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Electoral Insight – Electoral Participation of Ethnocultural Communities

Electoral Insight – December 2006

Visible Minorities and Under-Representation: The Views of Candidates

Jerome H. Black
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University

Bruce M. Hicks
Associate, Canada Research Chair in Electoral Studies, Université de Montréal

The under-representation of visible minorities in the Canadian Parliament, the potential impact of various electoral reform proposals on that representation and the unique perspective that visible minorities might possibly bring to a legislature have all been the subject of research and debate to varying degrees. Drawing on data collected as part of the 2004 Canadian Candidate Survey, this article uses the opinions of visible minorities on electoral democracy to shed new light on these subjects. Among other things, it finds that visible minorities are more likely than other candidates to find the current single-member plurality electoral system unacceptable, are more supportive of certain electoral reform initiatives, and have somewhat stronger and more polarized opinions on whether quotas and affirmative action should be used to redress their under-representation. The article concludes that, while party affiliation is a greater determinant of a candidate's position on democratic reform, visible minorities still do bring somewhat different perspectives to their political parties and to public discourse.

This paper draws upon a survey of candidates who ran in the 2004 general election to examine how visible minorities Footnote 1 feel about reforming selected aspects of representational and electoral politics in Canada. In particular, it compares the attitudes of visible-minority candidates with those of other candidates toward the under-representation of visible minorities in Parliament and various aspects of the current electoral system and democratic reform.

That visible minorities continue to have a relatively limited presence in elite-level politics is an obvious justification for this focus. While it is true that more minorities than ever before have been winning their way into Parliament, they still make up a percentage of the legislature that is much smaller than their incidence among the Canadian population. For instance, based on Statistics Canada definitions and analysis of the 2004 Canadian Candidate Survey, visible minorities comprised 7.1% of all MPs elected in 2004 (22 of 308); yet visible minorities accounted for an estimated 14.9% of all Canadians at that time. Footnote 2 In short, the number of visible-minority MPs was only half of what would be necessary to make Parliament reflect the Canadian population. A representational deficit also occurs at the candidate level, though that gap in 2004 was not as large as it was for MPs. Among the parties that won seats in Parliament, visible minorities comprised 9.3% of all candidates who ran in 2004; taking into account the Green Party, the figure is 8.3%. Footnote 3

The debate about whether effective representation requires the election of legislators who share group characteristics is another basis for the current inquiry. A well-known argument in that debate on the "affirmative" side holds that group-based politicians bring and communicate alternative political perspectives that might not be articulated and debated in their absence. Underlying this idea is the belief that only legislators who share the defining characteristic(s) of a group have the necessary experience, empathy and resolve to truly advance the group's interests – all the more so if the group has traditionally been at the margins of Canadian society. In the present context, this notion translates into the contention that visible-minority candidates and MPs are more likely to care about and represent matters that are of particular concern to their communities.

From this perspective then, both office seekers and community members are expected to be sensitive to the historical and continuing disadvantaged position of visible minorities in Canadian politics and, consequently, to be more preoccupied with their under-representation and more supportive of remedial measures. It might also be anticipated that they are more likely to be dissatisfied with the current plurality system and more in favour of proportional representation, either in whole or as part of a mixed system, since it is generally regarded as facilitating greater diversity in the legislature. Footnote 4

At the same time, variations in visible-minority identification and politics are to be expected and suggest the need for caution against monolithic characterizations. Not all members of minorities will, in fact, regard their origins as central components of their self-identity; some will have alternative or additional reference points. Furthermore, people who identify strongly with their minority may not necessarily consider their backgrounds to be relevant in their approach to politics. They might view their ancestral origins and ties with their community as essentially matters of private concern.

These complexities, no doubt, overlap with differences in political party affiliation. Given the fundamental reality that office seekers typically migrate toward a party with which they share the same general orientation, it is expected that inter-party differences will have a marked effect on the relationships between candidate origins and sentiments about democratic change. Party differences are well known in many areas of democratic reform considered here, such as the strong preference on the part of the N.D.P. and the Greens for proportional representation. Additionally, there is the impact of party officials and members, typically at the local level, who may recruit persons from under-represented groups who will defend specific values and policies. For instance, the Conservative Party's general opposition to group-based identities and politics might make visible-minority candidates who specifically share this perspective important additions to their team. In light of the importance of party affiliation, this paper also considers whether distinctions between visible minorities and others matter, after party ties are taken into account.

