Racial Diversity and the 2021 Federal Election: Visible Minority Candidates and MPs

Article 5 / 8 , Vol 45 No 2 (Summer)

Racial Diversity and the 2021 Federal Election: Visible Minority Candidates and MPs

A record 53 candidates with visible minority origins were victorious in the federal election of September 20, 2021, itself the fourth in a row to witness an increase in their numbers and, as well, their share of the available seats. As in previous elections, however, there were offsets to these positive aspects. Not only was the absolute increase in numbers from 2019 to 2021 modest at best (three MPs), but a comparison with the visible minority population at large implies a sizeable representation deficit that has barely changed over time. The 2021 election is also notable for a further and quite noticeable jump in visible minority candidacies, solidifying a trend that had become evident in the last few elections. This could be taken as an indication that the candidate data provide an alternative, more optimistic, and, perhaps, even more realistic perspective on the openness of the political process to visible minorities.

Jerome H. Black

Jerome H. Black is retired from McGill University’s Department of Political Science.

The federal election of 1993 was a breakthrough event for MPs who could be identified as racialized minorities or, in government parlance, as visible minorities.1 With 13 MPs elected, this was the first time that more than a handful of such individuals had won their way into Parliament and, thus, constitutes a significant early development in the racial diversification of the legislature. Subsequent elections have yielded further increases: so while those 13 MPs occupied 4.4 per cent of the available seats in the House of Commons, 50 visible minorities were elected in 2019, making up 14.8 per cent of the chamber. At the same time, the growth in visible minority representation has been at times uneven. On two occasions a subsequent election actually led to fewer such MPs being elected – across the 1997-2000 and 2006-2008 pairings. More significantly, when increases have occurred, they have been, as a rule, modest in scale.

It is true that visible minority MP numbers did jump from 29 or 9.4 per cent of the House’s membership in 2011 to 47 or 13.9 per cent in 2015. But more typical are the numbers associated with the interval covering the 2008 and 2011 elections, which entailed an increase of seven MPs, from 22 to 29 (with corresponding percentages of 7.1 and 9.4) and the 2015-2019 pairing, when the number of visible minority MPs edged up from 47 to 50 (with percentages of 13.9 and 14.8, respectively). Not unimportantly, this mostly incremental change has meant that the parliamentary representation of visible minorities has remained decidedly below their relative incidence in the population at large. In fact, the “ratio of representation,” the MPs percentage divided by the population percentage, has only reached at most the two-thirds level, as was true in 2015 and 2019.

The 2021 election outcome very much fits in with this mixed characterization. On the positive side, and as shown in Table 1, more visible minority MPs were elected than ever before. The 53 winning legislators raised the percentage of seats held by minorities to 15.7, besting the numbers produced by the 2019 election (50 MPs and 14.8 per cent of the seats). On the other hand, an increase of three MPs is certainly on the modest side though perhaps a bit more notable given that altogether less than two dozen seats traded hands from 2019 to 2021. Also encouraging is the fact that the 2021 election is now the fourth consecutive election associated with an increase in numbers over the previous contest, thus helping to firm up a recent trend. Finally, on the downside, the ratio of representation has probably not changed much, if at all. Pending release of the visible minority population data from the recent census, the contemporary percentage can only be supposed, based on an extrapolation from the 2016 figure of 22.3 per cent. Thus, assuming levels of about 24 or 25 per cent in 2021, the exercise implies ratios no higher than roughly two-thirds, which, as noted, is about the same levels achieved in the two previous elections.2 Put differently, it appears that enough visible minority MPs are being elected to keep pace with their general population growth, but in insufficient numbers to diminish the disparity in their parliamentary representation.3

Table 1 also sets out the visible minority numbers according to their party affiliation for the 2021 election and, to indicate trend lines, for the four previous contests.

