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Parties pigeonhole visible minority candidates

This article is republished from the Toronto Star.

The federal election campaign has already bestowed us with a number of unique visuals: the Angry Conservative, the guy in the bathrobe, the Harpers at a Blue Jays game. More mundane are the shots at rallies and speeches. At most, party leaders are surrounded by a collection of supporters that invariably includes a woman, a young person, a person of colour. This is no accident. It is a strategic and visible placement of diversity that is replicated in candidate nominations.

So far, we have heard quite a bit about the selection of women and Indigenous candidates, but comparatively little about visible minority candidates. This is surprising given parties’ efforts to appeal to visible minority voters and Canada’s increasing racial diversity.

Visible minorities now make up 19 per cent of the Canadian population. The proportion of candidates with visible minority backgrounds is basically unchanged since 2004 — hovering around 9 per cent — even though the proportion of visible minorities in Canada has steadily increased. In 110 of the country’s 338 ridings, visible minorities make up 20 per cent or more of the population, up from 90 ridings in 2011.

The visible minority population is thus significant in both magnitude and scope. Even so, just 13.5 per cent of candidates nominated for the three major parties so far have visible minority backgrounds. That’s 131 out of 964 nominated candidates, with 50 nominations still to come. It is not just about absolute numbers though. Importantly, in 54 per cent of ridings (183 of 338), there isn’t a single visible minority candidate running for any of the three major parties. In those ridings with incomplete nominations, 11 per cent (36 of 338) so far have only white candidates on the ticket. In other words, it is possible that in nearly two-thirds of the country’s ridings, ballots will not include a competitive visible minority candidate.

Although many of these all-white contests are in rural ridings with small visible minority populations, many are not. In Scarborough-Guildwood, for example, visible minorities make up 68 per cent of the population, but the candidates for the three competitive parties are all white (although, notably, the Conservative candidate is a Dutch immigrant). In Ajax, Chris Alexander, the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, is running against two other white competitors.

Meanwhile, in eight ridings, three visible minority candidates will square off against one another; in these ridings, the visible minority population averages 74 per cent. This suggests that parties’ wholehearted endorsement of visible minority candidacies only occurs in a handful of ridings where visible minority voters are in the overwhelming majority. At the same time, parties clearly have no problem running an entirely white slate of candidates in ridings with large visible minority populations.

The strategic placement of visible minority candidates in only the most diverse ridings lulls us into thinking that our politics is inclusive, while simultaneously capping the number of seats that visible minority candidates might ever win. Not only is this contrary to Canada’s multicultural ethos, but it is a flawed electoral strategy. Our own research shows that white voters are about as open to visible minority candidates as they are to white candidates. When visible minority candidates run, they can win, even outside the most racially diverse ridings. But parties tend to limit the electoral prospects of visible minority candidates by pitting them against each other and nominating them primarily in the most racially diverse ridings.

In a democracy, parties are free to choose the candidates whom they want to represent them. But freedom of choice isn’t the only democratic ideal to which we should aspire. Much has been made of parties’ “courting of the ethnic vote,” but visible minorities can contribute more than just an X on a ballot. If parties were serious about diversity, they would nominate more visible minority candidates, and they would nominate them in greater numbers outside of what the Conservatives have described as the “very ethnic ridings.” Doing so would broaden the electoral talent pool and also more accurately reflect that visible minority MPs can capably represent both a broad range of issues and a diverse cross-section of voters.