The survey

The 2004 Canadian Candidate Survey was conducted during and following the general election that took place on June 28, 2004. Footnote 5 The survey's subjects were the 1,307 candidates from the four federal political parties that ran candidates in all 308 ridings (the Conservative, Green, Liberal and New Democratic parties), and from the Bloc Québécois, which contested all 75 ridings in Quebec. A short questionnaire asking for biographical information was distributed by fax and e-mail during the election period. The main questionnaire, which this analysis primarily draws upon, was sent out by mail in the fall of 2004, and an on-line version was provided as an alternative. Altogether, 577 candidates completed the questionnaire, which translates into an effective response rate of 44.1%. Footnote 6 This survey specifically considered the ancestry of the candidates, with close to 95% of the candidates responding to the census-like question that was used to determine origins. Footnote 7 The specific categorization of individuals as visible minorities followed the classifications used by Statistics Canada. Footnote 8

The study picked up only 36 visible-minority candidates in the sample, or 6.2% of the candidates who participated. The small number of cases does suggest caution with respect to the inferences that can be generated, something even more necessary when the party-differentiated results are viewed. However, it is important to bear in mind that the small sample of visible-minority candidates is a reflection of reality, namely that they are under-represented in the candidate pool. As relatively little research has been done in this area, the present contribution is an important starting point. Footnote 9

The under-representation of visible minorities

Twenty-two visible-minority members of Parliament comprised only 7% of those elected to the 308-seat House of Commons in 2004. The number rose to 24 in 2006.

Candidates were asked what they thought about the fact that "there are relatively few members of visible minorities in the House of Commons." Table 1 indicates that members of visible minorities were somewhat more concerned about under-representation, but that party affiliation had the largest impact on responses. To begin with, the singular impact of candidate origins is most apparent in the different levels of intensity of concern. While a majority of both visible-minority and other candidates regarded the deficit in representation as either a very serious or serious problem (66% vs. 59%), twice as many visible-minority candidates regarded the problem as a very serious one (46% vs. 22%). This does suggest a greater sensitivity to their historic absence from Canadian politics.

Origin-based variations do persist with party allegiances factored into the analysis, but most are modest in size and the data are more generally shaped by inter-party differences. While Liberal and Conservative visible-minority candidates, relative to their colleagues, are more likely to regard the problem as very serious, in the case of the Liberals, however, the difference is not particularly large (14% vs. 7%) and virtually disappears when adjacent percentages are incorporated. The impact of party is more apparent for the other three parties, but in different ways. For the Green candidates, origins did not matter much; about one in three candidates in both ancestry categories thought the problem was very serious. Concern about under-representation is slightly higher among N.D.P. candidates, with 43% of the party's non visible-minority candidates categorizing the limited presence of visible minorities as a very serious problem – but this number goes up to 90% for visible-minority candidates. There is a strong origin effect for the Bloc, though the very small number of the party's visible-minority candidates needs to be kept in mind.

Table 1
Concern over Relatively Few Visible Minorities in the House of Commons
(row percentages)
A very serious problem A serious problem Not a very serious problem Not a problem at all n
Visible-minority candidates 46 20 26 9 35
Other candidates 22 37 32 9 514
Liberal Visible minorities 14 29 43 14 7
Others 7 38 48 7 100
Conservative Visible minorities 17 67 17 6
Others 1 19 53 26 103
N.D.P. Visible minorities 90 10 10
Others 43 40 15 3 129
Green Party Visible minorities 33 33 22 11 9
Others 30 44 22 4 165
Bloc Québécois Visible minorities 67 33 3
Others 6 53 35 6 17

Source: Canadian Candidate Survey (2004)

Candidates were also questioned about possible reasons for the paucity of visible minorities in Parliament. Footnote 10 Few candidates of either origin category thought that visible-minority candidates "lose votes" or lack the "right experience and education." Relatively more candidates agreed that visible minorities did not have "the necessary confidence," but response levels did not vary across the two ancestry categories. Some modest differences were detected with regard to the statement: "Too few visible minorities are given the opportunity by parties." Among visible-minority candidates, 63% agreed (26% strongly so), while 55% of those of other origins were in agreement (17% strongly so). Visible-minority candidates in all of the parties, except the Greens, were more likely to agree strongly about the lack of opportunities given by parties, though the differences are not large and generally party seemed to matter more than origin.

