Opinions: The case for wards in New West politics

Julie Maclellan

If you know me, you’ll know I love to rant about electoral reform; I’ll happily bend your ear on how first-past-the-post is a broken system and how we need to change to some form of proportional representation.

In fact, I was contemplating yet another rant about just that very subject, given the impending federal election, and then along came a closer-to-home question: Is it time for wards in municipal politics?

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The discussion arose this week in Burnaby, where resident Antonio Simoes is petitioning for a change from at-large civic elections to a ward system. A story by my colleague Kelvin Gawley got me thinking about how such a system might apply in New West and whether it would be beneficial.

I’m not quite ready to march on city hall wearing my WARDS OR BUST placard, but I do think it’s high time to take a serious look at the idea.

Let me make my own bias clear up front: I hate partisan politics at the municipal level. I dislike the fact that, in order to get elected in large B.C. cities – cities such as Vancouver, Surrey or Burnaby – candidates have to align themselves with a slate.

For me, there’s something particularly depressing about centralized partisan control at the local level. I truly believe – naively, perhaps – in the value of having independent citizens stepping forward to run for office because they want to make a difference in their community.

But those people just aren’t going to get elected in our current at-large system.

Look at Vancouver, where the unwieldy ballot in the 2018 election had some 150 names on it. Nobody can possibly stand out on a ballot like that without some help, and that’s why candidates align themselves with parties. It makes practical sense.

New West isn’t nearly at that level. But we have enough names on the ballot – 34 in the most recent election – that a genuine “independent” still faces a gigantic uphill battle to connect with voters.

Yes, yes, to all of you who are already shouting at me, I know that our winning councillors and school trustees aren’t a “party,” per se, but the Labour Council-endorsed Team Cote easily secured a sweep for its slate-by-any-other-name. You may think that’s a good thing, or not, but my point stands: genuine, non-aligned independents don’t stand a chance in our current at-large system.

Would a ward system change that?

Growing up in Barrie, Ont. in the 1970s and ’80s, I was used to ward politics. It was pretty simple. If you lived in Ward 1, you voted in Ward 1, where a handful of candidates – four to six or so – vied for your vote. As a candidate, you didn’t have to try to reach all the tens of thousands of households in the city, just the ones in your own neighbourhood.  As a voter, you didn’t have to get to know 30, 40 or 50 different people in an attempt to pick the best six (or eight, or 10, as the case may be). You just picked the one you liked best.

Now, there’s an element to our current at-large system that I like – I get to pick my own “slate” by choosing more than one candidate. I can balance my own ballot however I see fit, choosing the mix of personalities, political viewpoints and backgrounds that I think best represents my city. (After 30 years of voting – 20 of those in New Westminster -  I have yet to pick a slate that actually gets elected in its entirety, but I live in hope.)

The other biggie is that – theoretically, at least - being elected in an at-large system means all councillors have to consider the good of the whole city, not just lobby for the needs of one particular neighbourhood.

That sounds good, right? But the argument, for me, cuts both ways.

Because I’d argue that sometimes neighbourhoods might very well need their own voice – especially those neighbourhoods that are underrepresented at the polls and in the halls of power. Just because the current system provides for equal access to city hall doesn’t mean it’s equitable.

Inevitably, there will be some neighbourhoods – those with more transient or less affluent populations, for instance – where not as many people vote or feel they have the wherewithal or power to take on city hall. Think Vancouver: Does the Downtown Eastside have the same clout at city hall as Shaughnessy?

Does New Westminster have an equivalent? Not exactly. While Queen’s Park may be the closest thing we have to Shaughnessy, we don’t have a “have-not” neighbourhood on the same scale. Even our historically more “working-class” neighbourhoods (for want of a better term) have changed rapidly over the past decade as growth and development change the face of the city. Think places like Sapperton, Brow of the Hill and even downtown. Are those neighbourhoods “disadvantaged” by the existing system? I doubt it – though some longtime Sappertonites might disagree with me.

To my mind, the one neighbourhood in New West that makes the case for wards more than any other is Queensborough, which, simply because of geography, is always going to be distinct from “mainland” New West.

Probably not surprisingly, Queensborough was the one anomalous neighbourhood I found when I looked back through the poll-by-poll results from the 2018 election.

One caution here: poll-by-roll results are suggestive only, rather than conclusive, because New West has at-large voting – meaning residents can vote at any polling station. However, if we accept that it’s likely a majority of people voted at the polling station nearest their home (especially in Queensborough, where it wouldn’t exactly be convenient to vote elsewhere) then we can take that to reflect neighbourhood voting patterns, at least to some degree.

Team Cote council candidates handily secured the top six spots at just about every poll in every neighbourhood in the city (the one “blip” being F.W. Howay School, where the New West Progressives’ Daniel Fontaine topped the poll).

Not Queensborough.

Only two Team Cote councillors – Chuck Puchmayr and Nadine Nakagawa – actually cracked the top six at the Queen Elizabeth Elementary School polling station. The top three candidates were all from the opposition New West Progressives: Fontaine, Paul McNamara and Bryn Ward, followed by Nakagawa and the Progressives' Ellen Vaillancourt. (And for those who may not remember all these names, check out this link to their candidate profiles from the 2018 election.)

