Toronto City Hall

Nearly a week after Ontario’s municipal elections, there has been very little reportage on the shocking lack of progress in making municipal councils more reflective of the population.

For example, 57 percent of Mississauga’s residents identified as visible minorities in the 2016 census. However, not one of them was elected to the city’s 11 council seats in 2014. This year, finally, one was.

Dipika Damerla made history as the first woman of colour elected to council in the suburban city of 730,000 residents west of Toronto. 

In neighbouring Brampton, where 73 per cent of residents identify as visible minorities, just two of the city’s 10 elected councillors are people of colour, up from just one in the last election.

In Toronto itself, where more than half of the 2.6 million population was born in another country, voters elected only five non-whites to the 25-person council, a participation rate of 20 percent that sounds more impressive than it is, mainly because the number of electoral wards was cut almost in half.

These results show that little has changed in the eight years since a research study that I contributed to, Diverse City Counts, documented the low numbers of visible minorities serving on the GTA’s municipal governments. The study, carried out in 2010, analyzed the profiles of elected officials in Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, Richmond Hill and Markham, the municipalities with the highest proportion of visible minorities in the GTA. It showed that only 8.9 percent of elected officials in the targeted municipalities were visible minorities, compared to 49.5 percent of the population.

Does any of this matter? Aren’t responsible politicians, no matter what their race, religion or ethnicity, supposed to represent everyone? Is there any evidence that lack of diversity builds in blind spots in public policy that adversely impact those not represented?

Gurpreet Singh Dhillon believes there is.

As the lone visible minority on Brampton’s council from 2014 to 2018, he witnessed an ongoing struggle of the city’s large South Asian community to have the city build a shade shelter for seniors. They wanted to recreate the tradition of gathering and socializing under a large willow tree, which began in India, with artificial shade as a replacement.

Dhillon told the Toronto Star the project hit a brick wall because elected officials and city staff are not familiar with the tradition and did not understand the request. “It’s really important that we have people in our staffing, and our council who understand,” he said.

After serving one term as a city councillor, Dhillon successfully moved up in this election to regional councillor for Wards 9 and 10. He was replaced by Harkirat Singh, a college professor who previously served as a Peel District school trustee.

The election of two councillors of South Asian heritage, while modest, represents a significant changing of the guard in Brampton. The previous councillor of Wards 9 and 10 was John Sprovieri, who decided to run for mayor in this election but was soundly beaten by former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown.

Sprovieri became a controversial figure earlier this year when he brazenly circulated an email to a constituent who had asked him “Why are white people still planning Brampton’s future?”

Sprovieri replied: “To be fair, people of all races, colour and creed are eager to come to Brampton and Canada because the white people of this nation have developed a great system where everyone is welcome and can live peacefully together.

“I hope that the newcomers will learn the values of the white people so that Brampton and Canada will continue to be a favourite destination.

Sprovieri unfortunately defended his remarks to CityNews, saying,”“Maybe it doesn’t sound good, but really I don’t see how it’s incorrect. It may be improper, possibly, but it’s certainly not incorrect.”

After weeks of media scrutiny and public outrage, he was censured by the integrity commissioner and apologized, saying “If I would have known this would have blown up the way it did, I would not have used the word ‘white,’ I would’ve used the words ‘Canadian values.'”

Many factors explain the lack of progression of visible minorities in municipal politics, lack of qualifications is not one of them.

Take Mississauga’s new councillor Dipika Damerla as an example. After emigrating to Canada from India, she earned her MBA from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. She worked in corporate banking at the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Prior to her first election to the Ontario Legislature she was senior policy advisor to Ontario’s minister of economic development and trade. She served an an MPP representing the riding of Mississauga East-Cooksville from 2011 to 2018 and was in the cabinet of Premier Kathleen Wynne.

In Toronto, Doug Ford’s last-minute edict cutting the number of wards to 25 from 47 resulted in incumbent councillors competing against each other and squeezed out several strong visible minority newcomers.

Myer Siemiatycki, a professor of politics at Ryerson University, predicted what was sure to happen. “This move to reduce the size of council is likely going to make diverse representation even worse than the very unreflective profile that we have to this point. It’s going to take us backwards.”

One of those squeezed out was Ausma Malik, who was planning to run in a downtown ward until Ford’s legislation eliminated it. Malik issued a statement a few weeks ago saying her decision not to run was “difficult and heartbreaking.”

She had decisively won a seat on the Toronto District School Board in the last election after being subjected to what NOW Magazine called “a co-ordinated campaign of hate and Islamophobia.”

She was attacked by far-right blogs and Twitter accounts; campaign posters were defaced with GO BACK HOME graffiti; a column by the Toronto Sun‘s Sue-Ann Levy treated Malik’s participation in a 2006 rally against Israel’s assault on Lebanon as a scandal; and an op-ed in the Jewish Tribune branded her as a “radical Muslim terrorist sympathizer.” 

The fact that these outrages were not covered in detail by mainstream media is shameful. It was largely left to alternative media, like NOW and New Canadian Media, to make us aware of it.

Perhaps that’s indicative of an even greater problem — the enduring whiteness of the media we usually depend on to cover civic affairs. That was also one of the findings of that Diverse City Counts research. In the nine most popular newsrooms in the GTA, minorities made up only 3.6 percent of senior managers and 5.9 percent of news decision makers.

The really bad news is that those numbers are probably worse today. That means the coverage of diversity issues in our communities is probably also getting worse.

Things need to change. Isn’t it about time?

Image: Flickr/cmhpictures

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John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...