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Immigration has changed the face of Canadian cities, but the complexion of their city council chambers remains much the same.

Visible minorities, too scarce at all levels of government, are vastly underrepresented in municipal politics. "We think of local governments as the most grassroots and closest to the people," said Myer Siemiatycki, a Ryerson University professor who looks at the discouraging numbers in a new report, to be released Tuesday, for DiverseCity: the Greater Toronto Leadership Project. Yet "they are by far the worst in terms of having diverse identities elected."

Consider Mississauga, the booming suburb to Toronto's west, governed for decades by popular Mayor Hazel McCallion. Forty-nine per cent of its residents are visible minorities, but none of the 12 councillors who govern them is. Or look at Brampton, the northwestern-edge city of half a million people, that has absorbed waves of immigrants from South Asia and many other parts of the world. Visible minorities make up 57 per cent of the population, yet just one of the 11 councillors is non-white.

The picture is similar in other parts of the country. In Montreal, three of 64 city councillors are visible minorities. In Calgary, where Naheed Nenshi made headlines last year by becoming Canada's first big-city Muslim mayor, only one of the 14 city aldermen is a visible minority.

In Toronto, whose proud motto is Diversity Our Strength, only five out of 45 city councillors are visible minorities. In the Greater Toronto Area, taking in the city's suburbs and exurbs, the numbers are even more striking. Visible minorities make up 40 per cent of the population, yet only 7 per cent of the 253 members sitting on the various municipal councils are visible minorities – a grand total of 18.

At the provincial level, by way of contrast, 26 per cent of the GTA's 47 legislators at Queen's Park are visible minorities, and, at the federal level, 17 per cent of the 47 GTA members of the House of Commons are visible minorities.

The municipal numbers are particularly troubling for the Toronto region, the country's biggest magnet for immigrants. As Prof. Siemiatycki puts it, the city "aspires to be a global leader in diversity, inclusion, integration and equity."

Yet he finds that GTA municipal voters would have to elect six times as many visible-minority councillors for their numbers to match their share of the population. He also finds that four groups in the GTA have no elected members of their community at any level of government: Filipinos, non-white Latin Americans, Arabs and Southeast Asians – shocking when you consider that the Filipinos alone number 174,000.

Other groups have fared better. Of the 38 positions held by visible minorities at all levels of government across the GTA, South Asians and Chinese have 15 each. Four federal MPs and seven provincial MPPs are South Asian, a result, in part, of a drive by political parties to run visible-minority candidates in vote-rich, immigrant-heavy outer suburbs associated with the 905 area code.

But go to the municipal level and the record gets dramatically poorer. Of the 253 municipal councillors throughout the GTA, just four are South Asian (and 10 Chinese). On Toronto City Council, there is not a single South Asian face.

The report says that, on Toronto Council, visible-minority representation seems to be "forever stuck" at about the same meagre level: 12 per cent in 1997, 11 per cent in 2000, 11 per cent in 2003, 9 per cent in 2006 and 11 per cent as of the 2010 municipal election.

Why? Prof. Siemiatycki notes that there are no political parties at the municipal level to recruit or support minority candidates, so they must largely go it alone. To make things harder still, they must often battle entrenched incumbents who stay on term after term. Because municipal politics often gets less attention than federal or provincial campaigns, the candidate with long tenure and name recognition has a big advantage. For the same reason, many minority candidates scorn the municipal field and jump straight to a higher level.

Kristyn Wong-Tam, the only new visible-minority councillor to be elected to Toronto Council last year, says Toronto should follow the example of many big Canadian companies and strive to diversify by reaching out to minority groups.

"We see that as a real economic strength in the private sector," she said. "Why wouldn't we see it as a strength in public office?"

The Tale of two cities

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who made headlines nationwide last year when he became the country's first Muslim big-city mayor, wasn't surprised by the findings in The Diversity Gap study.

"Everyone who runs for municipal politics – in most cities in Canada – runs without a party. They run as an independent so they don't have a party structure and for a lot of people from minority communities, it's very difficult to get the infrastructure to run a campaign. Whereas, it's easier when you have political parties backing you," he said.

Mr. Nenshi added: "And yet, here I am."

Calgary City Council is composed of 14 aldermen plus the mayor. Other than Mr. Nenshi, there is only one other visible minority on council and there are three women.

Dawn Walton in Calgary

Montreal functions on a party system, yet that hasn't translated into greater representation for visible minorities on its council. Of Montreal's 64 city councillors, only three are visible minorities (two are black and one is an Arab Canadian).

"We still have a political structure that is not as inclusive as it claims to be," says Fo Niemi of Montreal's Center for Research-Action on Race Relations. "You can't say in 2011 that we can't find competent people from visible minorities to run for city council."

The political system also favours incumbents, making it difficult for recruits from visible minorities to make inroads, according to Carolle Simard, a political scientist at the University of Quebec in Montreal who studied the issue.

"White, middle-aged men have a greater chance at getting elected than women or ethno-cultural minorities," Prof. Simard said.

Ingrid Peritz in Montreal

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