Once again in 2021, most of the minority MPs were elected as Liberals, and indeed overwhelmingly so – 43 of the total of 53. This achievement marks the third election in a row that the party has dominated in this regard. In the aftermath of the 2015 contest, the party counted 39 visible minority MPs within its ranks (which itself represented a dramatic departure from the election of 2011 when the party elected only two such individuals), and in 2019, the Liberals elected 37 minority MPs. The increase of six MPs from 2019 to 2021 perhaps deserves a bit more weight given that overall, the party barely gained any seats in its repeat minority government victory. With six visible minority MPs elected in 2021, the Conservatives not only trailed far behind, but that number is down from their 10 minority MPs elected in 2019, and equal to what they accomplished in 2015. As for its part, the NDP continued to fall far short of its record achievement in the 2011 election, when the party welcomed 14 visible minority MPs into its caucus. The three elected in 2021 matches their 2019 number, one more than in the election of 2015.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, this slow progress towards greater visible minority representation is to be expected. After all, in Canada and elsewhere, “outgroups” typically face challenges gaining access to positions of power, especially beyond token numbers and often only after the passage of a considerable amount of time. The long history of women’s underrepresentation as MPs with their often sluggish progress is the best example. Nearly 100 years after Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to Parliament, the incidence of women MPs following the 2021 election just barely broke the 30 per cent mark. Some of the obstacles facing traditionally underrepresented groups can be described in broad strokes, such as a political context long organized and dominated by white males; other obstacles can be identified more concretely, such as imbalances in politically beneficial resources and, importantly, the manner in which incumbency acts to entrench the status quo.

At the same time, relatively more recent changes in societal values and attitudes, including a greater emphasis on, and promotion of, diversity have set up competing narratives. In some quarters, having more diverse political teams may actually be seen as politically advantageous. In addition, visible minorities, in particular, comprise an ever-increasing share of the Canadian population and have become citizens and voters in fairly large numbers. For example, according to the 2016 census, visible minorities formed the majority in fully 41 federal districts (compared to 33 such constituencies in 2011) and, more generally, made up at least a third of the districts in about 20 per cent of all the ridings in Canada. Moreover, they are concentrated in urban settings filled with competitive districts that can play a large role in deciding the overall election outcome.

These demographic and political realities, of course, have not gone unnoticed by the political parties: likely, the heightened competition focussed on winning over minority voters is a force that has some bearing on increasing the number, however slowly, of visible minority MPs.

Visible Minority Candidates

This force would appear to be even more evident at the candidate recruitment level. While any understanding of the visible minority MP numbers necessitates taking the candidate teams into account, party rivalry probably helps account for the stepped-up and consistent advancement of visible minority candidacies in more recent elections.

As the first row of Table 2 shows, the percentage of visible minority candidates who ran for the four largest parties, the Bloc Québécois, Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP, bumped up noticeably from 9.7 in 2011, to 13.9 in 2015, and was followed by an even greater increase in 2019, to 18.2 per cent, with each figure constituting a record at the time. Reacting to these data in the context of examining the 2019 election, this author suggested that the visible minority MP numbers, especially viewed over time, can only imperfectly reflect the parties’ promotional efforts because of the unpredictability of campaign electoral forces at the national and regional levels; indeed, at times minority MP totals can fluctuate according to the unforeseen success or failure of parties with more or less visible minority candidates. Put differently, national election outcomes may only partially reveal how facilitative the party system is in providing access to visible minority office seekers. “On the other hand, prior to the dropping of the writ, the parties, in their local guises, can exert more direct control on the first important outcome they are preoccupied with, namely, whom they nominate.”4 The implication is that the constituency parties may be more attuned to the competitive status of their districts and the relevance of constituency and candidate diversity. They also provide an additional perspective on understanding how open the political process is and the degree to which visible minority office seekers can begin to gain access to it. Conclusions about their success at becoming MPs may not be the entire story.

