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Crossing Canada’s racial divide

Is the Liberal Party establishment ready for a president whose vision of the country is ‘more Main Street than Bay Street?’


by Juliet O’Neill
18 October 2003


OTTAWA - The election next month of Akaash Maharaj would be a historic breakthrough in Canadian politics. He would become the first visible minority ever elected president of a governing political party -- the 531,000-member Liberal Party of Canada.

Mr. Maharaj says his two-year campaign has been "based on my merits, not on my demographics."

He equally hopes that his demographics are not, as he has heard, being held against him. He cites Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous statement that the ideal society is one where people are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

The election of Liberal Party presidents rarely attracts much attention outside the backrooms. But this one is regarded by some political and social analysts as a wake-up call in an era when Canada's visible minority population is increasing far faster than visible minority representation in political life.

Just as scholars and political activists examined the gender gap two and three decades ago, so are they currently putting what political scientist Anver Saloojee calls the "racial divide" under the microscope.

"At a time that Canada is changing faster than at any time in our history, those institutions have certainly failed to keep pace," he said. "Any dramatic dissociation between the governed and the governors, be it by race, gender, class or otherwise, puts in peril public confidence in public institutions."

But is the Liberal Party establishment ready for someone like Mr. Maharaj? Is Bay Street willing to pony up big bucks to a party whose president is a 33-year-old idealist, an Oxford scholar of Trinidadian heritage, a product of a "profoundly working-class background" who pledges to project onto the next party leader, Paul Martin, "a vision of Canada that looks more Main Street than Bay Street"?

Are power brokers getting cold feet about having a Liberal Party president who might hold great sway over the tens of thousands of new Liberal party members, many of them signed up en masse in ethnic minority communities, to ensure Mr. Martin's victory as Liberal party leader?

Speculation is rife in Mr. Maharaj's camp that such questions prompted an 11th-hour candidacy against him by London lawyer Mike Eizenga, a former president of Ontario Liberals who has the backing of some of Mr. Martin's campaign organizers.

Mr. Maharaj's campaign chairman has said riding association presidents across the country have been pressured by the Martin campaign to back Mr. Eizenga or count themselves out if they ever want to work in the Prime Minister's Office. Mr. Martin's spokesman has said his boss is neutral and that members of his campaign are free to back whomever they want.

Mr. Maharaj was born in Toronto and raised by his grandparents from Trinidad, both of whom worked in a spice factory. He went to Oxford on scholarships and distinguished himself there by becoming the first person from outside the United Kingdom to win the presidency of the prestigious Oxford University Student Union.

If he wins the presidency at the Liberal party convention Nov. 12 to Nov. 15, Mr. Maharaj will not want to credit the fact that he is a visible minority. Neither will he like to think that racism did him in if he does not win.

"I have heard the allegations of racism, particularly from some long-time Martin organizers who are trying to understand why a small group appears to be misusing the Martin campaign's name to violate their own platform on combating the democratic deficit," Mr. Maharaj said.

"However, I support Paul because I know he is an honourable person, and I know he would never countenance a hint of such behaviour. If there are indeed people acting from unworthy motives and doing so from within his campaign staff, I should not want to be in their shoes when he catches up to them."

Such is the backdrop to a political race that is of great interest to such scholars as Mr. Saloojee, who argues the health of democracy is at stake if visible minorities, especially among newcomers to Canada, do not have many role models in politics, do not feel welcome, or do not feel there's a level playing field.

"In a country that draws a million or so immigrants every four- to five-year period, we are going to have some pretty big challenges if we don't do anything," says Mr. Saloojee, a Ryerson University political scientist and head of the Political Participation Research Network.

The notable national trend is that a towering 73 per cent of the 1.8 million immigrants who arrived in Canada in the decade ending in census year 2001 were visible minorities -- mostly Chinese, other Asians and blacks. The majoritysettled first in the big cities of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, but tens of thousands were also attracted to such smaller cities as Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and Ottawa.

In two Canadian cities, visible minorities have become the majority -- Richmond, B.C., where visible minorities comprise 59 per cent of the population, and Markham, Ont., where they comprise 56 per cent.

In Toronto, Mr. Saloojee said, where visible minorities constitute 43 per cent of the population, but "the majority of councillors is still white. In Toronto city council, there's no aboriginal representation and people of colour are significantly under-represented."

In Ottawa, more than 70,500 immigrants, or nearly 40 per cent, of the city's immigrant population arrived in the decade ending in 2001. About one if five residents is an immigrant and one in five is a visible minority. Those figures are forecast to double by 2020.

In surveys conducted during the last five years of Ottawa-area politicians at all levels of government -- federal, provincial, regional and municipal -- only one elected politician was counted as a member of a visible minority. (Lebanese-born Ottawa-Centre MP Mac Harb has since been appointed to the Senate.)

In this month's Ontario election, there were no visible minority candidates running in or near Ottawa for any of the three mainstream political parties.

