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  • Writer's pictureTaha Habib

Why “Diverse” Candidates Are Set Up To Fail In Municipal Election Campaigns

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

“I am just going to come out and say it: recruiting “diverse” candidates without working with diverse people to change the “way things are done” is like applying a Dora the Explorer band aid to treat a concussion - it’s cute and useless.”

Ah, election season. The fall leaves aren’t the only things tinting the streets of Montreal - there are colourful candidate posters at every corner. If you don’t know we’re knee deep in a (double) election season, you must not go out much.

After the federal elections of September 20th, Montrealers are gearing up to cast a vote for the municipal elections taking place November 6th and 7th (Halloween weekend, too, if you’re cool and vote at advanced polls). Along with the colder breeze of autumn swishing through the streets, residents of all boroughs in Montreal are also encountering the candidates from all parties vying to best represent their district. This year, like in 2017, parties are putting forth an excellent number of candidates from diverse walks of life, with rich backgrounds and strong ties to the neighborhoods where they are running. I remember in 2017, looking at the posters and telling myself, wow, we might just get an incredibly diverse council this election, and uhm, we didn’t. It’s something I have been thinking a lot about since the 2017 elections, and the hope I felt on election night when the first woman was elected mayor of the city of Montreal wasn’t something I carried with me in the years after.

“Diversity is the undeniable presence of differences, not only in ethnicity but in perspective in all its forms.”

It’s almost as if when parties choose their diverse candidates they are relying on the fact that a portion of the borough that identifies with the candidate will show up to the polls, and it’s the candidates responsibility to secure the vote where the party itself has previously failed. That’s only one of the pressure points a diverse candidate bears entering the political arena, they become - are are expected to become - the spokesperson for whatever issue they may face because of their physical identity. For example, when a racialized person is recruited in a district where the party is polling low with the racialized residents and is marketed as the “candidate of the ethnic people”. These candidates who may have incredibly innovative approaches and solutions to problems in all sectors of the city’s jurisdiction are now painted as poster children for ethnic issues. This type of promotion causes them to be alienated by the base, majority, voters. Not to mention that their white, male, counterparts are also reported to receive more funding from parties and easier districts and ridings to run in, while getting marketed as multi-disciplinary wise councillors.

Maude Massicotte, co-founder of the organization called Defphys Sans Limite, consults with organizations and governments on how to make their spaces more open and inclusive of people living with disability. She and I were also youth ambassadors in 2016-2017 for the 375th anniversary of Montreal with the Forum Jeunesse de l'Île de Montréal. Maude notices that when a disabled person is asked to run, they are automatically marketed as the expert on all things disabled people are interested in and are specifically affected by. This type of labeling makes the candidates’ relatability with the voters go down considerably in their district since less than 5% of the voters can identify with the candidate. The candidates are promised that they will be bringing in the culture of change and that they have the party’s full support - but rarely, if ever, is that the case.

“The parties, unfortunately, will recruit the activists, the highly involved individuals who have been loudly voicing their concerns for years, and now to get them off their backs, they invite them to run under the party banner and promise them things are going to change.”

Diverse candidates are also being brought into an arena that wasn’t built with their needs and limitations in mind. The idea that the individual running will be this selfless person, overcoming all obstacles and still wanting to be at the table so badly is what creates and sustains the environment of toxicity and competitiveness. The whole process of running a political campaign, especially the fundraising aspect, builds a tall fence that separates those who have high net worth individuals in a widespread network of friends and family who can finance the entire campaign and secure a win. I know that money doesn’t make a winner, but it really really helps. Unfortunately, the resources, the volunteers, the time and effort that goes into fundraising already puts anyone who isn’t already well connected and financially well-off up against tough odds. The sheer concept of fundraising does not take into account the candidate’s and their target audience’s cultural, physical, and emotional barriers, the limitations that people have when it comes to making a donation. Often candidates issued by a minority group will be expected to reach out to the demographic that they resemble and diversify the donor pool, and most of the time they are expected to do so without any support or coaching. The reality is that raising money is not about spending the day on the phone, ringing people up and reading them a script; there is a lot of door-knocking, face-to-face conversations, trust building that goes into it. If/when parties want to recruit their candidate and want them to succeed, they need to be aware of what the candidate’s needs are and provide adequate and equitable resources for them to run a successful campaign that doesn’t make them feel like they are the tokenized poster-child of the elections.

“[If you want to actually make space for disabled people] you need to consult because they make up for 20% of the population, of which 33% are people with permanent or temporary disabilities. So we need more consultations that are equitable where we ask the real questions and listen to their insights in order to change mentalities.”

In our conversation, Maude also points out that most parties don’t know what support programs are available to them when they run disabled candidates in order to make sure that their needs are met on the field. When it comes to door-knocking or going to events, physically disabled people have very different needs compared to an able-bodied person - it seems obvious as I am writing this but parties don’t seem to get this. They need more volunteers, more resources like special taxis, companion services, ramps, etc. None of these needs make them a lesser candidate, or remotely less effective to do a good job as a councillor. In fact, when we look at just how inaccessible the buildings where council meetings are (city hall and the borough councils) we can understand why disabled people would think twice, or a few more times, before deciding to throw their hats into the ring. Not only are there physical barriers to be a diverse council member, there are also the barriers that come with government structures being at the center of systemic racism and discrimination where somehow only white older men are qualified and suitable for most of the important positions. The struggles are not only met by diversity recruits when they are running, or when they are sworn in, it’s also when they try to do their jobs as city councillors, where they are confronted by discriminatory remarks from their peers, from the public on social media, and how they are portrayed by the mass media.

“Until administrations, governments, parties recognize, denounce and actively work to change the culture of tokenism and discrimination within and develop resources of care and support for all members, no amount of recruiting will make politics a safe space for “diverse” candidates and politicians.”

I am looking forward to seeing the 2021 elections results and how the parties’ efforts of running more diverse candidates will play out when the council will be formed. I hope you’re all also paying attention to this level of democracy that is the closest to you as a citizen and resident.

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