Halifax diversity growing, but not on municipal council

Halifax has elected another all white council.

By Leena Ali

Halifax has elected another all white council

By Leena Ali

Rano Khokhar campaigning in the Halifax suburb of Timberlea. She lost her campaign for a seat on council in October 2012, but says she’s willing to give it another go in four years. (Photo: Leena Ali)


Rano Khokhar tosses a leather purse into the back seat of her car. It’s stuffed with campaign pamphlets and it’s about to get a little lighter. The 72- year-old Indo-Canadian woman is running in Halifax’s municipal elections for the first time. She’s on her way to tell people what she can offer their community. When no one is home, she’ll leave a purple pamphlet hanging from the doorknob that says, “Elect Rano Khokhar. It is time for change!”

“Everybody is quite upset with the old council,” she says. “They are looking for new people, new faces. So I thought this time, I will go.”

She’s already knocked on thousands of doors in Beechville and Clayton Park West. Now it’s time to head to Timberlea before another evening debate. She has a water bottle for the long walk and election signs in the trunk of her car. She spends the afternoon knocking on doors as her husband David drives her niece and nephew around to stick signs up in the grass.

If Khokhar had won a spot on council she would have been the first non-white person to serve since 2000. Instead, she lost to incumbent Reg Rankin.

Her community, Clayton Park West, is one of the most diverse in Halifax. According to the 2006 Census it’s made up of about 15 per cent visible minorities. Khokhar and her husband migrated here from Punjab, India, 46 years ago.

Halifax is more multicultural these days, but you can hardly say the same thing for city council.

By the time the 2006 census forms were sent out, seven per cent of people in HRM were immigrants, and it’s projected to be 11 per cent by 2031.

Visible minorities made up almost eight per cent of the city – 27, 645 people. That’s the highest proportion of visible minorities in all of Atlantic Canada and it’s expected to grow to 12 per cent by 2031.

These communities are primarily South Asian, Black, Chinese, Filipino, Arab, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean, and Japanese.

These faces aren’t mirrored on council. The municipal government looks very much like it did when Khokhar first arrived.


Interactive map:  Visible minorities and immigrants in Nova Scotia


Mary Wile is a long time councilllor and ran in the same district as Khokhar. She says she’d like to see more diversity on council. Despite not being from a minority group, she says she works hard to learn about their communities. Wile attends Canadian citizenship ceremonies on behalf of HRM.

“We were all immigrants,” she says. “We all came from another country, other than our First Nations people. I keep that in mind all the time.”

She says her work with the Ugandan, Greek, Lebanese, and Korean communities has brought her closer to them.

Wile’s view – that you don’t have to be from same race as people to properly represent them – is common. It seems reasonable, but not everyone agrees.

[pullquote]“[There’s] nobody that represents me, nobody that looks like me, nobody that’s had a similar experience to me.” – Sherida Hassanali[/pullquote]

For Sherida Hassanali, diverse representation is a concern. She’s a first generation Canadian and has an East Indian background. Born in Halifax and raised in St. Margaret’s Bay, she now lives in Clayton Park West. Her parents, both teachers, migrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1960s. Growing up, when she’d turn on the TV or open up a magazine, she didn’t see anyone who looked like her.

It’s the same way when it comes to her city council now. She just doesn’t see herself.

“[There’s] nobody that represents me, nobody that looks like me, nobody that’s had a similar experience to me. I feel that if there isn’t representation on a council or on a board, then my needs can’t be validated,” she says. “When you’re not validated you don’t feel like you’re valued or worthy of being in a place or being part of a community.”

Hassanali is a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University and an equity and diversity consultant who has worked in the field for more than 20 years. Most of her classes focus on culture, gender, and race. She draws on her personal experience to help students get a deeper understanding.

Caroline Andrew has also been working to understand diverse representation. She’s co-editor and co-author of the book Electing a Diverse Canada: The Representation of Immigrants, Minorities and Women. A political science professor at the University of Ottawa, she says that a council lacking in diverse representation means not all voices will be heard.

She says council may not be reflecting Halifax’s changing demographics. “The range of things that get brought up by the council probably is less representative of the diverse communities.”

One demographic that has struggled to be heard is the Black community, which makes up almost half the minority population according to the 2006 census.

The only person of a visible minority who has ever served on Halifax or HRM council is Graham Downey, who is African-Nova Scotian. That was over a decade ago. He was appointed Deputy Mayor in of Halifax 1979, and last served on HRM council in 2000.

“If you look at the council and you don’t see a minority there, you want to know why,” he says. “I’ve always liked to see more minorities involved in civic politics or provincial.”

The African-Nova Scotian community has a long history in Halifax, starting off with the settlements of the Black Loyalists during the late 1700s, after the American Revolution. These communities have a rich history but have long been isolated.

The provincial riding of Preston, which has a largely Black population, was created to improve representation for that community. Now this seat has been eliminated because of electoral boundary changes. Nothing similar exists at the municipal level besides the African-Nova Scotian School Board seat.

Yvonne Atwell represented Preston as MLA in 1998-99. She was the first Black woman to serve as an MLA. Now she’s Halifax’s Community Justice Society’s executive director.

She says there needs to be a commitment to bringing diverse representation onto council.

“Even within government I don’t think there’s a real understanding of the importance of being inclusive and looking at how democracy really is supposed to work.”

Research from the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities shows that across Nova Scotia, out of 440 people in elected office in 55 municipalities, only five were African-Nova Scotian.

