Why diversity matters in our politics — and what can be done to support it

·4 min read
An Elections Canada special ballot voting office is seen on Sunday, Aug. 29 at The Centre on Barton in Hamilton, one of four Elections Canada offices now open in the city. (Eva Salinas/CBC - image credit)
An Elections Canada special ballot voting office is seen on Sunday, Aug. 29 at The Centre on Barton in Hamilton, one of four Elections Canada offices now open in the city. (Eva Salinas/CBC - image credit)

This column is an opinion by Devin Percey, who works in the public sector in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

"When you ask a man to run in politics, their first question is something like 'What took you so long?' or 'Do I have to wear a tie?' When you ask a woman, her first question is, 'Really? Do you think I would be good enough?' even if her CV is way more impressive than any random male candidate."

That quote is from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a recent media availability. He was talking about the all-too-common occurrence that happens when political parties try to recruit female candidates. Despite the social progress of the past century, societal and psychological barriers exist that make many potential female political prospects unable to see themselves as potential candidates.

Even more troubling, this occurrence is not exclusive to women. Members of other historically underrepresented groups — such as visible minorities, Indigenous people, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities — can also struggle to see themselves as viable contenders for elected office.

One of the main reasons for this phenomenon is a relative lack of historic representation of people from these groups in politics. As someone with mild cerebral palsy, I understand why this is the case.

Without many tangible examples of someone like you, with similar views, experiencing some success in politics, it becomes difficult to envision yourself doing the same. Then when you do try to picture a political run, it is easy to negatively fixate on how it could go spectacularly wrong because there is a distinct absence of examples where it really goes right.

The best and the brightest people who care about improving their community do not all come from one particular group.

This creates a vicious cycle where marginalized groups continue to be under-represented in elected government. Since it is difficult for them to visualize themselves as politicians, only a select few offer themselves up as candidates when an election is called. As a result, only a few managed to get elected and the under-representation continues.

This is a problem for a variety of reasons. First, researchers have shown that groups made up of people from diverse backgrounds tend to focus more on facts and come up with more innovative ideas.

Diverse candidates provide diverse viewpoints

At the same time, politicians today are finding themselves representing increasingly diverse communities that are composed of many smaller communities with unique needs. Having diversity among elected officials is a definite way to ensure these unique needs are identified and brought to the forefront.

For example, a town councillor who uses a wheelchair is probably keenly aware and knowledgeable of accessibility issues such as the availability of blue space parking, whereas other town councillors might not be.

However, arguably the biggest problem with having certain parts of society being reluctant to step forward for public office is the simplest: the best person for the job might not get elected to office. No race, ethnicity, nationality, creed, sex, gender or sexual orientation has a monopoly on talent. The best and the brightest people who care about improving their community do not all come from one particular group.

Therefore, since certain groups of people feel politics is not for them, there's less chance of electing the very best because the best person for the job might never even come forward. Instead of getting the best candidate with an impressive CV on the ballot, it's possible to get stuck with a less qualified candidate who has the entitled "What took you so long?" mentality.

Barriers can be broken down

Clearly these barriers that demotivate female, racialized, Indigenous, LGBTQ and differently abled people from entering politics need to be addressed. Fortunately, for all of us, these barriers can be broken down with public awareness and a little civic engagement to help normalize the idea of diversity in government.

Take the time to pay attention to the diverse candidates in your local municipal, provincial and federal elections and their platforms. If you don't see something you like from them, that's perfectly OK. But if you do see something you like, be vocal and supportive. Talk to your neighbours about them, register to vote, contact their campaign to see if you can get a lawn sign and so on.

Meanwhile, if you know somebody from a diverse group who you think would make an excellent town councillor, member of the provincial legislature, or member of Parliament; let them know you think so. Tell them you think they would be amazing for the job and encourage them to step forward. You can offer to volunteer with their campaign.

Those little gestures might seem insignificant to most people but that is the funny thing about a little encouragement: to people who have been looked down on and discouraged by others, a little bit of encouragement can go a long way.

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