Figure 1
Support for Quotas and Affirmative Action to Increase Visible-Minority Representation

Figure 1 Support for Quotas and Affirmative Action to Increase Visible-Minority Representation

Source: Canadian Candidate Survey (2004)
Note: n = 567 (top to bottom: 6, 7, 9, 10, 3; 105, 102, 166, 131, 18)

Candidates were also asked about whether they approved or disapproved of some steps that might be taken to deal with the shortfall in representation. For two of the measures, visible-minority candidates were modestly more likely than other candidates to approve of "training programs" (77% vs. 71%) and "special financial support" (53% vs. 42%). The differences were slightly stronger after considering intensity of approval or disapproval – 44% vs. 28% for training programs and 32% vs. 16% for financial arrangements. The largest differences occurred with regard to the possibility of "party quotas and affirmative action," which might be regarded as the most contentious of measures suggested to enlarge visible-minority representation. Fifty-seven percent of visible-minority candidates approved of this approach (20% strongly), while only 37% of other candidates approved (13% strongly). Here too, party differences are both noticeable and variable.

When one looks at intensity of opinion in Figure 1, visible minorities held stronger views on this question than their party colleagues and these views were more polarized based on party. While more non visible-minority candidates for both the Liberal and Green parties expressed opposition to quotas, there were more visible-minority candidates who were strongly opposed. The N.D.P. candidates were the most likely to support quotas and affirmative action, but here visible minorities were more supportive (80% vs. 66%) and more intensely in favour (50% strongly approving). Divisions in the Bloc are most pronounced and must again be viewed with caution, due to the small numbers involved. The results associated with the Conservative Party are in stark contrast to the N.D.P., with virtually all their candidates opposing such proactive measures and the visible-minority candidates being strongest in their opposition (83% strongly disapproving). Given the party positions on these issues, this may suggest that visible-minority candidates are being selected (by self or by party) based on core values.

Electoral system reform

We asked candidates the following: "Under our present system, a party can win a majority of seats without winning a majority of votes. Do you find this acceptable or unacceptable?"

Figure 2 illustrates that visible-minority candidates were more likely to be critical of the current electoral system. Among them, 75% found the system to be unacceptable, a 13-point margin over other candidates. This implies a greater sensitivity to the system's constraining effects on minority representation. As expected, the impact of party labels is substantial, and this is particularly evident in how origin differences are of only minor consequence among N.D.P. and Green candidates, who overwhelmingly indicated dislike of the first-past-the-post system. Their visible-minority candidates unanimously found the plurality system unacceptable, as did over 90% of their other candidates. The lower levels of antipathy by other parties' candidates reveal the partisan divide on electoral reform, though for the other parties, the impact of origin is more significant. Visible minorities who ran for the Liberals were more dissatisfied with the plurality system than were the party's other candidates (43% vs. 14%), a division also evident among Conservative contestants, but with a somewhat reduced margin (43% vs. 28%). Origin has an effect for the Bloc, though the normal caveat applies. In short, while party affiliation matters the most with regard to judgments about the current electoral system, there is support for the notion that visible minorities regard the system as especially problematic.

Figure 2
Unacceptability of the Current First-Past-the-Post Electoral System

Figure 2 Unacceptability of the Current First-Past-the-Post Electoral System

Source: Canadian Candidate Survey (2004)
Note: n = 561 (top to bottom: 525, 36; 104, 7; 105, 7; 132, 10; 167, 9; 17, 3)

We also asked candidates to consider a possible "solution" rooted in the idea of proportionality, and we analyzed strength of agreement or disagreement with the statement: "A party that gets 10% of the vote should get 10% of the seats." Interestingly, the opposition to the current system and the divisions noted above did not carry over to this question. Table 2 indicates that visible-minority candidates as a group were not particularly more likely than other candidates to agree that a party that receives 10% of the vote should receive 10% of the seats (67% vs. 64%; and only 50% vs. 45% in the case of "strongly agree"). Only for N.D.P. and Green candidates did origin make much of a difference (for the N.D.P., 90% of visible-minority candidates vs. 67% of other candidates, and for the Greens, 100% vs. 83%). Most importantly, variations by ancestry among the Liberals and Conservatives concerning the unacceptability of the plurality system were not evident. There are a number of reasons that might explain the divergent responses on this second question, Footnote 11 but if taken at face value, the results suggest that some candidates who found the current system objectionable did not necessarily agree that proportional representation is the solution or, alternatively, did not agree that vote-to-seat equivalency should be set at the 10% level.

