Still largely white and male — Scarborough helps Toronto city council maintain status quo
Merging the wards and redrawing their boundaries made it harder to bring new voices to council, one expert says.
As Toronto’s election results appeared on screen Monday night, Jamaal Myers simply shook his head.
“I am so upset right now,” he says. “Eighty-five per cent white, male. Is this even for real?”
“Eighty-five per cent white in a city that’s 50 per cent minorities. It’s so disappointing,” he continues. “I knew the incumbents had an advantage. I thought Toronto voters would rise to the challenge. I was wrong. I am actually heartbroken.”
Where Myers lives, in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, people of colour make up 73 per cent of the total population. Toronto’s overall demographics are nearly as diverse, with a visible-minority population of 51 per cent, according to the 2016 federal census.
So why is Toronto city council still so white?
The previous 44-member council elected in 2014 was predominantly white and male. The new 25-member council remains mostly white and male, with people of colour making up roughly 15 per cent of elected officials, according to Myer Siemiatycki, a Ryerson University professor and expert in municipal elections.
Just two months shy of the election, under the leadership of former Toronto city councillor and now Ontario Premier Doug Ford, the Ontario government passed the Better Local Government Act. This move changed Toronto’s ward map to become more closely aligned with provincial electoral districts. Following a court challenge of the legislation and public protests, the Court of Appeal for Ontario on Sept. 19 granted the province’s request to a stay a lower court judge’s ruling that found Ontario’s move to cut council unconstitutional.
Merging the wards and redrawing their boundaries made it harder to bring new voices to council, Siemiatycki explains. “It’s bad enough when you are running against one incumbent. Running against two incumbents? Nobody is defeating two incumbents,” he says. “It’s virtually impossible. That was in play in Scarborough.”
That Toronto city council is once again mostly white and male doesn’t surprise Cheyanne Ratnam, a Scarborough resident and social worker who identifies as Tamil-Canadian. She thinks the new ward boundaries are discriminatory.
“When you have a larger area, you need more money [to canvas],” says Ratnam, who sought an interim seat on city council in the vacant then-Scarborough-Rouge River ward (formerly Ward 41) this summer before becoming disenchanted with what she calls “messy politics.”
“Also, [you are] mixing different areas together. And so, you might have a great pool in one area. However, when you are adding other areas into the mix, especially when demographics are very different even from street to street, you’re going to have a tougher time to get persons of visible minorities elected,” she says.
Across Scarborough’s six wards, 66 per cent of the winners on Monday were incumbents: Gary Crawford in Scarborough Southwest (Ward 20), Michael Thompson in Scarborough Centre (Ward 21), Jim Karygiannis in Scarborough-Agincourt (Ward 22) and Paul Ainslie in Scarborough-Guildwood (Ward 24). The notable exception was incumbent Neethan Shan, who lost by 154 votes to Jennifer McKelvie in Scarborough-Rouge Park (Ward 25).
And then there’s Scarborough North (Ward 23), which was one of the few wards in Toronto that had no incumbents. Under the proposed 47-ward model, the candidates were supposed to run in Ward 44.
When Scarborough North city councillor candidate Felicia Samuel first began campaigning, before Ford introduced the ward cuts in July, she was counting on her base around Morningside Avenue and Sheppard Avenue East to capture votes; but that area ultimately became part of Scarborough-Rouge Park (Ward 25) under the new 25-ward model.
Samuel started out in Malvern and slowly built up her team, getting endorsements along the way from Toronto and York’s regional labour councils, advocacy group Progress Toronto and media editorial boards. “It was where my family had their first home, and I felt I had a lot of support there,” she explains. “I started from there and branched out.”
Suddenly, she found herself trying to persuade an extra 40,000 voters to choose her: “The minute it changed, it was a whole new riding.”
“It was like starting the ground game all over again, and it was tough,” she says. “But we did what we could.”
In the end, it wasn’t enough.
By 8:30 p.m. on Monday night, realtor Cynthia Lai’s name flashed at the top of the Scarborough North leaderboard. Samuel came in third place. Lai won with 27 per cent of the votes; Maggie Chi, who had worked for former Scarborough city councillor Chin Lee, came in second with 20 per cent; and Samuel in third with almost 18 per cent.
Although Scarborough North elected a person of colour, the low voter turnout in Scarborough may have played a part in the area’s incumbent-heavy results overall, according to Siemiatycki.
Scarborough saw an average turnout of just 24 per cent. That’s significantly lower than the 41 per cent voter turnout in Toronto, which itself marked a sharp decline from the city’s record 60 per cent voter turnout in 2014.
“It doesn’t help that voter participation among immigrant and visible minority populations seems to be less than among white and Caucasians,” Siemiatycki says, citing a 2014 report he co-wrote with Sean Marshall called “Who Votes in Toronto Municipal Elections.”
The reasons for this low participation level are multifold, Siemiatycki continues. Visible minority and immigrant populations “don’t see themselves represented among political leaders at a local level.” And if people don’t see themselves represented on city council, and aren’t actively encouraged to engage in city politics, it perpetuates low participation and “kind of becomes a self-repeating cycle,” he explains.
“We really are stuck in a bad place in Toronto where racialized minorities are horrendously underrepresented. It does not serves those communities, it doesn’t serve that population and it doesn’t serve the city.”
Editor’s note, Oct. 25, 2018: This story was corrected to reflect that Cheyanne Ratnam sought an interim seat on Toronto city council.