Saturday, April 09, 2011

On immigrant under-representation in politics

Vancouver Sun journalist Douglas Todd's blog The Search has an interesting focus on exploring questions of religion and identity in and around and beyond Vancouver and northwestern North America. One of his most recent Vancouver-themed posts highlighted a remarkable fact: descendants of Celtic immigrants, especially Scots, have monopolized the office of mayor.

The last three mayors of Vancouver - Gregor Robertson, Sam Sullivan and Larry Campbell - all value their rich Scottish ancestries.

Even prior to the election of these three kilt-loving men, the number of Vancouver mayors who have had Scottish surnames has proved impressive. Three of the past nine mayors of Vancouver, for instance, have been Campbells, which means "crooked mouth" in Gaelic. They include Gordon Campbell and Tom Campbell.

Vancouver's first mayor, Malcolm McLean, was born in Tiree, Scotland. The city went on to elect a host of mayors with surnames long associated, at least in part, with Scotland, including Malcolm McBeath, Louis Taylor, Gerry McGeer, Tom Alsbury (born in Edinburgh), George Miller, Fred Hume, Charles Thompson and William Rathie.

This West Coast metropolis, in addition, has had far more than its normal share of those with a combination of Scottish, or Welsh-Irish, surnames, such as Philip Owen, William Owen, Art Phillips, William McGuigan and Charles Jones. (See John Mackie's lively list of Vancouver mayors.)

Indeed, with the addition of a few mayors with English-Norman surnames (such as Michael Harcourt and Charles Tisdal), the city of Vancouver has almost entirely lacked mayors of non-British ancestry in its 125 years.

The one well-known exception is mayor David Oppenheimer (1888-1891), who had Jewish-German roots.

Where have been the Italian, Scandinavian or French mayors -since up until the 1970s people of this ethnicity, along with Germans, together accounted for almost 15 per cent of the city's residents?

And - the question that's most obvious in this age of high Asian immigration - why has there been no Vancouver mayor of Chinese extraction?

One might even joke about a Celtic cabal. (And no, McDonald though I am, I can't say anything about this. Really. Can't.)

This sort of underrepresentation isn't unique in Canada to Vancouver. Toronto's mayoral elections last year, held in a city where half the population is foreign-born, all six of the leading candidates were of European descent, three were of British background, and in the end mayor David Miller passed on his position to Rob Ford. This isn't limited to the position of mayor: in the Canadian Parliament, MPs from visible minority groups are consistently only half as numerous as suggested by visible minorities' share of the Canadian population, with similar or greater under-representation in the Ontario Provincial Parliament and even on the most recent Toronto City Council but one. The Canadian experience is not so different from the French, where until recently descendants of the immigrants from North Africa (not, as Sarkozy's existence shows, immigrants from Europe) were excluded. Elsewhere, too?

Todd's almost certainly right in saying that it's only a matter of time before Vancouver gets a Chinese mayor, that it's simply a matter of immigrant groups becoming more comfortable with the Canadian system and second- and third-generation community members moving up through the ranks, perhaps starting low and gradually plugging into networks. I hope so: the scale of this lag is embarrassing, and only partially mitigated by the fact that Canadian multiculturalism is almost entirely a post-Second World War creation. This lag is also potentially problematic, inasmuch as excluding entire population groups from political power can bring obvious negative consequences onto the polity.


Richard said...

Sullivan is an Irish name not Scottish:'Sullivan

Noel Maurer said...

As you know, this is very much not true for the United States. It's important to note, for example, that while the descendents of Ellis Island immigrants did not make it to the White House, there were several very credible candidates who almost made it. Mario Cuomo, for example, could have become president. And then there's the current occupant, but a traipse around statewide office will quickly show that the second and third generation move into politics fairly quickly. The governors of Nevada and New Mexico (Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez) are Mexican-American; the new senator from Florida (Marco Rubio) is Cuban-American; the governors of Louisiana and South Carolina (Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley) have Indian parents; Andrew Cuomo needs no discussion; Chris Christie is half-Italian; the crazy governor of Maine (Paul LePage) is a "Franco-American, e.g., the descendent of Quebeckers. And so on. Plus, is should be noted that none of these are groundbreaking, except maybe for the fact that Jindal, Cuomo, Christie, Haley, and Rubio are all plausible Presidential candidates in 2016.

In short, the phenomenon your talking about is a Canadian one. It is not a North American one.

I suspect it has more to do with the parties' internal functioning than anything else.

Say ... wasn't that what you told me when I asked you about it a while back?

Noel Maurer said...

I should add that if you look at the level of cities, then Canada starts to look even stranger by American standards. Antonio Villaraigosa (L.A.), Edwin Lee (S.F.), Michael Bloomberg (N.Y.), Julian Sanchez (S.A.), Rahm Emmanuel (Chicago), Thomas Menino (Boston) and that's without going to Wikipedia.

It is a mighty strange thing you got going up there.

Richard said...

Actually Canada doesnt compare so badly. B.C. has had both a Jewish Premier (Dave Barrett) and a Sikh (Ujal Dossanj). There have been many Jewish politicians including at least 2 mayors of Toronto, Phil Givens and Mel Lastman. Calgary the 4th largest city in the country now has a Muslim mayor (a descendant of Indian Ismailis). I am unaware of any major American city with a Muslim mayor.

There are 2 Muslims in the US House of Representatives versus 4 in the Canadian House of Commons. In fact all US Presidents save one have been Protestants whereas Canada has had many Catholics and Protestants as Prime Minister.

Anonymous said...

I think this happens because Scottish and English people are simply doing better in politics and better educate their children. It's the others that need to catch up.

Indians, for example, are well overrepresented in IT and no one crying about that.

Noel Maurer said...

Richard: this should probably be done systematically, but although the Canadian political class is less old-WASP than the post implied, it still seems as though there is a large gap between Canada and the United States. The question is whether that's due to demographic differences or differences in political institutions.

Anonymous: that would not explain the rapid surge into politics of American immigrant groups that has continued from the late 19th-century until today.