Abbotsford’s political institutions haven’t kept up with the diversity of its city, but Coun. Kelly Chahal says there’s no easy solution to ensuring a broader range of voices – and faces – to represent voters.
With Moe Gill’s failed mayoral bid bringing his 22-year municipal politics career to a close, Chahal is left as the only visible minority at the council table serving a city where between one-quarter and one-third of residents aren’t white.
In a brief interview after the announcement of election results, Chahal said council should consider matters of diversity and look at what she called “succession planning.”
Chahal, who has extensive experience in workplace diversity training, elaborated last week, noting, “We have to reflect our community because, if we reflect our community, people will feel engaged.”
But achieving those goals is tricky when voters do the hiring.
The AbbotsfordFirst slate, of which Chahal was a member, also nominated Dave Sidhu. But Sidhu narrowly missed out on a seat, falling around 500 votes shy short of Coun. Sandy Blue, who took the eighth and final spot.
The power of incumbency and political name recognition was clear from the vote totals – Gill’s councillor seat, which he vacated to run for mayor, was filled by ex-mayor Bruce Banman.
Chahal said AbbotsfordFirst had diversity partly in mind when Sidhu, the 33-year-old general manager of The Patrika newspaper, was nominated. She said it was important for minorities to feel encouraged to run.
In that, Chahal took some solace in Gill’s attempt at the mayoral seat – the first time in recent history that a South Asian man or woman had sought that office – along with the makeup of council candidates. Five of 18 candidates were minorities – roughly keeping in line with Abbotsford’s demographics.
Although only one was elected, more votes were cast for minority council candidates than any other previous election over at least the past decade – and possibly ever.
Twenty-two per cent of council votes went to minorities. That figure was 19 per cent in 2014 and 2008, and just 16 per cent in 2011.
Chahal also noted that while Abbotsford’s South Asian community gets most of the attention, the city also has sizable and growing populations of other ethnic backgrounds.
Still , when the power of incumbency reduces turnover because people like to vote for familiar faces, change is difficult.
“It’s all for the public. It’s what the public wants to see,” she said.
Incumbents should be ready to step aside when they feel they have outlasted their drive to make a difference, she said. But, Chahal added: “There’s something to be said for experience and knowledge, too …Some people have been around and have experience and knowledge and contribute to the conversation.”
She said the notion of term limits is interesting, but “a double-edged sword” in that regard.
Diversity, though, isn’t just about making up the numbers on council, or about ethnicity. Having different people with different backgrounds and life experiences at the council table can be an asset for a community.
“I’m not a representative of my community. I am South Asian, so it’s inherent,” Chahal said, “but I’m also representative of any woman in the community.”
The idea is that groups of people with diverse backgrounds can bring a broader range of life experiences to discussions about decisions and their effects.
Chahal noted that council has a significant and notable lack of young voices around the table. Indeed, at the age of 50, Chahal is the youngest member of council.
Half of Abbotsford residents are 44 or younger, but of the four council candidates and two mayor candidates younger than that, none won a seat in this election.
Chahal says there needs to be an effort to get more young people involved in politics; that idea was also echoed by Mayor Henry Braun on election day. Braun said he intended to sit down with one of his challengers, Trevor Eros, to discuss how to get more younger people involved, an issue Eros spoke about frequently during the campaign.