Table 2 shows that, indeed, the predisposition to field ever-more visible minority candidates continued into 2021, to the point that one in five candidates are minorities – 21.7 per cent, to be exact. Ten years out from the 2011 election, the proportion of minority candidates has now more than doubled and is decidedly closer to population benchmarks. The next three rows of Table 2 show that consistent boosts in minority candidacies over time are true for each of the three larger national parties, in each case reaching a high-water mark in 2021. There are, to be sure, variations across the parties in the steepness of the upward tracks. The sharpest gradients occur for the NDP and the Liberals. The share of minority contestants within the former’s ranks rose substantially over the 2011-2019 interval, more than doubling, from 10.4 to 22.4 per cent, and increased even further in 2021, to 26.9 per cent, a level higher than any other party. The Liberal party’s numbers also doubled from 2011 to 2019 (from 9.1 to 18.6 per cent) and then jumped a further 5.4 points in 2021 (to 24 per cent). For both parties, then, visible minorities had come to comprise about a quarter of their candidate teams in the most recent election. The trajectory for the Conservative party is also upwards in direction, though the percentages trace a somewhat shallower path. Visible minorities comprised 10.1 per cent of the party’s candidate pool in 2011, 14.2 per cent in 2015, and 16.6 per cent in 2019. The figure for 2021 at 17.2 per cent represents minimal incremental growth compared to what its two competitors achieved. Nevertheless, the bigger picture drawn by both the aggregate and individual party data is one of steady advances in the recruitment of visible minority candidates.5

First-Time Visible Minority Candidates

The wrinkle in considering each set of these election-specific figures is that they include a sizeable number of candidates from the previous election. For instance, in the 2021 election a little over 40 per cent of the candidates running for the three largest national parties had also contested the 2019 election. A sharper focus on the parties’ efforts to facilitate minority candidacies is possible by putting those repeat candidacies to the side and considering only the first-time contestants that the parties nominate in advance of each upcoming election.

The recalculated percentages give even further credence to the view that the larger parties have ramped up their efforts over time to add more visible minority candidates to their line-ups. In the 2021 election, minorities made up 24.1 per cent of the new candidates recruited by the four parties – a level almost four points higher than in 2019 (20.4 per cent). Note as well that the former percentage is also larger than the 21.7 per cent already seen for their 2021 candidates considered as a whole. The bottom panel of Table 2 displays, once again, the individual percentages for the three largest national parties. As for 2019-2021 comparisons, it is clear that all three parties fielded a larger percentage of visible minorities among their new recruits in 2021, though, again, across-party variations are apparent. For the NDP, there is a small uptick, from 24.6 to 25.4 per cent while there is a quite pronounced boost of about six points for the Liberals, from 18.4 to 24.5 per cent. As for the Conservatives, a not insignificant increase for the party, from 19.7 to 22.6 per cent, better reveals their enhanced recruitment efforts in 2021 than the more inclusive candidate data do. In each case, then, the three largest national parties established new records in 2021 with the nomination of visible minorities among their first-time candidates. Finally, looking at the entire 10-year period shown in the table, it is clear that the three parties have consistently nominated more visible minority candidates with each ensuing election.

New Visible Minority Candidates and Constituency Competitiveness

The competitive status of the constituencies where these first-time candidates are selected to run provides another vantage point on the commitment that parties make to promote minority candidacies. If they were mostly relegated to ridings where the party has bleak electoral prospects, then an abundance of nominations, as an indication of the party’s resolve, would mean less. Alternatively, a more forceful effort would be implied if minority candidates were selected to carry the party’s banner in districts with favourable or potentially favourable outlooks. The party’s approach can be judged by comparing its electoral prospects in ridings where it nominates visible minority candidates with those where its non-visible minority contestants compete. At a minimum, reasonable fairness would dictate that the parties foster both groups in promising districts in equal or near-equal proportions. For the comparison, electoral districts were apportioned between those that, from each party’s perspective, could be considered as relatively non-competitive based on its performance in the election of 2019, in particular, where the party lost by 11 per cent or more, and those that could be judged to be competitive and potentially winnable, where the party either won the riding in 2019, or, if they lost, they did so by a margin of 10 points or less. (Parties at the riding level, of course, evaluate their future prospects in many ways, and do so under varying degrees of uncertainty, but how the party fared in the previous constituency election is certainly a key input.)

