves as belonging to the class that needs laws and regulations to protect them. Perhaps, Jang and Chow feel that the Chinese belongs to a class other than or higher than minorities. Maybe they have never experienced racism or discrimination in their lives, and that’s why they cannot empathize with the issue.

While I am appalled by the conduct of these two politicians and joining it would have been symbolic at best, I have no high hopes for the coalition. In the 70s, cities used to have race relations committees, which purported to improve the municipalities’ relations with its citizens.

In fact, as it happened in the City of Winnipeg’s so-called Mayor’s Race Relations Committee, it was nothing but mere window dressing. It was an inutile body stacked by the mayor’s appointees who were more interested in their own than the interest of the people they were supposed to serve. In the end the committee died a natural death.

I have long ago accepted the fact that in the struggle against racism and discrimination, we in the minorities should not be fooled into believing that ethnic politicians will fight for our issues.

Years ago, when the federal government under the Conservatives took away the tax deductions for monies sent to help dependants abroad, not a howl was heard from Filipino Member of Parliament Rey Pagtakhan of Winnipeg or the other politicians of ethnic backgrounds. The same thing happened when the Conservatives started charging for immigration. You can hear the silence of ethnic politicians from sea to shining sea.

Ethnic voters should be more questioning when these politicians come around begging for their votes. You notice that they never fail to remind you of their ethnic roots and some non-ethnic politicians would don a traditional Chinese dress or the Filipino barong in order to win our votes.

True, they are not elected just for Filipinos or Chinese alone. We are not saying that they should only take up these issues, but if we cannot depend on them to speak for us, who will?

(This article first appeared in Philippine Asian News Today,2010)