These statistics are partly what prompted three civic engagement workshops, organized by the union, Dalhousie University, and African-Nova Scotian Affairs, to be held in African-Nova Scotia communities.  The goal was to encourage African-Nova Scotians to run. The Cornwallis Street Baptist Church hosted one of the workshops, which took place in March 2012. Citizens sat in pews and discussed with panelists at the front of the room.  Atwell was a panelist at the discussion.

“We need the culture of these communities, so that our communities are more involved, more rich in terms of the experience that we bring.” she says. “That strengthens us.”

The workshop definitely had an impact.

Melinda Daye decided to get involved after going. Daye grew up in Halifax and was a teacher for over 30 years. She ran as a candidate for African Nova Scotian member on HRM’s School Board – and she won.

“It inspired me,” she says. “I felt a conviction inside to say, ‘you know what, you do have something to offer, you have a lot of experiences, you know the issues, and you have the passion.’”

She wants to see more of these workshops spark interest in others.

Atwell agrees. She says the Black community’s history “is a history of isolation,” and reflects where representation is today.

Sylvia Parris is the manager of African-Nova Scotian Affairs' integration office
Sylvia Parris is the manager of African-Nova Scotian Affairs’ integration office. (Photo: Leena Ali)

Africville is part of this history. It was an African-Nova Scotian community by the Bedford Basin that was demolished by the city in the 1960s for industrial expansion. In February 2012, HRM apologized to former residents and descendants of the community and came to an agreement with the Africville Genealogical Society, a commemorative group founded by former residents.

Part of the agreement was to hire a manager of African-Nova Scotian Affairs’ integration office.

That’s Sylvia Parris. She was just hired in September 2012, and is a link to bettering the relationship between HRM and its African-Nova Scotian communities.

Her position could help pave the way for more African-Nova Scotian representation on municipal council.

“It is probably one of the most challenging things for people to do is to keep a conversation about race on the table,” says Parris.

She says without the past barriers, policies and systemic discrimination to African-Nova Scotians, things would be different now. “Where do you think people could be today?” she says.

Parris’ position is a step in the right direction. But Hassanali says that for other communities it’s more complicated. She says we have to do more than “just tick a box and say diversity is done.”

Hassanali says the experience is a bit different for those who aren’t part of the province’s First Nations or African-Nova Scotian communities. “People who aren’t part of the norm and aren’t part of those two particular traditionally historically marginalized groups, everyone else who is an ‘other,’ quote unquote, gets lost.”

To help people of all communities get more active in municipal politics, civic engagement workshops were also held in other communities across Nova Scotia.

Jack Novack, professor at Dalhousie University’s College of Continuing Education, organized these workshops.

Useful Links:

DiverseCity:The Greater Toronto Leadership Project

YouTube: The Greater Toronto Leadership Project

Sylvia Parris on CBC Radio’s Information Morning 

Visible Minority Population, by Census Metropolitan Areas

HRM Africville Apology

HRM Africville Agreement

The Africville Geneological Society Websit

He says council needs a variety of perspectives.

“If you think about the election as a public debate about issues, if you have women and visible minorities under-represented, and if you have incumbency being very powerful, then it’s difficult to imagine that, that public conversation is going to take place.”

Across Nova Scotia, 75 per cent of incumbent councillors were re-elected in 2008. In Halifax, 15 of the 23 councillors elected in the 2008 election were incumbents.

Novack says incumbency can be a barrier. “There is less opportunity for the injection of new ideas, new people and new debates.”

This has been recognized in such a multicultural city like Toronto.

A project called DiverseCity was introduced in 2008 to help get more diverse representation at all levels of government.

Formed by The Maytree Foundation and the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance, the project conducts an annual research report to measure diversity in politics. In 2009, it found in certain areas of Toronto, where 49.5 per cent of the population was made up of visible minorities, only 13 per cent of community, political and corporate leaders were visible minorities. Vivian Gallegos is project coordinator of DiverseCity’s leadership programs, she says, “It’s really important for people to see some self-reflection in [leadership] roles, especially when it comes to decision-making.”

DiverseCity mentors minority groups on how to get politically involved, whether it’s in the back room, doing policy work or running for office.

Access to power is another challenge. Gallegos says without networks there really isn’t a significant opportunity to get involved.

“It’s not about positioning them as the ‘visible minority’ person, but as giving the same advantages as other candidates would have,” she says. “Sometimes you come from political families and your dad is MP and maybe recognition is key for other candidates running. Those are all disadvantages that we try to mediate.”

A good example is mayoral candidate Mike Savage, whose late father John was premier in the 1990s. Despite his privileged background, Savage says an initiative such as DiverseCity could be adapted to Halifax.

“In many ways Halifax is a community that is still quite closed,” he says. “We have to not just say ‘well, anybody can run for office’ but we have to actively [engage].”

None of the councillors who sat from 2008 to 2012 were from visible minorities. (Photo: Leena Ali)

Hassanali says that a significant difference will likely take a long time.

“We still have work to do because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be having these conversations,” she says. “It’s learning about how to be culturally proficient in nature and practice, and that’s the only way this will work. Otherwise, it’s just adding colour and stirring.”

As for Khokhar, she’s had a long-time interest with political boards and committees. She’d like to see more diversity on council. Ultimately, she says, “It’s up to people what they want to do.”

She’s been walking for about three hours and is limping a bit because of an ankle injury. Sometimes, she has a rented scooter chair that drives her right up to people’s doors. Once she’s finished knocking, she grabs a quick bite to eat at Tim Hortons. She fixes her hair, changes her jacket and is ready for the evening debate.

She says her involvement could help influence more people to run.

“Once they see that a minority person is accepted… I think more people will come up.”