So what does that mean to Queensborough residents? Do they vote differently because they feel disenfranchised by the powers that be? Do they remain feeling disenfranchised now that “their” chosen candidates didn’t get elected?

I don’t know. But it seems fair to ask.

Having wards would guarantee under-represented neighbourhoods, like Queensborough, a voice on city council. That, in and of itself, seems worth consideration.

Wards could conceivably prove a mixed blessing on other fronts.

Take the issue of diversity. Wards are often cited as a way of improving representation for marginalized communities – and that seems to be true particularly in large American cities, where neighbourhoods often divide fairly starkly along racial lines.

In New West, the last election calls that thinking into question, given that our at-large, slate-politics system managed to elect perhaps the most diverse group of candidates, in terms of racial and gender balance, in forever.

The reverse is true in Burnaby, however, where the at-large, slate-politics system has managed to once again produce a council dominated by men – particularly older white men.

So it seems the system as it stands cuts both ways, depending how inclined your particular slate or party is to care about such issues. Should voters in New West continue to be reliant upon the goodwill of the Team Cote slate (or its future incarnations) to provide a more diverse slate of candidates? Or could we perhaps take matters into our own hands if we broke up the power of “slate-based” politics altogether?

I don’t know, but it’s worth asking.

Which leads us to that other type of diversity – and that’s diversity of political opinion.

Under the current system, city council chambers in places such as New West and Burnaby are severely lacking in “opposition” voices.

Would a ward system allow people of different political philosophies to get elected? Are some areas of the city more conservative, or more left-leaning, or more green, in their viewpoint? Would a ward system just replicate the same old first-past-the-post democratic-deficit problems on a smaller scale, or would it actually allow more voices, from more parts of the political spectrum, to be heard at the council table?

Or could we take the ward system and improve upon it by also adding, for instance, a ranked ballot/preferential voting system, as was recently introduced in London, Ont.?

Again, it’s worth considering.

Above all else, a ward system should help to make citizens feel more connected to the workings of their city – and that’s got to be a good thing.

What sells me the most on wards is the point raised Simoes in his push for change in Burnaby: “I find in Burnaby, whenever I've had an issue that I would like to raise with a councillor, I have no idea which councillor to communicate with,” he said.

That may not feel as true for New Westminster residents, given our small geographic size and our smaller population.

But it’s worth noting that municipalities of all sizes use ward systems in Ontario, and in all kinds of different ways. My hometown of Barrie, for instance, has about 140,000 people and 10 wards. Brantford, Peterborough and Caledon (populations 97,000, 81,000 and 66,000, respectively) have five wards. Fort Erie has six wards for a mere 30,000 people.

Granted, in many Ontario towns and cities, the wards have been considered a more fair approach to representation after cities expanded to amalgamate residents in the surrounding townships – to ensure that the township voters still had their voice and weren’t drowned out by the city voters.

New West doesn’t have that issue. But I still think there’s potential in the example of a city like Belleville, Ont. (population 55,000), which elects eight councillors from two wards – six in the Belleville ward and two from the Thurlow ward, after the city swallowed up surrounding Thurlow township.

Perhaps we could ensure more direct and fair representation for Queensborough if we considered dividing New West up in similar fashion – one rep for Queensborough and five for the rest of the city, or some such configuration?

Having a local ward representative – and I mean hyper-local, like Sapperton local or Queensborough local – stands to be a win for both the representative and the citizens. Representatives would have an intimate, on-the-ground knowledge of their neighbourhood’s concerns; citizens would know who to go to when they needed help.

It seems to me it serves to make local government more local – and that’s kind of the whole point, really.

And, no, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that all councillors should be working for the good of the city as a whole. Which leads me to think that the ideal system might be some kind of hybrid, where some councillors are elected by ward and others at large.

And while I’ve been reforming electoral systems in my head – because it’s easy to do in your head (less easy, I realize, in the nitty-gritty details of real life) -  I’ve been giving serious consideration to the idea that it’s high time for all levels of government to consider including designated seats for Indigenous representatives – if, indeed, that is something desired by Indigenous people as we, as a nation, as a province and as a city, grapple with issues of truth and reconciliation.

The idea may work better on a national level – following the example, for instance, of New Zealand – but could it work at a municipal level? Would New Westminster, which is charting a strong course down the truth and reconciliation road, be an appropriate place to try?

I’m not the person in a position to answer that question.

But I think it fair to ask.

The upshot of all of this is that there are lots of possible electoral systems other than the one we’re using – and lots of reasons to at least consider changing that system.

While I’m not yet 100 per cent convinced that wards are the answer in New West, I think there’s enough of a case to be made to merit a serious analysis by the city before we head back to the polls in 2022.

But I’m just one New West resident, with one person’s voice.

What do the rest of you think?



NOTE: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 23 with corrected information on the Queen Elizabeth Elementary poll.


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