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Barriers persist in vote engagement for Calgary’s racialized communities

The barriers to draw more of Calgary’s visible minority population out to vote are diminishing, but more work is needed to engage these residents in the election process, say advocates.

Language, political knowledge, socioeconomic conditions and general interest are just some of the factors hampering greater engagement.  Efforts to change that have just scratched the surface.

Wards 5 and 10 have substantially higher visible minority populations in comparison with the overall Calgary average. Ward 5 has more than 80 per cent identifying as a visible minority, according to City of Calgary ward profiles.

In Ward 10, 58 per cent identify as visible minorities.  The Calgary average is 36 per cent.

In the 2017 municipal election, the Ward 10 voter turnout was 50.38 per cent. Ward 5 was just behind at 50.33 per cent.  The overall voter turnout in Calgary was 58.1 per cent, according to city statistics.

Other areas, like Ward 7, boasted a voter turnout of nearly 68 per cent. Ward 11 was 63 per cent. Citizens who identified as visible minorities in those wards were 29 and 21 per cent, respectively.

Meanwhile, Calgary has the third-largest visible minority population in Canada, according to 2016 census results.

There could be myriad reasons influencing low voter turnout in specific areas, including if a race is competitive and the overall socio-economic challenges in a region. We want to be clear: It’s not just racialized Calgarians that don’t vote.

But, there are barriers for Calgary newcomers that don’t exist for non-racial residents.

We’ll look further at the challenges, including the system itself on the way to a potential path forward in driving more voter engagement from Calgary’s racialized communities.


Not all minority communities have the same barriers

Meriam Bravante, policy and education coordinator for Calgary’s Action Dignity, said you can’t look at Calgary’s minority population as “a monolith.”

There are so many different countries of origin, she said.

“It’s very important to understand the social, political and economic context from their country of origin,” Bravante said.

“Their voting patterns and behaviours are informed by this context.”

With that in mind, the barriers vary from person to person, coming from one country or another, Bravante said.  In some cases, it’s a language barrier, in other cases, it’s the focus on making ends meet. For many, it’s citizenship, which has become a costly process, Bravante said.  

A general lack of knowledge around the voting process is a barrier.  Even political experience from their country of origin – perhaps it was a failed state – can create pause in voting.

“Some of them may have this belief that their registration to vote does not really matter,” she said.

Dr. Erin Tolley, associate professor in the department of political science at Carleton University, is an expert in socio-economic diversity in Canadian politics, particularly with gendered and racialized communities.

Municipal elections tend to be lower information, Tolley said. When compared with provincial or federal elections, there’s not as much media coverage and there are fewer partisan cues, she said.

“That’s one reason why voter turnout municipally is low; people are less likely to vote, simply in general,” she said.

“But that gap is especially big for immigrants and racialized voters.”

Issues, candidates play a large role

Tolley said that research shows immigrant communities may be less engaged in municipal elections because of the issues being discussed by politicians, and, as a by-product, the media.

It differs from provincial and federal politics in the sense that those elections often talk about bigger issues that may more directly relate to minority communities, like immigration or foreign policy.

Municipal issues are obviously localized and may not resonate. Particularly if the majority of candidates are white, Tolley said. Roughly 40 of the 2021 Calgary city council candidates out of 127 are racialized candidates.

“If most of the commentators in the media and most of the candidates are white, they may be setting an agenda for discussion that just doesn’t catch on issues that mobilize the immigrant or racialized voters,” she said.

Much of that is systemic, Tolley said. While much has changed in the political structure, the basic construct remains.

“And for most political institutions, the original designers were white people, and usually white men,” she said.

“The base characteristic of political institutions still reflects the values and preferences of those who designed them.”

Part of that structure commonly referenced is the lack of diversity on municipal councils, Tolley said. Specifically with incumbent candidates. There’s very little turnover on municipal councils, with some councillors sitting for years.

Calgary councillors Ray Jones and Druh Farrell, for instance, both sat for more than 20 years.

Further, Calgary doesn’t have a great track record for electing racialized councillors.

The racism was ‘a lot more shocking to me’

It’s not been easy for those candidates who identify as a visible minority in their run for Calgary city council.

Esmahan Razavi ran in Calgary’s 2017 election in Ward 6. She ran second to eventual winner (and now mayoral candidate) Jeff Davison.

Razavi said she was prepared for gender discrimination when she ran. She wasn’t as prepared for the level of racism.

“I had the doors slammed in my face and in the faces of volunteers because they were like, ‘I’d never vote for like a Muslim’ or, I got called a foreign bitch,” Razavi recalled.

“There was a rumour that I was trying to bring in Sharia principles.”

