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Current federal representation doesn’t reflect Canada’s growing diversity

Bishop and NDP Edmonton Centre contender Reakash Walters talking with Cheri Harris and her children // Muntaka Shah
Bishop and NDP Edmonton Centre contender Reakash Walters talking with Cheri Harris and her children // Muntaka Shah

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iven that politics was one of the reasons Fasoranti Oluseyi Taiwo immigrated to Canada three years ago, it isn’t much of a surprise that he has become politically active in his new home.

“My political and social views didn’t align with the ruling party in Nigeria,” he explains of his motivation to immigrate.

Taiwo, who goes by the name of Bishop, says that while his father is a politician of some renown, he didn’t participate in politics back home because the system there is quite corrupt.

“Here in Canada, I understand that I can contribute by joining a political party that has the same values and ideology I believe in,” he explains.

Through his involvement with organizations like the Ontario Council for International Cooperation, the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation and the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, Bishop came to have a different view about politics.

“Here in Canada, we actually have the chance to elect a government that will be government of the people, for the people and by the people, not government that serves just some group of people,” he says.

As Heritage Days celebrates 40 years of “showcasing Canada’s vibrant multicultural heritage” (from its website), and on the eve of the country’s 42nd federal election, just  how much has Canada changed, and how well is  that change is reflected in our political institutions?

Environics Analytics reports that based on the 2011 National Household Survey, there were 6.8 million foreign-born people in Canada, accounting for 20.6 percent the total population. “This is an increase from 19.8 percent in 2001 and means that Canada’s immigrant population is now at its highest level in 80 years,” the report states.

However, a demographic study released earlier this year and reported in the Toronto Star concluded that despite these distinct changes in our country’s makeup, there remains a distinct lack of diversity in our federal Parliament; researcher Kai L Chan reported that women and visible minorities remain under-represented in the House of Commons, indigenous people even more so.

While women represent 50 percent of the population, Chan found, they hold just a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons. And while 23.3 percent of Canada’s population is made up of visible minorities, they occupy just 12.3 percent of parliamentary seats. He also found that younger voices are also underrepresented. With a median age of 57, the last Parliament was much older than the country, which has a national median age of 40.6 years.

Chan’s findings echo previous studies as well. In “Racial Diversity in the 2011 Federal Election: Visible Minority Candidates and MPs,” published in the Canadian Parliamentary Revue, Jerome Black found that even though the last election established a record for racial diversity in Parliament, representation reflecting the population remains at the same level it was almost 20 years ago.

“It did little to alter the fact that visible minorities remain significantly underrepresented in Parliament relative to their incidence in the general population,” Black wrote of the 2011 election results.

According to him, in 1993, 13 visible minorities were elected as MPs, just 4.4 percent of the seats in Parliament, despite accounting for 9.4 percent of the population at the time.

“What is really happening is that visible minority MPs have been elected in numbers that are enough to keep the representation deficit from getting larger, but not enough to reduce it,” Black concluded.

Part of the problem might be the media inadvertently acting as
gatekeepers.

Erin Tolley, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Toronto, is the author of “Framed: Media and the Coverage of Race in Canadian Politics,” a study set for publication in book form this November.

Tolley examined empirical data collected during the 2008 federal election and interviewed candidates, political activists and journalists to look at how race factors into news stories about politicians and political candidates. While Tolley’s analysis found no obvious examples of racism, she notes that media coverage of candidates indicates that race still matters in Canadian politics.

“What I found is if you’re a visible-minority non-incumbent you’re portrayed as a long shot, an unlikely winner—basically you don’t have a hope,” Tolley told New Canadian Media in a recent interview. She found that this wasn’t the case for white non-incumbents who don’t face this challenge.

“No one ever talks about the fact that white candidates also appeal to white voters. I mean, no one would write that,” Tolley said. “No one even describes white candidates as ‘white candidates’ or really talks about where they were born. Whiteness is basically put forward as the default and therefore not worthy of being mentioned, whereas minority or immigrant background is something that is covered because it is seen to be outside the norm or atypical, and therefore newsworthy.”

Tolley’s comments bring to mind Ron Leech, the Wildrose candidate in the 2012 provincial election who told a multicultural radio station that he, as a white man, was able to speak to the whole community, rather than just members of his own ethnic group.

“I think, as a Caucasian, I have an advantage,” Leech said. “When different community leaders, such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks, they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian I believe that I can speak to all the community.”

Bishop begs to differ. He feels it’s important for him and others to see themselves reflected in our representative institutions.

“The only way our voices can be heard is if we fully participate,” he says. He urges both new and old Canadians to get involved as candidates and behind the scenes, where policy and decisions are being made.

“It’s necessary to be involved in the issues that affect our daily lives,” Bishop says, speaking passionately about how it’s in everyone’s best interest to engage by attending public meetings like city council and by joining a political party.

“Whether you participate or not,” he says, “government actions will affect you.” 

 

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