Table 2
"A Party that Gets 10% of the Vote Should Get 10% of the Seats"
(row percentages)
Strongly agree Agree Disagree Strongly disagree n
Visible-minority candidates 50 17 28 6 36
Other candidates 45 19 27 9 521
Liberal Visible minorities 14 71 14 7
Others 1 12 63 25 104
Conservative Visible minorities 29 57 14 7
Others 4 25 56 16 102
N.D.P. Visible minorities 90 10 10
Others 67 29 3 1 131
Green Party Visible minorities 100 9
Others 83 15 2 166
Bloc Québécois Visible minorities 67 33 3
Others 6 11 67 17 18

Source: Canadian Candidate Survey (2004)


Clearly, party affiliation strongly shapes the way candidates, visible minorities included, approach minority under-representation and electoral reform. Nevertheless, visible-minority candidates show significant differences from their colleagues over such questions as whether the current electoral system is unacceptable, and visible minorities are more supportive of certain democratic reform suggestions. There is also some interesting evidence that, on more controversial or core value issues, visible minorities have stronger and more divergent opinions. While one must be cautious about conclusions drawn from what is, by definition, a small pool of candidates, it does appear that visible minorities bring differing perspectives to their respective parties and to public discourse.


Footnote 1 Visible minorities are individuals who, for the purpose of the Employment Equity Act, are defined as "persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour". Statistics Canada identifies the following categories of visible minorities: Chinese, South Asians, Blacks, Arabs and West Asians, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, Latin Americans (except Chileans and Argentinians), Japanese, Koreans and Pacific Islanders.

Footnote 2 Jerome H. Black and Bruce M. Hicks, "Visible Minority Candidates in the 2004 Federal Election," Canadian Parliamentary Review Vol. 29, No. 2 (Summer 2006), pp. 26–31.

Footnote 3 Black and Hicks, "Visible Minority Candidates."

Footnote 4 See, for example, Brian Tanguay and Steven Bittle, "Parliament as a Mirror to the Nation: Promoting Diversity in Representation through Electoral Reform," Canadian Issues (Summer 2005), pp. 61–63.

Footnote 5 The survey was conducted out of McGill University and was partially funded by Metropolis Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada. For more information about the survey, see Jerome H. Black and Bruce M. Hicks, "Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Parliamentary Candidates," IRPP Policy Matters Vol. 7, No. 2 (March 2006).

Footnote 6 Of the 577 candidates who participated, 414 did so by mail and 163 through the Internet. The response rates by party are as follows: Green Party, 58.4%; N.D.P., 47.1%; Conservative, 38.0%; Liberal, 37.0%; and Bloc Québécois, 28.0%.

Footnote 7 The ancestry question in the long questionnaire took the form: "To which ethnic or cultural group(s) did your ancestors belong? (List as many groups as applicable.)" To minimize the occurrence of "Canadian" as a response, this questionnaire also had a preamble: "We are all Canadians, but our ancestors come from all over the world." For those who did not respond to the ancestry questions on either the short or long questionnaire, a variety of other sources and methods were employed, including party and published biographical information, news stories, photos, videos and surname analysis.

Footnote 8 See note 1.

Footnote 9 See also Jerome H. Black, "Representation in the Parliament of Canada: The Case of Ethnoracial Minorities," in Joanna Everitt and Brenda O'Neill, eds., Citizen Politics: Research and Theory in Canadian Political Behaviour (Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 355–372.

Footnote 10 Tables of these results and other study data are available from the authors upon request.

Footnote 11 One explanation for response variation can be found in the wording of this question. The 10% statement comes from a national election study, where it continues to be used to facilitate multi-year comparison. It was included in our survey to facilitate elite-mass analysis (though it is likely a more effective question at the mass level).


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.