The largest visible-minority communities in Ottawa are Chinese (31,595), Lebanese (21,115), East Indian (17,500), Somali (8,280), Arab (6,815), Vietnamese (6,645), Jamaican (5,920) and Haitian (5,705).

"We're not just saying 'run for office,' but there's multiple ways in which people participate," Mr. Saloojee said. "Who does government consult regularly? Who's considered part of the broader public-policy community? Who does government appoint to various agencies, boards and commissions? And if you're not in the political party and they don't owe you favours, do you get onto agencies, boards and commissions?"

These questions are at the heart of the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Political Leadership, which offers women, visible minority and aboriginal people education and training to run for public office or to pursue positions on municipal agencies, boards and commissions.

The training attempts to "demystify" politics, to identify political strategies and to build a talent bank of candidates. "Even having an accent can pose a problem," says the centre's director, Annamie Paul.

Ms. Paul, who studied law at the University of Ottawa, says there is so much talent and enthusiasm that 100 applicants quickly applied for 30 training positions for a session in Toronto aimed at preparing candidates for municipal office. The centre hopes to run sessions in Ottawa soon.

Political scientist Jerome Black of McGill University has tracked visible minority representation in Parliament and describes the results of the last federal election, in November 2000, as "sobering for any expectation that each new election would produce a record level of minority MPs."

In the 1993 federal election, 13 visible-minority MPs were elected, up sharply from the five elected in 1988. In the 1997 election, 19 visible minorities won seats. But in 2000, the number dropped to 17 visible minorities, comprising only 5.6 per cent of the Commons, far less than the 13.4 per cent of the population counted as visible minorities in the 2001 census.

Mr. Black cites incumbency as one of the major reasons the political old guard stays intact from election to election. In the 2000 election, for instance, 247 of the 301 incumbents were re-elected and of the 54 new MPs, two had been members of the 1993 Parliament.

"Minorities, as with all new social groups seeking to gain more representation, must confront the general norm that discourages challenges to sitting members (who usually occupy the party's most desirable constituencies) and the potential high costs of urban nomination contests," Mr. Black reported. Local constituency organizations act as "gatekeepers" who may lock out minorities, a phenomenon that women faced on a systematic basis until the mid-1980s.

Mr. Black says the upsurge in minorities elected in the 1993 federal election was in part due to unforeseen vote-splitting between Progressive Conservative and Reform supporters, paving the way for some minority Liberal MPs to win in ridings where their prospects had been low.

Also, visible minority candidates in the Canadian Alliance were elected, a phenomenon that was described in one conference summary as "counter-intuitive."

Mr. Black also documented evidence that women and minorities, especially visible minorities, appear to need higher than average educational and professional qualifications to enter politics, at least at the federal level.

He found that while 70.1 per cent of the 446 MPs who won seats in the last three federal elections had at least an undergraduate university degree, 90.5 per cent of visible minority MPs had an undergraduate degree. And 52.4 per cent of visible minority MPs had advanced degrees, compared to 43.8 per cent of all MPs.

Ms. Paul reported that many of the highly educated visible-minority participants in training sessions have to be persuaded that they do not need yet another degree or other extra credential before they take the plunge.

"It is essential that the political parties be seen to be encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to run for office and not just in throwaway seats but in winnable seats," said Mr. Saloojee.

"If we have fewer and fewer role models, then people don't aspire to be civically engaged in the political process."

But Mr. Saloojee says affirmative action isn't appropriate in this day and age. "That whole equity movement in that context is gone," he said. "The political heyday for that came and went and it came and went very swiftly. The inability of those who were articulating it to withstand the sustained backlash that it generated means those days are gone.

"Which means that it's going to be more difficult and that we have to take it much more seriously because it's not going to happen automatically and it's not going to be legislated in."

Mr. Saloojee said it is not simply a matter of time, when it comes to visible minorities. "People of colour have been in Canada for centuries. People from India came as labourers at the turn of the 1900s. The Chinese population came here in the late 1800s. It's true to talk about time, but how much do you want to give those whose ancestors have been here for at least 100 or 150 years now?"

A warning of the perils of studying political inclusion comes from Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political scientist who toted up some of the parallels between women and minorities.

"The problem is the tendency to create a single category, be it either 'woman' or 'ethnic minority,' render that category homogenous for the purposes of analysis and thereby lose sight of diversity of identity and opinion," she wrote.

"There are women who deny that their gender is relevant to their politics and there are minority politicians who do not identify themselves as minorities, nor do they consider their ethnicity relevant to their political lives. These individuals deny the logic of our studies and force us to reconsider the fundamental validity of our inquires."

She also noted the difficulty that researchers have had in establishing a link between greater representation of women and better representation of women's interests. It may be even more complex for minorities. "Is the litmus test the same for Sikh-Canadians as it is for Chinese-Canadians?"

Even defining 'women's interests' has proven an intractable problem, she said. "The most successful arguments hold not that women have a common set of interests, but rather that they share an interest in being represented, or in having access to the system."

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