Keith Gerein: Will 2021 provide an election breakthrough for women, racialized candidates?

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If there is anything the last few years — and particularly the last 14 months — have taught us, it’s that progress isn’t linear.

Sometimes it slows to such a trickle we can barely perceive it. Sometimes it surges forward unexpectedly, and we’re caught unprepared. Sometimes it’s a victim of its own success, provoking fear and the desire to build dams.

Even the idea of progress is slippery, since those with power tend to have the privilege of defining it.

So it goes with Edmonton’s city council, which has achieved gender parity only once, been led by only one female mayor, and has seen just four racialized people, all men, elected to office in more than a century.

And this for a city in which around 40 per cent of residents identify as a visible minority. (Fill out your census everyone.)

Nearly every civic election has left us wondering when Edmonton’s politics might catch up to its demographics, and yet there is reason to suspect the narrative might be shaping up a little differently this time, in part based on the influence of events from the past year.


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The murder of George Floyd and its aftermath. The uneven burden of COVID on women and racialized people. The growing brazenness of racist forces in our midst.

In all this turmoil, have enough eyes been opened to the value of diversity, to allow an election breakthrough for candidates who are usually shut out?

“I think there are lot of people, who, after seeing these events, really want to get involved to make change,” said Rajah Maggay, research chair of ParityYEG, one of a few groups in town that aims to get more women to seek public office.

“In a very specific way, the personal is political. So I think our chances of seeing a more diverse council are really good.”

Among the 61 people who have so far filed their nomination papers for council, 25 are women while 22 are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or a Person of Colour).

One candidate, Amarjeet Sohi, is the first visible minority to be a major contender in the mayor’s race.

And even incumbency, which is typically an unbeatable advantage in a civic election, may not be quite so insurmountable this time thanks to the city’s redrawn ward map, and the fact that four wards will not have any incumbent on the ballot.

Erin Tolley, a Carleton University professor who studies race in Canadian politics, said it wouldn’t be a surprise if upheaval from the past year has helped to spur a greater diversity of candidates.

Unlike white male candidates who tend to have a long-standing desire for public office, women and racialized people more often run “in response to some pressing issue of policy failure,” she said.


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That has certainly been the case for Shamair Turner, a risk management and insurance professional who is a candidate in the southeast ward of Karhiio.

Part of her motivation to run was a response to the recent racial justice movements, combined with the realization she had the professional skill set to make change, she said.

“This is something that awakened in me,” said Turner, who grew up in Mill Woods after her parents immigrated from the Caribbean. “I saw there are big issues but they are not being prioritized because nobody is there being the champion for them.”

Of course, getting more women and BIPOC candidates on the ballot is merely the first hurdle. Generating actual victories has proven far more arduous, largely because such candidates face considerable barriers.

One of those has been a difficulty in selling voters on the idea that diverse government tends to be better government, which is something I plan to address in a future column.

Beyond that, escaping obscurity is a major obstacle. Qualified candidates, especially those facing an incumbent, have no chance if they can’t compete on name recognition, Tolley said. And for that, they need access to networks that can provide the money that drives advertising, volunteers and professional political advice.

Chronically poor voter turnout in municipal elections also doesn’t help.

In addition, Turner suggests that women and racialized candidates face a higher aesthetic standard that requires them to consistently exude professionalism. Cowboy hats, casual clothes and rolled up sleeves tend not to work.


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“I have to be top-to-bottom put together,” she said, adding that there are even judgments specific to how Black women style their hair.

Ultimately, such candidates suggest they can struggle to get voters to see past their gender or ethnicity. Assumptions are too often made that they are only interested in certain issues or will only vote in certain ways.

Such framing casts these candidates as lacking merit. Or conversely, when they have success, it is portrayed merely a function of their demographic, Tolley said.

“Diversity by itself is not enough,” said Jennifer Rice, a Chinese-Canadian and public servant running in the southwest ward of Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi. “I hope voters wouldn’t vote for me only because I’m a woman or not white.”

So how can the flow of progress on diversity be boosted from a trickle to a stream this election?

Before I’m accused of merely virtue-signalling my way through this column, let me insist that Edmontonians vote, as always, for the most qualified candidates who best reflect their values.

The change that needs to happen is in how we look at qualifications.

Being a citizen of this city demands that we dig deeper into our electoral choices. When we do that, we may find that women and racialized candidates, because of the barriers they face, have often had to work harder, build more bridges, and develop stronger roots in the community to get ahead — all of which are valuable assets for elected office.

Should more Edmontonians make this effort, the upheaval of the past year could be the impetus for a dam-busting breakthrough at city hall.


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