On the doors, people asked if she was an orthodox member of Islam.

“I was just like, ‘do I look like an orthodox religious practitioner?’ I was wearing a sleeveless summer dress.”

Jyoti Gondek said as a racialized politician, she has had to think carefully about doing anything alone publicly. That includes door knocking, lit dropping – typical campaign activities.

She recalled a moment during the 2017 election at the Vivo complex in north central Calgary. They were transitioning between having campaign material on display and participating in a forum.

“A man came up to me, got right in my face – he was much taller than me, a foot taller – and said, ‘I know where you live, and you’re not going to win,’” Gondek recalled.

“That’s scary. It was meant to frighten me.”

She saw the racial undertones in the recent provincial curriculum, too. Gondek said it referenced different faith groups as having unknown practices. 

“That’s something that people can’t get their head around,” she said.

“I mean, oh my God, I’ve been in this country for 47 years. It’s nothing new. People like me are not new.”

2011 Calgary report highlights issues

There are racialized Calgarians all over the city who may not be voting municipally. It’s not just a Wards 5 and 10 concern.

The problem is, there’s little local data on who, why or how many racialized Calgarians are voting in municipal elections. Data on this isn’t directly collected on election day.

In 2011, the Every Vote Counts report was produced by the Immigrant Sector Council of Calgary and the Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary.  They surveyed 174 racialized Calgarians. It identified many of the barriers mentioned earlier, plus, potential consequences for voting the ‘wrong’ candidate, childcare and providing materials in diverse languages or through diverse media.

Every Vote Counts by Darren Krause

One of the top issues was education around the voting process.

Deputy City Clerk Andrew Brouwer said the city’s been using recent deep dives into ward demographics to help inform their voter education programs. They did this at the same time they reviewed ward boundaries.

They’ve targeted local ethnic media and translating general voter information into several different languages. Brouwer said they want to better engage Calgary’s ethnic voters.

“It also goes on to things like the way that we’re going to recruit for election officials, right, and making sure that they’re represented, that we have language support available for individuals in those areas,” he said.

Another thing the city did was make the demographic information available to all candidates in the Calgary municipal election.

“One of the important pieces was to make sure that those incoming councillors, or potential councillors, would understand the constituents they’re actually serving,” Brouwer said.

Recently, work was done locally by Sarah Elder-Chamanara, Kourtney Branagan and Ian Sidebottom, a student at Bow Valley College. They created a dashboard candidates could access that would give data on community make up and voter behaviour.

“The dashboard makes usually overwhelming data more user friendly and creates opportunities for all campaigns to make more targeted decisions on how they use their key resources of time, money and volunteers,” said Elder-Chamanara

Candidates also raise voter access concerns, Brouwer said

Brouwer said they too went through the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and the subsequent city acknowledgment that systemic racism exists in Calgary institutions.

That’s why addressing this issue took on particular significance.

“It does feel good that we are trying to provide a better understanding of the communities and provide better, I think, support and inclusion for the voters through things like language support, cultural support,” he said.

Pooja Thakore with the City of Calgary said they’re working with community organizations, neighbourhood groups and cultural groups to reach into Calgary’s racialized communities for the election.

“They have the connections on the ground in the local communities to help spread that message out,” she said. Then it gets into the next layer of communication, Thakore said, ensuring the material is plain language, free from legislative jargon.

The city must walk a fine line in delivering information to voters and remaining impartial. It’s become particularly challenging with the number of questions on this ballot.  Especially when they’re providing knowledge of the questions, and what might appear, but not where to get informed.

“It’s fair to say it’s challenging for a newcomer or and I would say not necessarily a newcomer to Canada, but a newcomer to Calgary,” Brouwer said.

It’s up to them to administer the process, not to provide information on candidates or any ballot question, Brouwer said.

Tolley said municipalities are in a bind that way.

“I am sympathetic to election agencies, and not just the desire, but the need to appear and to be impartial,” she said. They must separate the roles of encouraging voting and providing information.

“I actually see the provision of information on issues to be more in the domain of candidates, the media and third-party organizations.”

Education must begin early

There are no easy solutions. Many of the same barriers exist that were outlined in the 2011 report. Getting different organizations and communities working together is the way forward, Bravante said.

Community connections are a critical source of information in racialized communities.  

Bravante said many citizens in these communities rely on their kids to provide them with election information.

“Informal systems, family or religious organizations and other faith groups really help with voter engagement,” she said.

Bravante said that working with the city is crucial to breakthrough to more voters. Better grassroots engagement is necessary.

That engagement, however, can’t just be done during the lead-up to an election.

“It should start, even from the moment they enter the resettlement and integration of all potential or future citizens,” Bravante said.