Posted by: Alvin | November 20, 2008

A Couple of Interesting Stories

So it seems i’ve been getting more media attention after losing the election than I got during the campaign! Anyhow, I thought I would share with you all a couple of interesting stories, both from the Georgia Straight. They have to do with racism against South Asian candidates in an at-large electoral system (as opposed to a ward system). I’ll post them both here, but won’t comment on them. I’ve started a new blog at: to write more post-election. So this will be the last post here. Thanks again everyone!

The first…

Racism is alive and well in Vancouver municipal politics

Why is it that a candidate of South Asian descent always attracts fewer votes in Vancouver municipal elections than other members of his or her party?

The only possible explanation is racism when it happens again and again and again.

Yesterday, Vision Vancouver’s only council candidate of South Asian descent, Kashmir Dhaliwal, came 11th.

The next worst performance by a Vision candidate was Geoff Meggs’s ninth-place showing, almost 5,000 votes higher than the number of ballots for Dhaliwal, the well-regarded president of the Khalsa Diwan Society.

Vision’s only park-board candidate of South Asian descent, Raj Hundal, was elected, but he came more than 6,000 votes behind the next lowest Vision candidate, Sarah Blyth.

Hundal is extremely well-educated and worked as a political aide to former NDP MP Penny Priddy. In other words, he’s no slouch at politics.

COPE’s only school-board candidate of South Asian descent, Alvin Singh, came 2,227 votes behind the next lowest COPE school-board candidate, Bill Bargeman.

Singh, a brilliant young politician, has been referred to as the “South Asian Spencer Herbert” inside the Straight newsroom because he’s such an articulate dynamo. But apparently, that wasn’t good enough for the voters.

What I’m trying to say is that Dhaliwal, Hundal, and Singh were all very credible candidates, and they all came last on their respective slates.

The only explanation is that thousands of voters who otherwise voted for the Vision-COPE slate chose not to include one or all of them because their last names didn’t correspond with their “vision” of who should be serving on council, the park board, and school board.

It doesn’t stop there. The NPA’s only council candidate of South Asian descent, Daljit Singh Sidhu, was last among NPA candidates, 4,516 votes behind the next lowest NPA council candidate, Sean Bickerton.

For Sidhu, long-time president of the Punjabi Market Association, it was a case of deja vu. He came last on the NPA slate in 1993. Like Dhaliwal this year, he was the only member of his team not to get elected to council that year.

This year, the NPA’s only park-board candidate of South Asian descent, Naresh Shukla, came last among NPA candidates—5,779 votes behind the next-lowest NPA park commissioner, Sharon Urton.

Face it: Urton and Shukla are not well-known, so the only explanation for such a large discrepancy is racism, particularly when people look at the broader pattern.

There was a similar story at the school-board level. The NPA’s only candidate of South Asian descent, Lakhbir Singh, trailed the next-lowest ranking NPA candidate, Margit Nance, by 1,355 votes.

In 2004, I wrote a cover story about the debate over wards called “Shred the System“. I researched the history of candidates with South Asian descent in recent Vancouver municipal elections.

Here’s how the 2004 story began:

The past five Vancouver civic elections have been a disaster for Indo-Canadian municipal politicians.

The trouble began in 1990, when the only South Asian incumbent, NPA school trustee Harkirpal Sara, was defeated in his bid for a third term on the Vancouver school board.

For the Indo-Canadian community, it has been downhill ever since.

In the 1993 election, the NPA enjoyed spectacular success, capturing nine of the 10 council seats.

However, the only Indo-Canadian NPA council candidate, Daljit Sidhu, suffered a devastating loss. Sidhu, president of the Original Punjabi Market Association, finished almost 10,000 votes behind his closest NPA Caucasian competitor, Craig Hemer.

The same year, Kewal Pabla, a businessman and the only NPA Indo-Canadian park board candidate, trailed his nearest Caucasian NPA competitor by 4,000 votes.

The NPA’s only Indo-Canadian school board candidate, lawyer Iqbal Sara, came in a disappointing 15th place. For the second consecutive time, Vancouver voters had rejected every candidate of South Asian descent.

In 1996, the big political story was the NPA’s unprecedented sweep of the park board, school board, city council, and the mayoral race. This time, the governing party didn’t run any Indo-Canadians, but COPE did.

The three COPE candidates with South Asian surnames–Nina Khajuria, Kamla R. Raj, and Raj Sihota–each came in last on their slates for council, school board, and park board, respectively.

In 1999, the phenomenon struck a fourth time. The NPA won eight of 10 council seats. However, the ruling party’s only Indo-Canadian council candidate, real-estate agent Baldev Dhugga, didn’t come close.

He trailed the second-lowest-ranking NPA candidate, Janet Leduc, by more than 3,000 votes.

The same year, the NPA’s only candidate of South Asian descent for school board, Vijay Singhera, finished almost 4,000 votes behind her closest NPA Caucasian competitor, incumbent trustee John Robertson.

The NPA didn’t run an Indo-Canadian for park board, but COPE did. Munna Prasad, a South Asian, finished last among the COPE candidates.

In 2002, neither COPE nor the NPA nominated a single candidate of South Asian descent for any of the 26 elected positions on council, school board, and park board.

A similar situation has unfolded in Surrey, the region’s second-largest city. In 1993, all the nonwhite candidates went down to defeat.

In 1999, the well-regarded Sukh Dhaliwal ran for the powerful Surrey Electors Team machine headed by Mayor Doug McCallum. Dhaliwal’s campaign manager was a crack political organizer named Kevin Falcon, now B.C.’s Minister of Transportation. Even with these connections, Dhaliwal lost.

