Voters in Vancouver and the rest of British Columbia will go to the polls Saturday to elect mayors, city and town councillors, school board trustees and other local representatives. As the province's largest city, Vancouver has all the unique characteristics of local governance in B.C., and at least one unique feature of its own. Let's take a closer look.
1. Elected Park Board
Vancouver's Park Board is the only elected body of its kind in Canada. It began as a committee to oversee Stanley Park in 1888 and grew into an independently elected park board in 1890. The board is still unusually prominent for an organization of its kind today, in large part because of the central role green spaces, recreation, and the environment play in Vancouver politics.
2. Voting on Saturday
Countries at the top of voter turnout lists, like Iceland, Sweden, and New Zealand, typically hold their elections on the weekend, when it's easier for people juggling multiple jobs and obligations to make it to the polls. Local government elections in B.C. have been held every three years on the third Saturday of November since 1993, and in Vancouver since 1984. B.C.'s provincial elections are held on Tuesdays.
The only other province to hold municipal elections on the weekend is Nova Scotia, which also holds them on Saturday.
Despite this effort to increase voter participation, just 35 per cent of registered voters turned out to the polls in Vancouver in 2011, according to city records.
3. At-large governance
Vancouver's at-large voting system, where voters choose their top preferences from a complete list of candidates rather than selecting a single representative for their neighbourhood, has been in place since 1935, although the city experimented with both ward and at-large voting systems between 1886 and 1935.
In the current at-large system, all voters impact the election of all ten city councillors, giving them a greater say in the overall composition of city council. In theory, at-large systems also encourage councillors to think of themselves as representatives for the city as a whole and decrease geographical divisions.
However, at-large voting systems are often seen as discriminatory. Concentrated pockets of ethnic voters have more power to elect a representative from their own community in a ward system than they do when the whole city gets a say in the selection of every councillor. Vancouver's at-large system has been critiqued for consistently keeping South Asian candidates out of office. There's also no requirement for geographic diversity in an at-large system, and it's possible to elect city councillors who all live in the same area and have weaker ties and responsibilities to the rest of the city.
Vancouver is the largest city in Canada to elect its councillors solely through an at-large system. At-large voting is most common in small towns, but several other Canadian cities, including Victoria, Surrey and Richmond in B.C., and North Bay, Ont., elect all their councillors at-large. Other jurisdictions, like Thunder Bay, Ont., and Saint John, N.B., have adopted a hybrid model where some councillors are elected by ward and others are elected on an at-large basis.
4. Party politics
Municipal parties like Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association have played a prominent role in Vancouver elections for decades since the fight between the NPA and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1937, but are absent in many cities across the country. The Ontario Municipal Elections Act does not allow municipal parties or affiliations of any kind.
Municipal parties are rarely formally affiliated with federal or provincial political parties – an effort to keep municipal elections focused on local issues rather than national power struggles between political parties – though candidates often move back and forth between federal, provincial, and municipal parties over the course of their careers.