POLITICS
11/16/2011 06:00 EST | Updated 01/16/2012 05:12 EST

Ethnic Europeans still dominating municipal ballots in multicultrual B.C.

VANCOUVER - Drag queen and entertainer by night, coffee shop supervisor and spa worker by day, Travis Shaw didn't lack the necessary confidence to run for a seat on Prince George city council.

The 27-year-old who claims First Nations and Chinese ancestry says he's used to being in the public eye. So after deciding he could make a difference in his community, he signed the necessary paperwork and began campaigning for the Nov. 19 vote.

As unstressful as the process was for him, though, Shaw said he understands why some First Nations people or new Canadians may be reluctant to run for election.

British Columbia may be a province that publicly celebrates its First Nations culture and is known as a gateway to Asia.

But after taking a look at their ballots this Saturday, voters may note that in a province of nearly 4.1 million people — of which close to one million claim Asian ancestry — people of European ethnicity still dominate the ballots.

"I think it's a disconnection because I know that there are leaders that are great people, great community workers in Prince George who would flourish as a city councillor," said Shaw, who is also known by his entertaining name Foxy De-Rossi.

"But I think it's a conception, maybe, of how they were raised or what they can and cannot do that is holding them back."

Statistics Canada says Prince George has a population of more than 82,600, of which more than 7,700 claim First Nations ancestry and nearly 2,000 claim "East Indian" or Punjabi heritage. But surnames like Fader, Fetterly, Huber, Lewis and Rogers fill the ballot.

In fact, Shaw said as far as he knows he's the only First Nations candidate for council.

The story's not much different hundreds of kilometres to the south.

In Vancouver, there are no Chinese or South Asian candidates running for mayor, even though the most recently available statistics from 2006 peg the Chinese and South Asian populations at 402,000 and 208,535 people in the metropolitan area.

There is, however, a Jang, a Dharni and a couple Nguyens seeking council seats.

Gordon Chow is among the four candidates running for mayor in Kamloops, while Arjun Singh is running for a council seat, but European surnames prevail on the ballot.

And in Kelowna, recently described in local paper as the "whitest place in Canada," one of five candidates for mayor, Ken Chung, has a Chinese name.

"I just don't think the education's getting out there," said Michael Singh Dharni, a 23-year-old who is running as an independent for Vancouver city council, when asked why few South Asians are attracted to municipal politics.

"When do we ever learn about municipal government?"

Dharni said some of his own family members didn't know the role of a municipal councillor, and others in the community thought the job was a volunteer position.

He said while South Asians may be well represented in provincial and federal politics, many in the community don't put any importance on municipal elections.

Dharni said he learned about municipal politics by listening to the news, performing Google searches and reading up on Vancouver's charter, self-educating himself whenever he could.

"People really don't understand what's going on at the municipal level. It's everyday decisions like garbage pickup, but people just find it so trivial," he said.

Kerry Jang, a Vancouver city councillor seeking re-election, said the Chinese community has been well represented on the current council, noting three of 10 members are of Chinese ethnicity, roughly reflecting the cultural makeup of the city.

But Jang said many community members are reluctant to run for council because of cultural and economic factors.

"In Canada, it's just not seen as a real professional job," he said.

"Culturally, you know, they want us to go to university to become doctors, lawyers, dentists and all that kind of stuff ... Politics is something that you do sort of later on. So it's not the career that you aspire to from the get go. It's something that you fall into or get involved with later."

Jang also said some ethnic communities lack political experience and are unfamiliar with the process.

Kelowna mayoral candidate Ken Chung agrees economics, regardless of the culture, plays a big role in an individual's decision to run for city council.

Chung said he's talked to people who decided not to run because high paying jobs are hard to find and people don't want to face the prospect of unemployment in three years.

"They could be here today and gone in three years and then they have to start all over again and they're not prepared to do that in their lives," he said.

But Kamloops' council candidate Arjun Singh said ethnicity doesn't matter when it comes to municipal politics.

He said municipal councillors in Kamloops have a good track record of representing the entire community.

His community, in fact, has a great history of diversity, he added, noting Peter Wing became the first Chinese mayor in North America when he was elected Kamloops mayor in the 1960s. Len Marchand, Canada's first native federal cabinet minister, was also from Kamloops.

Recently, Singh said, candidates visited a Sikh temple as part of their campaign efforts.

"I don't just see it as kind of being a boiling issue in the minds of the community," he said.

Back in Prince George, Shaw said he thinks what makes him different will actually benefit the community.

Besides, if he didn't run, who would? he asked.

"I know that I can generally create a change for people and to be present in certain things that normally a native, gay, adopted kid out of a tiny town would not be able to do."