Surrey has never had an Indo-Canadian municipal councillor, even though 20 percent of that city’s population is South Asian, according to the last census. (editor’s note: this piece was written in 2004 before Tom Gill’s election in 2005.)

One of the most glaring percentage differentials occurred in Burnaby in 1999. The second-lowest ranking Burnaby NPA council candidate collected 50 percent more votes than the only Indo-Canadian member of the slate, SFU political scientist Shinder Purewal. Not one of the above-mentioned candidates has ever run since in a municipal election.

The message that these results have sent out to every person of South Asian descent is that municipal politics is a waste of time. Why bother volunteering your time, money, and skills to try to seek political office in Vancouver if you’re just going to get slapped down every time you run?

If you can’t get elected municipally, that reduces your chance of graduating to the provincial and federal levels. In this respect, the at-large system metes out a double whammy of discriminatory treatment to aspiring politicians of South Asian descent.

The last time COPE controlled council, there was a chance to fix this and get a plebiscite passed supporting a ward system.

COPE and the labour movement put in a half-assed attempt. Dhaliwal paid the price in this election.

The COPE-Vision slate should revisit this issue. Because if they don’t, some smart lawyer will launch a Charter challenge against the Vancouver Charter, arguing that the at-large election system violates equality rights guaranteed under Section 15.

Vision’s Dhaliwal was a victim of systemic racism in yesterday’s election. And his and other examples listed above should be part of the evidence in such a court challenge against Vancouver’s at-large voting system.

In my layperson’s opinion, there’s not a hope that the at-large would stand up to legal scrutiny. It can’t be saved by Section one of the Charter. And those who don’t do anything about it while they are in office will eventually be blamed for allowing this blatant discrimination to continue unchecked.

This week, people of South Asian descent in Vancouver are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the racist continuous-journey legislation, which kept people from the Indian subcontinent out of Canada. A century later, we have legislation in place that keeps people of South Asian descent out of the Vancouver council chamber.

Get on with it folks. Fix the system. Because if you don’t, you’re going to get hammered in the law courts and in the court of public opinion. This week is when the rubber should hit the road.


And the second…

Municipal candidate Kashmir Dhaliwal says at-large system discriminates

Vision Vancouver’s only unsuccessful election candidate is considering legal action against the City of Vancouver because, he says, the at-large voting system discriminates against candidates with South Asian names. All six candidates from this community came last on their respective slates in the November 15 election. Kashmir Dhaliwal, Vision’s sole South Asian council candidate, placed 11th in his bid for a city-council slot.

“From the core of my heart, I want a ward system,” Dhaliwal told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I have to discuss with my friends what we should do, and those within my community, and if they all give me the green light, then I will take legal action.”

Dhaliwal garnered 44,854 votes—1,023 votes behind COPE councillor-elect Ellen Woodsworth (45,877). Incoming park commissioner Raj Hundal, Vision’s only elected official of South Asian descent, came 7,904 votes behind the next-closest Vision candidate for park board.

Dhaliwal, president of the Khalsa Diwan Society, has support from failed Non-Partisan Association park-board candidate Naresh Shukla, who placed 14th (with 27,350 votes) vying for a position on a board comprising seven commissioners. Shukla, the NPA’s only park-board candidate of South Asian descent, came last among NPA candidates—5,779 votes behind the next-lowest NPA park-board candidate, Sharon Urton.

“Regarding a legal challenge, I don’t know, but I have always advocated a ward system,” Shukla told the Straight by phone. “There is something wrong there with the system. Last time in 1993, [original Punjabi Market Association president] Daljit Sidhu was a candidate with the NPA, and he was the only one who lost that time. Now with Kashmir, well, everybody else got 58,000 or 60,000 votes, except for Kashmir.”

Dhaliwal was almost 5,000 votes behind Vision councillor-elect Geoff Meggs, who garnered 49,538 votes in ninth place. (Meggs placed ahead of Woodsworth but well behind Vision’s top six councillors, who were all within the vote bracket Shukla described.)

Councillors are currently elected on a citywide basis from a large alphabetical list of candidates, rather than on a geographic basis, as would be the case with a ward system. Lawyer Jason Gratl told the Straight by phone that even in the event the “results of a vote are racist”, that does not warrant a challenge of the Vancouver Charter. However, he added: “If the entire election system is racist or sexist or homophobic, the system itself is subject to judicial review.”

He said this extends “in theory” to Vancouver’s at-large system.

“But in practice, a petitioner would have to demonstrate that the at-large system promotes racist results, either deliberately or accidentally,” said Gratl, former president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. “Is the candidate’s nonelection a consequence of nonracist voter preferences, racist voter preferences, or a system that empowers racial/racist preferences? Only in the latter case would a charter violation be found.”

COPE’s only school-board candidate of South Asian descent, 24-year-old Alvin Singh, came 2,227 votes behind the next-lowest COPE school-board candidate, Bill Bargeman, well outside the ninth spot on the board. Speaking to the Straight by phone, Singh said he is an opponent of the at-large system for “many reasons”.

However, he said, he is urging a nuanced and “careful” response when discussing a move to a ward system “if race is the motivation alone”.

“The only danger I foresee is a ghettoization of the political process, where you have South Asian people running in South Asian areas, because it’s the only place they can be successful,” Singh said.

In an earlier interview regarding Dhaliwal’s exclusion, Singh said: “I’m not going to be able to say whether or not there should be a legal challenge mounted.…I think there is a segment of the Punjabi community that is extraordinarily motivated. I think what we have also seen is some frustration about municipal politics, and a lot of the South Asian community has moved on to provincial and federal politics.”



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