BY RON FANFAIR
City politicians like to boast of Toronto’s diversity, yet there is just one African-Canadian councillor and very few visible minorities holding public office.
In a recently unveiled study, Ryerson University political science professor, Myer Siemiatycki, says Toronto lags in diverse political representation.
“It’s surprising for a city that prides itself for its diversity, visible minorities are substantially under-represented in election after election,” he said. “These are the people who are speaking on behalf of Torontonians and who are developing policies for our diverse population.”
The title of the report is The Diversity Gap: The Electoral Under-Representation of Visible Minorities.
The study examines visible minority representation among federal, provincial and municipal politicians in Ontario with particular emphasis on the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It explores whether visible minorities stood as candidates and were elected to office in proportion to their share of the overall population.
Siemiatycki explores the paradox of how Torontonians, who reside in one of the world’s most diverse cities, are overwhelmingly represented by a city council comprised of White, European-origin politicians. Visible minorities comprise nearly 40 per cent of the population in the GTA, yet only 11 per cent of elected officials.
Just five of the city’s 46 councillors are visible minorities. They are Raymond Cho, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Ana Bailao, Chin Lee and Jamaican-born Michael Thompson who was re-elected with the highest number of votes and the highest margin of victory in the City of Toronto in the 2006 municipal elections.
In his study, Siemiatycki notes that there is more diversity among elected officials at the provincial and federal levels than at the municipal level which, he says, is ironic since city politicians are seen to be more connected to their constituents and more grassroots.
Visible minorities account for 26 per cent of the GTA’s 47 members of the provincial legislature and 17 per cent of the city’s 47 members in the federal House of Commons.
Margarett Best and Michael Coteau are the only Black members in the provincial legislature while political neophytes, Tyrone Benskin and Sadia Groguhe, are the only Blacks in Canada’s 308-seat parliament.
Siemiatycki, a founding director of Ryerson’s Graduate Program in Immigration and Settlement Studies, also states that councillors representing city residents in the 416 area code are less likely to come from a diverse background than their 905-area counterparts.
“This matters at a symbolic level,” he said. “Given the rapid growth of newcomers to this city in the past 10 to 15 years, one would expect politicians in the political arena who are acting and deciding on policies, to reflect that diverse population, and we don’t have that.”
The university professor said there are myriad barriers newcomers may face in taking part in the political process. He identified amalgamation as the biggest hurdle.
In 1995, seven different municipal councils merged into one council, reducing the number of council seats from 106 to 45 which means there are fewer positions available to potential candidates. He also said the wards’ size grew as well and this meant candidates needed to connect with more of their constituents, many of whom may not share the same identity and cultural background as the candidate.
Siemiatycki suggests that significant gains for electorally under-represented groups could be achieved through election reform such as addressing the under-representation of the GTA in federal parliament, increased institutional commitment by government and other formal institutions, interventions by political parties and increased community commitment to the importance of the issue.
DiverseCity: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project commissioned the project as part of its DiverseCity Counts research series. The Maytree Foundation and the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance funded the research.