Elections in some of Canada’s most diverse cities still produced extremely homogenous councils. This threatens the legitimacy of their decisions.

Local politics are often viewed as an entry point into political life. Municipal candidacy requires less money, gatekeeping by traditional political parties is relatively absent, and successful candidates who become councillors can fulfill their terms at home without having to uproot their families to the provincial or federal capital. As a result, we might expect to see city councils that are more diverse. However, that expectation is simply not borne out, as we saw recently in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, where only a handful of racialized councillors won seats in the October 22 municipal elections.

But less has been said in the media about Mississauga, the country’s sixth-largest city and one where the lack of racialized representation on the municipal council is perhaps especially acute. In Mississauga, 57 percent of the residents identify as members of a “visible minority” (more than in Toronto, Vancouver or Ottawa), and there is now just one racialized councillor, Dipika Damerla. Prior to that, Mississauga’s council was entirely White.

In fact, most municipalities in Canada are governed by councils that are predominantly White and mostly male. Women, racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ individuals are numerically underrepresented on most city councils. The lack of diversity means many voices are excluded from the decision-making process. This puts municipalities at risk. Large swaths of the population may feel underrepresented or ignored, and council may miss out on important views.

Dipika Damerla, second from left, celebrates becoming a new ward councilor with supporters in Mississauga, ON, on October 22, 2019. Photo by Claudio Cugliari.

Damerla, a former provincial politician, ran in a Mississauga ward that was vacated after the retirement of a 30-year council veteran. The presence of long-time incumbents and the significant advantage they wield is one reason the demographic profile of municipal councils has remained so stagnant. Some have talked about the need for sitting councillors to “make way” for more diverse voices. In London, Ontario, Arielle Kayabaga, the first Black woman to serve on that city’s council, was elected. Late in the campaign, her candidacy was endorsed by Rod Morley, who dropped out of the race to put his support behind the only woman candidate in the ward. Morley has run for provincial and municipal office before but, in explaining his decision to leave the race, he told the London Free Press, “The power (balance) is wrong right now. I want to try to do something about that.”

In Mississauga, just two sitting councillors opted not to run for re-election this time around. The incumbents who did run were all re-elected, some garnering more than 90 percent of the vote. These incumbents block the road to newcomers. Limiting the number of terms that mayors and councillors could serve might help, but term limits are virtually unheard of in Canadian politics, and they remain a controversial measure.

It’s not that there is a shortage of racialized candidates in Mississauga. Of the 78 candidates who ran for council in this election cycle, 44 were racialized Canadians. That’s 56 percent of all contenders. Moreover, every ward race included two or more racialized candidates, as did the race for mayor. In the most tightly contested ward, seven of the 11 candidates were racialized, but the incumbent, Ron Starr, was ultimately victorious.

The issue is not that racialized candidates aren’t running in Mississauga. The issue is that voters aren’t choosing them.

Low voter turnout is an important factor. In Mississauga, voter turnout was just 27 percent, and there is evidence that racialized Canadians are less likely to vote than White Canadians. When we look at variations in voter turnout, socio-economic explanations are influential, but we also need to think about role model effects. 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.

Finally, there is the question of voter preference. All else being equal, we know that voters gravitate toward candidates with whom they share an ethnic or racial background. This is the same for White voters and for racialized voters, and it is particularly apparent in municipal contests, where voters’ electoral decision-making occurs in what is often called a “low-information” context.

In cities like Mississauga, where municipal candidates run without party labels and there is limited local media coverage, voters have to rely on other cues to sift through their ballot box options. Name recognition is one such cue. But voters also use candidates’ race, gender and other sociodemographic characteristics as a shortcut to infer information about politicians’ issue positions, policy preferences and suitability for office. There is a tendency for voters to believe that candidates who are most similar to themselves will be best able to represent them. Decision-making shortcuts play a role in all electoral campaigns, but they matter especially in local politics because of the absence of other information.

In a low-information context where demographic cues play a role, turnout is low, White voters are more numerous and the field is dominated by White incumbents, the outcome — mostly White councils — is entirely predictable.

But in Mississauga, there is even more to the story.  The second-place finisher in the mayoral race is a candidate who was charged with a hate crime in a case still before the courts on election day. That candidate received more than 16,000 votes and the support of 13.5 percent of Mississauga electors. Clearly, there is a segment of the city’s population for whom racial equality is not top-of-mind. The vote is a means of registering resistance. It gives voters a tool to fill the seats of decision-making tables with representatives for whom equity and inclusion are guiding principles. When prospective voters opt out (or are left out), the risk is that those spaces will be ceded to other voices.

In the absence of more diverse representation, what can elected bodies do to ensure marginalized voices are included? One thing Mississauga has done is to create a Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee to provide advice to council on “ethno-cultural relations and diversity matters.” The committee includes the mayor and two councillors as well as 20 community representatives. The committee is advisory in nature, so it is not a replacement for elected representation. However, it could give members exposure, networks and experience that might serve them well if they choose to enter electoral politics.

Diversity on council isn’t a matter of political correctness. It goes to the heart of representative democracy, which is premised on elected bodies reflecting the citizens they serve. Elected bodies are unlikely to ever be a perfect microcosm of society, but the persistent homogeneity of municipal councils is of concern. Councillors invariably draw on their own experiences and beliefs when they exercise their duties, and plenty of evidence shows that decision-making tables are more effective when they include a broader range of perspectives. The exclusion of diverse voices from municipal councils may result in flawed policies, and that threatens the effectiveness and very legitimacy of the decisions that are taken.

Photo: The empty council chamber at Toronto City Hall, on October 29, 2014. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)


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