The recent participation of Chinese immigrants in local politics

While 1982 was the year the first Chinese-Canadian was elected to Vancouver’s city council, 1990 was the watershed year of Chinese immigrants’ participation in local politics.  It was in that year that, for the first time in Vancouver’s history, a Chinese-Canadian was on the ballot for Council, School Board, and Park Board.  The fact that all three aspiring local politicians[1] had strong ties with SUCCESS was no coincidence because SUCCESS’ Vision is “[to] be an innovative organization in building the capacity and participation of individuals, families, and communities towards a truly integrated society.”

But what is the role of a Chinese immigrant politician in “a truly integrated society”?  The first Chinese-Canadian Councilor, Bill Yee, said that “When I got elected, I wanted to make a statement that the Chinese-Canadian community wanted to contribute, that we wanted to participate and that we had a role to play.”  That role, as exemplified by Sandra Wilking, the first Chinese-Canadian woman elected to Vancouver City Council, is to bridge the cultural divide between the Chinese-Canadian community and the European-Canadian community.  She was responsible for getting spots for Chinese journalists at the press table in City hall and later – as a member of the Jack Webster awards foundation – created award categories for Chinese media.[2]

The Chinese-Canadian community has played a crucial role in a couple of Vancouver civic elections.  In the 1990 election, Mayor Gordon Campbell’s Non Partisan Association team hung on to power with a slim six to five majority on Council.  Some observers credited the narrow NPA majority to the support it received from the Chinese-Canadian voters who turned out in large numbers to support the three Chinese-Canadian candidates on the NPA slate.  History repeated itself in the 2005 Vancouver civic election.  In an exit poll conducted for the Vancouver Sun, almost 70% of the Chinese-Canadian voters surveyed indicated they voted for Sam Sullivan, the first Cantonese speaking politician elected to the Mayor’s office in the history of Vancouver.  The NPA was rewarded with another slim majority of six to five on Council.

Voting as a bloc, however, is not something that can be taken for granted for the Chinese-Canadian community.  In a poll conducted for Ming Pao in 1996 during a provincial election in B. C., of the decided Chinese-Canadian voters, 44.85% supported the Liberal Party while 34.2% supported the NDP.  According to the same survey, the racial origin of a political candidate is a deciding factor for only 5.1% of the people surveyed.  The most important factors cited by the respondents were Programme (31.6%), Ability (24%), and Achievement.  In other words there is no guarantee that a Chinese-Canadian voter will vote for a candidate just because he or she is of Chinese origin. 

But while aspiring immigrant Chinese-Canadian political candidates cannot count on their compatriots’ unconditional electoral support, they can certainly draw on the community to fulfill their financial, and manpower needs.  The campaign teams of almost all of the first generation Chinese-Canadian immigrants running for the first time for office are made up largely by Chinese-Canadians.  Their fundraising dinners are attended overwhelmingly by members of the Chinese-Canadian community.  They can also count on the local Chinese language newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations to give them a high profile in their reporting during the election.

The willingness of recent Chinese immigrants to support people from their own community points to the fact that the community craves for political leaders to represent its point of view in the political process.  It wants someone who is sensitive to their cultural values.  The community needs someone who is willing to address issues such as English language training, job training, unemployment, under-employment, and recognition of foreign training and work experience. 

In a multicultural society such as ours, Chinese immigrant politicians can play a larger role then the one they have played so far.  Writing for the Canadian Jewish Congress’ publication entitled “Fundamentally Canadian – Questions about Multiculturalism and Diversity, Lilian To suggested that “While the definitions of these terms remain abstract, many new comers relate these terms with the ideas of cultural inclusive and acceptance, which is what makes Canada so attractive to many.”  Turning the ideas of “cultural inclusive and acceptance” into reality is a role that can be played by Chinese immigrant politicians.

While multiculturalism is a fact of life in urban Canada, our governments, and the people who govern this country are still struggling to response adequately to this new reality.  Our political institutions need to have processes and systems in place to ensure that different cultural perspectives and interests are brought into play in the design of policies.  Our governments should strengthen their policy capacity with respect to the cultural aspects of modern day Canadian society.  The intent is to make certain that government programming is suitably in harmony to the distinctive features of the multicultural reality of our country. 

Chinese-Canadian politicians can ensure that such harmony does exist.

In the representative part of our democratic form of government, the cultural value and aspirations of the recent Chinese immigrant community should be reflected not only in the faces of the government but also in the policy directions of the government.

Canada is a country of immigrants.  Successive waves of immigrants have brought their values and ethics to this country.  It is important that Chinese-Canadians immigrant politicians contribute their positive traditional Chinese values to the making of government policies.  Their success at the policy level will create an environment to foster the making of a fusion culture that is not just European, not just North American, not just Asian – but a culture that is uniquely Canadian.  A culture that we can all be proud of, a culture that, to paraphrase Lilian, we can all feel included and accepted.

[1] Tung Chan (Council candidate) was a former Vice-Chair, John Cheng (School Board candidate) was a former Board Director, and Alvin Lee (Park Board candidate) was a volunteer.  They were following the foot steps of Sandra Wilking, a former Board Chair who served as a Councillor from 1988 to 1990.  Maggie Ip, the founding Board Chair of SUCCESS, will follow Wilking and Chan’s trail to become a Councilor in 1993.  Another former Board member, B. C. Lee became a Councillor in 2005.

[2] Based on an article by Mike Howell published by the Courier in November 11, 2002

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