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Most city council candidates have resembled George Vancouver.

Asian-Canadian candidates reach beyond their roots

RJ Aquino is Vancouver’s first Filipino candidate for city council. He’s one of the 41 people vying for a seat….

By Sadiya Ansari , in Voting , on November 17, 2011 Tags: , ,

RJ Aquino is Vancouver’s first Filipino candidate for city council. He’s one of the 41 people vying for a seat.

“I made a decision to run but I wasn’t thinking I should run because I am Filipino,” said Aquino.

Aquino tackles politics in a spoken word performance.

This is Aquino’s first foray into politics. He is running under the COPE banner as a person who has never seriously considered politics until now.

On Nov. 19 Vancouverites will elect 10 city councillors and a mayor. Historically, Vancouver’s ethnic groups have had limited  representation on council, even though visible minorities in Vancouver make up 47 per cent of the population.

While Aquino is a visible minority, he does not want to be defined by his ethnicity.  In terms of election issues, he is particularly concerned about lack of affordable housing in the city.

“Why would anyone want to spend 60% or more of their pay cheque just to pay for the roof over their head?” Aquino asks.

“A lot of  [young] people want to gain independence and move out of their parents’ house and they can’t. For growing families, how can you have peace of mind when all you are doing is trying to maintain your mortgage and not have time to spend with your kids?” said Aquino.

The birth of his daughter earlier this year was a catalyst for Aquino. This event pushed him into action. He wants to be a role model for his daughter’s generation.

Michael Dharni, the city’s only South Asian council candidate, would have to look a long way back for a role model. The first and only other South Asian elected to council was Venkatachala Setty Pendakur in 1972.

Pendakur served for one term and since then the city’s second-largest ethnic minority has not seen representation on council.

Like Aquino, 23 year-old Dharni is not running because of his ethnic background.

“The people making decisions at the municipal level that affect us the most are old people,” said Dharni. “I want to bring a youth voice.”

Dharni is a UBC kinesiology student who grew up in South Vancouver. He says he can’t afford to park in his hometown and he wants to work to make the city more affordable.

“Parking [is] an example of how current council continues to gauge residents in daily expenses while we all are already dealing with increased taxes, housing and heating costs,” said Dharni.

Dharni is an independent candidate fighting for a more affordable city.

Representing diversity

“Diversity in public office is important because it brings more perspectives to decision-making. The more perspectives you bring to a decision, the better the decision, ” said Sandra Lopes, manager of policy and research at the Maytree Foundation.

In Vancouver, the Social Planning and Research Council (SPARC) took the Foundation’s DiverseCity initiative, to begin a similar initiative here.  The goal is to change the face of leadership in Canadian cities.

“We make the assumption that if you look and sound like the makeup of the city you must have the cultural competencies to reflect the city. There is a gap in that,” said Alden E. Habacon, a diversity and inclusion specialist at UBC.

Listen: Habacon on diversity as a metric, not a goal

Habacon argues that visual representation alone is not necessarily an accurate measure of success.

Connecting community

One of the three Chinese-Canadians on outgoing city council is Dr. Kerry Jang, a third generation Chinese-Canadian. He is  trying to keep his seat as a city councillor with the Vision team.

“If someone is truly engaged within their own community they will bring that perspective forward. But that isn’t to say that someone that is not Chinese or some other ethnicity can’t also represent somebody else’s ideas,” said Jang.

Jang’s ethnicity informs his role as a policy-maker, but he is skeptical about certain politicians approaching ethnic communities.

“Being Chinese myself, I know people come and suck up to the Chinese community because they want the Chinese vote. They don’t give two shits about the Chinese community,” said Jang.

He has been asked point blank on how to get the “Chinese vote.”

Aquino has had similar experiences related to the Filipino community.

“I have encountered people who have said you are now the token ethnic vote-getter. Which is unfortunate because that is not the case. I think we are past that now as a city,” said Aquino.

However, he believes his experience doing community work would help him as a councillor. He co-founded the organization Tulayan, which means ‘to bridge’ in the Filipino language Tagalog.  Tulayan helps Filipino-Canadians reconnect with contemporary Filipino culture.

“Working with a lot of immigrant communities, the recurring theme is that issues that affect Filipinos affect other communities, affect first generation to seventh generation Canadians,” Aquino said.

Beyond visual representation

Habacon would like to see more visible minorities on council and ensuring those representatives are the “best and brightest” is more important for him.

“People ask me all the time, am I going to vote for RJ Aquino because he is Filipino,” said Habacon.

[pullquote]What can you do in politics to help me?[/pullquote] “To say yes would be to say that regardless of how much being Filipino is part of my life, right now it’s the most important thing as opposed to looking at RJ Aquino and saying actually he reflects the complexity of my identity, he reflects the age generation. He also happens to be a great organizer, well-spoken and very passionate about the public.”

Habacon says in Vancouver there has been a shift from ethnicity eclipsing identity to ethnicity informing identity.

Young voters such as Lilavati Levine want the council to reflect the city’s diversity.

The 18 year old is voting in a civic election for the first time and describes herself as “youth dedicated to social change.” She names eight distinct groups that make up her ethnic background.

“What I would like to see is Aboriginal representation on council and I want to see mixed race folks. We are so intercultural as well as multicultural and to have a representation of that is just as important,” she said.

For Levine, a complicated discussion about representation is important, but her key concern is less complicated.  She has one question for the people running: “What can you do in politics to help me?”