5 min

Better politics for us?

Get out and vote on ward referendum

Credit: Robin Perelle

Would you like to see more people going to city council that have put in years serving our community and getting to know our issues? Jim Deva, longtime gay activist and co-owner of Little Sister’s, says a ward system is just the ticket to attract that kind of quality to civic politics.

And, Deva says, if Vancouver votes for a ward system in the Oct 16 referendum, it could be just the key to nudge him to run for council next election.

Voters face a choice Oct 16: stay with the current at-large system or give wards a try. The at-large system means all city residents vote for a huge ballot of candidates who, if elected, represent all people across the city.

That system dilutes local issues across the entire city, Deva says.

Under a ward system, such as exists in Calgary, Vancouver would be divided into 14 neighbourhoods. People in each of those areas would vote only for people running for city council in their areas. The elected official would represent that area and its concerns-just like federal Parliament or the provincial legislature.

For Deva, it’s a crucial vote but he worries people-especially members of minorities-won’t see the importance of the issue and so fail to cast their ballots. Vancouver had a ward system until 1929 with the city divided into 12 neighbourhood wards. In an effort to create a more unified city, the council of the day decided to dispense with the ward system.

In 1935, when Vancouver voters had their say on the issue, the ward system was put down in favour of electing aldermen at-large. Over the decades, critics charge, the at-large system has resulted in minority individuals and communities-visible, religious and sexual-winning few council seats, or even party nominations. On the other hand, say critics, developers have had disproportionate power to buy votes in an at-large election.

In the last civic election, the centre-left COPE promised to bring in a ward system if the party was elected. After they won a majority on council, COPE drafted Thomas Berger, a retired BC Supreme Court justice, to hold public meetings reviewing options for election reform and recommend a course of action.

Berger recommended a referendum be held before the next civic election-even though city council has the legal authority to simply institute a ward system.

The judge said a ward system would open up the political process to independents. He suggested dividing the city into 14 wards for the election of councillors. The mayor, school trustees and parks board commissioners would still be elected using the at-large system.

In presenting his recommendations to council, Berger said, “It is impossible for the most well-intentioned citizen to research the backgrounds and qualifications of 46 persons running for city council, or all 188 running for all civic offices.”

The threshold for a referendum “yes” vote would be a simple majority of 50 percent plus one voting for wards, he suggested. Previous referenda held by NPA councils had set a mark of 60 percent approval.

Colin Metcalfe of the Know Wards Coalition wants to know why the city is putting the issue to a vote just before the 176-member Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform created by the provincial Liberals delivers its final report on electoral systems in BC.

“Why are we doing this?” he asks, adding the ward system is not in the city’s best interests-if only due to the greater cost of the system.

“There are members of the coalition that don’t like either system,” Metcalfe said. “There are people within our coalition who think at-large is the best system for Vancouver, and there are others that think that something like a mixed ward or proportional representation would be better.”

Deva’s not buying it. Wards are about accountability, he says. Under a ward system, a councilor representing the West End would be accountable for issues dealing with the West End. If voters don’t like the way their councillor voted, they know exactly who to call on the rug to explain themselves.

“It’s major, it’s big and we need it,” Deva says. “Whoever we elect in the West End represents not only the West End but also the gay and lesbian community.”

Former gay NPA city councillor Alan Herbert agrees-strongly.

“The public is not well-served under the at-large system,” Herbert says. “There are 500,000 people in Vancouver. It is simply irrational to expect that any one individual could be familiar with the needs, wants, hopes of so many people. We don’t ask that of our federal politicians or our provincial politicians.”

Herbert says that when he was an at-large-elected councillor, if he did not know a citizen’s issue well, he “felt like he was short-changing them.” And, adds Herbert, the at-large system works for the parties, not the people.

“It is absolutely the worst system if you’re looking to get quality people, individuals in there to give you the service you need. The sooner we get to wards, the better the city will be.”

And, adds Kennedy Stewart, the at-large system is conceivably illegal. The public policy professor at Simon Fraser University is considering filing a lawsuit against use of the system in this city, and notes the US Supreme Court has already ruled it to be racist in the White v Regester case. That 1973 decision concluded the system denied representation to concentrated racial or ethnic minorities.

Stewart says the at-large system is unfair to concentrated neighbourhoods such as the West End. It dilutes a block’s voting power, he says.

“The West End has the most to benefit from wards as it is the most densely populated area in the city,” Stewart says. “There’s tremendous incentive for people in the West End to vote for this. They’ll get more representation.”

Metcalfe disagrees. He says Edmonton and Toronto have ward systems in place, yet Vancouver has greater gay and lesbian representation on its city council, school and parks boards than those cities.

Gay politico Gary Mitchell is working with Metcalfe and the Know Wards coalition. The Conservative candidate in Vancouver Centre in the recent federal election says a ward system would pit wealthier areas of the city against poorer ones. And, Mitchell says, he foresees the potential for the West End ward councillor being seen as the gay councillor and having to defend him- or herself against other interest groups in addition to the interest of other wards.

“Currently all the councillors represent all of Vancouver,” Mitchell says. “If you have wards, you have only one representative.”

SFU’s Stewart tempers the debate with a well-placed bon mot: “If you’re looking for a perfect political system, you’re going to have to go to heaven.”

Ward systems generally attract more grassroots activists, minority members and longtime community workers-people who have paid their dues at the local level rather than simply winning a nomination within a powerful political party.

Deva is just that kind of activist within the West End. A ward system would interest him and people like him, he says. With a ward system in place, he’d be interested in running for council.

“I would love to run,” he says. “I think I owe a whole lot to the West End and I’d like to contribute something back to it.” But before any of that happens, Deva says, Vancouver voters have to get out Oct 16.

“The major concern is that people won’t think it’s an important vote,” he cautions, “and as a result the only people who are voting are the people who are going to vote No.” Voters should think back to the 2002 municipal election, Deva says, and ask themselves one question: “Do I want to face that enormous ballot again?”

One of the strongest assets of a ward system is its tendency to reduce voter apathy. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the ward system itself is defeated by this very apathy?

* For information on voting eligibility and locations, try


Roundhouse Community Centre.

Oct 5, 7 pm.

Sponsored by Xtra West and the Gay and Lesbian Business Association (GLBA).