In many ways, Burnaby South is a typical urban Canadian riding. According to the 2016 census, it has just shy of 112,000 residents, with origins from all over the world. There is no single ethnic or racial majority.
About 39 per cent of people in the British Columbia riding say their background is wholly or partly Chinese. Another third say they are of European ancestry. People of South Asian background make up a bit more than eight per cent of the population; people who trace their roots to the Philippines around six per cent; Korean-Canadians just shy of four per cent.
The figures on ethnic origin actually add up to more than 100 per cent, because many people have multiple backgrounds. There are more than 100 ethnicities listed, including more than 8,395 residents of Burnaby South who said they were simply “Canadian.”
This mix of peoples is us; it’s Canada’s present in some parts of the country and it will be our future almost everywhere. This is a land with many roots, but from them we all share one common nationality.
Into this landscape stepped Karen Wang, until Wednesday, the Liberal Party’s candidate in the Burnaby South by-election to be held next month. In an attempt to garner support, she did something that is not unknown in Canadian politics: She made an appeal to some of her riding’s voters, reminding them, in unusually blunt terms, that she and they share an innate racial characteristic that her opponent in the race – New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh – does not.
Using the Chinese-language app WeChat, she wrote a since-deleted post that StarMetro Vancouver discovered and translated as follows: “If we can increase the voting rate, as the only Chinese candidate in the riding, if I can garner 16,000 votes I will easily win the by-election, control the election race and make history! My opponent in the election is the NDP candidate Singh of Indian descent!”
The surprise – the happy surprise – is that her statement was widely condemned, including by her own party, and on Wednesday she resigned. (On Thursday, she tried to unresign, but the Liberals declined to reinstate her.)
Canada’s political system is a representative democracy, which means we elect people to represent us in Parliament. The question, which will become increasingly important as the country diversifies, is how Canadians will choose to define “represent.”
If the point of an elected official is to “represent” their constituents by looking like them – by literally serving as some kind of living representation of voters’ innate characteristics, such as race – then Mr. Singh has no business running in Burnaby South. The vast majority of the riding is not of South Asian ancestry. The vast majority are not Sikh. The vast majority do not wear a turban.
The same goes for the Conservative Party candidate, Jay Shin. He’s of Korean ancestry, something he shares with only about one in 25 people in Burnaby South.
If tallying up a scorecard of a candidate’s racial, gender or other physical attributes is what democratic representation is about, then Ms. Wang has nothing to apologize for.
But, if an increasingly multicultural and multiracial Canada is to be successful, and a country that all of us can share as equals, regardless of where our ancestors came from, then the job of an elected representative cannot be to “represent” constituents by appealing to our differences. Our politics must seek to transcend those differences, by appealing to those things that a single people with hundreds of different origins hold in common.
Most voters get this. They get that representation is about finding someone who represents your values, who shares your beliefs, and whose party’s policies and platform represent the kind of government you’d like. It goes deeper than checking the ethnic origins box on the census.
To take just one example, it’s why the people of Calgary were able to elect Naheed Nenshi as mayor three times. The vast majority of Calgarians are not Ismaili Muslims whose ancestors come from Gujarat via Tanzania. It doesn’t matter, because that’s not what representation is about.
Karen Wang won’t be the MP for Burnaby South, but she has done her country a public service. Her appeal – vote for me because I look like you, and the other guy doesn’t – is nothing new in politics. The backlash against it is. That’s progress. And it represents Canada.