What’s Missing in the Municipality: Why does Burnaby’s council lack diversity?
Burnaby city council has two women out of nine members, and three people of colour in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Canada.
The current Burnaby city council is not representative of the community—that much is easy to tell.
How ideologically aligned the current council is with the city at large will, to a degree, be tested in the coming weeks, as residents go to the polls by Oct. 15. But the experiences they bring to the decision-making table are more homogenous, with five older white men making up the majority of city council.
Until just last year, Coun. Colleen Jordan was the sole woman on council, before she was joined by Alison Gu.
And according to Jordan, the median age on council was likely around 60 years—a figure Gu figured to be accurate. That’s two decades older than the median age of the city, at 40.4. In fact, at age 25, Gu is less than half the age of just about all of the other councillors.
Gu’s election in the summer 2021 byelection also bumped the number of non-white councillors up from two to three out of nine.
And that’s despite visible minorities vastly outnumbering white residents. According to the 2016 census (similar data has not yet been released from the 2021 census), over 146,000 people identified as visible minorities, compared to nearly 84,000 who didn’t.
Proud to represent the city’s diversity
One Burnaby council candidate Richard Liu said his party is running a diverse slate of candidates, something he said was a response to the lack of diversity currently on council.
“I think because we’re such a culturally diverse city, I think we need to be representative,” Liu said.
He added his own experience speaks volumes about the value of diversity.
“When you see my name, you automatically think I’m Chinese, right? … My family didn’t migrate from China. My family migrated from Italy,” he said.
Long before he was born, Liu’s grandparents migrated to Rome to learn Italian opera under a “very well-known Italian tenor at the time.” Liu couldn’t recall his name off-hand but compared him to Luciano Pavarotti, but in the 1940s.
“Our city is such a diverse city that when you look at someone’s face, you can’t tell who they are,” Liu said, adding that his wife is Korean, meaning his children speak both Korean and Mandarin.
He said he believes it’s tough for non-white youths to aspire to things like politics when they see a city council that’s dominated by older white men.
“If I can do well and inspire a few folks that are like me that, yes, they can do the same thing, that will be the difference,” Liu said.
“There’s been a lot of talk about diversity, but I think it’s time to start showing that diversity.”
What gets missed?
Carrie McLaren, a council candidate with the Burnaby Green Party, said a male-dominated council lacks some potential experiences women could bring to the table that would directly impact aspects of city planning.
For instance, she said men might look at a street or bus stop and think it has enough lighting at night.
“But women may say, ‘Oh my God, no, too dark. I’m not walking down that street,’” she said.
“Women are always hyper-aware of their personal safety and space, because, again, they’re the ones most likely to get attacked or harassed.”
With two women, the current council is about on par for city council in recent history. In the last 12 local elections, dating back to 1985, there has always been at least one woman on council.
Many of those elections only sent one woman to the decision-making table, including in 1985, 1987, 2005, and 2018.
But one election has the distinction of beating the standard two women on council. In 1999, Burnaby sent a whopping three women to city council.
“They represent half the population, but they’re not half of the political life,” McLaren said.
She added that women tend to be trained from a young age to be more compassionate and caring, and to not take up too much space, while men are more often raised with a “boys will be boys” attitude.
And those are different experiences that could sway decisions on council.
Gu estimated the BCA has more than 20 languages spoken among its council slate, something that could help to reach a wider portion of the community.
As of 2021, just over 16,000 Burnaby residents said they spoke neither English nor French conversationally.
And only about 97,000 counted the official languages as their mother tongue, compared to nearly 134,000 whose mother tongues were non-official languages.
“That’s important so that people can feel like they can communicate their issues if they can’t effectively communicate them in English,” Gu said.
And when it comes to representing younger voters, she said there are a number of issues that older representatives might not see, including issues around childcare, or challenges around rental housing.
It’s also about how the city views things like climate change, something millennials and younger generations are going to experience the worst of.
“City council plays a role in everything from housing to climate change to transportation to affordability to the school system. And that’s why it’s so important to have the diverse team that the BCA has,” she said.
Barriers in and out of office
Gu and McLaren both noted that there is an issue of women and younger people being taken seriously in politics, and Gu noted some specific experiences.
That includes comments that she may not understand an issue because she’s new, when similar comments were not made to Mike Hillman, the former independent and current One Burnaby councillor elected in the same byelection as her.
And McLaren noted women still tend to be the primary caregiver in a family, meaning they’re often the one who has to balance their children and their career and try to make the two work—or not.
The two also noted a culture of toxicity, with journalists and politicians alike receiving graphic, threatening messages online—and McLaren noted that women tend to see that more than men.
And that can dissuade women from entering politics in the first place.
“It’s like, … why would you put yourself in that position?” McLaren said.
Another challenge to getting broader representation on council is time and money.
“If you haven’t got a financial safety net to be able to take time off, or you don’t have vacation days or paid sick leave that you can use and help support you in that time that you’re campaigning, that’s a huge barrier,” Gu said.
“The cost of living is high.”
A younger person is also typically early in their career, and taking time off from work can also impact a person’s trajectory more than it would for someone whose career is already more established.
All kinds of representation
Age, race, sexual orientation, and gender are only a few of a plethora of ways in which one might experience the world differently.
Gender and race have gotten a fair bit of the airtime in recent years—and the diversity of the three slates running for council this fall appears to be a response to that.
Three-quarters of the Green slate are women and half are people of colour. Similarly, three-quarters of the BCA slate are people of colour, and half are women. One Burnaby stands out as the only slate to have more men (four out of six) than women, but it’s also two-thirds people of colour.
One analysis that is often mentioned in the context of other forms of diversity, such as gender and race, but isn’t often spoken of as a form of diversity that needs representation itself, is class. Renters can bring different experiences to the table that homeowners often can’t, and if a rental situation is particularly precarious, that is yet another layer.
Service industry workers, people who live off of government stipends, and people who work in hospitality—not to mention people with disabilities, drug users, immuno-compromised people, people who rely on public transit, and those without formal post-secondary education—all have their own experiences that could help inform decision-making.
Andrea Reimer, an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs and a former Vancouver city councillor, said class is still an area where there hasn’t been much growth in representation.
And if renters were adequately represented on city councils, Reimer said, “I can guarantee you that the debate we’d be having publicly would be quite different, and it would have been quite different for much longer, so that we would have seen solutions much faster.”
But class is still an area where there hasn’t been much growth in representation, she said.
And she said it’s a tough angle to beat.
“They are presumed not to be able to do the job, and they have to spend their time proving that they can, so they don’t get as much time to talk about issues,” Reimer said.
“So if those perspectives aren’t represented on council, how are they represented in decisions, right? And you see people falling further and further behind because they don’t have a voice.”
How to achieve representation?
Reimer said there are a number of ways in which cities can make running for office—and working in office—more accessible, including providing childcare.
She said there needs to be “kind of a seismic shift” in the questions we ask about adequately representing the community.
“[It] isn’t how white men in positions of leadership, mayors, do a better job of representation. We need to ask ourselves: how do we encourage them to get out of the way and support people, use their credibility there?” Reimer said, particularly noting the incumbent advantage.
The incumbent advantage is the fact that a person already elected to office already has the infrastructure and supports to run for the next election, and they have name familiarity and a track record to vote on.
“If they’re considered credible just by their demographic, how do they take that credibility and support someone who doesn’t have that privilege to be a viable candidate for leadership, such as the mayor?” Reimer said.