If the new candidates for the three largest national parties are considered as a whole, then the evidence points to a very slight favouring of non-visible minority candidates over their minority counterparts. Combined, the three parties ran 16 per cent of the former in potentially winnable constituencies, while they slotted 14 per cent of their minority candidates in these competitive districts, a small disparity. This is not too dissimilar from what occurred in 2019, when non-minority candidates were also favoured by a slender margin: 28 to 25 per cent. Moreover, drilling down further to divide competitive districts by whether or not an incumbent MP ran in 2021 reveals no differences whatsoever between the two categories: in each case, the parties ran six per cent in the more prized ridings, those competitive districts without incumbents.

As before, this broad picture of uniformity masks party differences. One perspective, at least of descriptive interest, is available from the first three rows in Table 3 referencing only visible minority candidates. The data indicate that the Liberals privileged their new minority candidates relatively more than the two other parties. Altogether, the party nominated 30 per cent of them in competitive districts, with a large subset of 20 per cent in those winnable ridings with no incumbent. In contrast, the Conservatives nominated 16 per cent of their minority candidates in competitive ridings and only two per cent in the subcategory of open districts. As for the NDP, the corresponding percentages are three and zero per cent. A more useful perspective for present purposes draws in the (parallel) results for non-minority candidates (the next three rows in Table 3), providing for intra-party views. Doing so confirms the Liberals as the party that most facilitated minority candidacies: while, as noted, they nominated 30 per cent of their visible minority candidates in competitive districts, they placed somewhat fewer of their non-visible minority candidates in such ridings (24 per cent). The difference in open ridings is perhaps even more telling: 20 vs. 11 per cent in favour of minority candidates. For their part, the Conservatives nominated more non-visible minority than visible minority candidates in winnable areas (23 vs. 16 per cent) and in the subset of open districts (eight vs. two per cent). The differences are small in the case of the NDP – six vs. three percent in favour of non-minority contestants – with the numbers in part reflecting the fewer competitive ridings the party had to work with. In summary, the overall results and those for the Liberal party, especially, provide some additional evidence that the local parties continued to support visible minority candidacies by fairly placing them in many ridings where they had a chance of electoral success. Of course, the fact that the eventual winners, the Liberals, were particularly out front in this regard is important, even as they fell short of a majority victory.

Constituency Diversity

As has been true for previous elections, the political parties in 2021 were strongly inclined to run their visible minority candidates in constituencies comprised of large minority populations. As noted elsewhere, this relationship between candidate and constituency diversity can be explained in several ways.6 On the one hand, it may reflect how minority office seekers are able to challenge for the party’s nomination in diverse constituencies by drawing upon the resources and facilitative networks that have developed with the greater integration of their communities in Canadian society. On the other hand, it may also be due to the parties, the local parties especially, purposely seeking out minority candidates who will help attract more votes in heterogenous ridings. Likely both explanations have merit, and, in any event, probably interact with one another, so there is room in the analysis to understand that the nomination of more visible minority candidates may be due, at least in part, to the impact of competition.

The data for 2021 show a consistent pattern of candidate diversity associated with constituency diversity for all parties. Among the three larger national parties, the relationship is strongest in the case of the Conservatives. Visible minority candidates newly recruited by the party competed in ridings where the minority population averaged 49 per cent, while their non-visible minority counterparts ran in districts with minorities comprising 18 per cent of the population. While large, this gap is somewhat less than what it was in 2019 (53 vs. 15 per cent). For the Liberals and the NDP, the spreads are similar. The Liberals nominated their minority candidates in areas where visible minorities comprised, on average, 30 per cent of the district, compared to 10 per cent for their non-minority candidates, a lesser gap than in 2019 (39 vs. 12 per cent). The percentages for the NDP are 36 and 15 per cent, respectively, not too dissimilar from the 2019 figures for the party (39 vs. 16 per cent). Finally, it can be noted that the pattern of concentration in 2021 holds for the Bloc, Greens and People’s Party.7

Summing Up

Examinations of recent federal elections highlighting how visible minorities have fared in getting elected to Parliament have consistently revealed a combination of positive and less-than-positive aspects; it is now clear that this characterization also encompasses the 2021 federal election. On the encouraging side, the 53 visible minority MPs elected, 15.7 per cent of the House’s membership, constitute a new record level in the representation of diversity; moreover, the election is the fourth in a row to exhibit an increase in both metrics. On the downside, the change from 2019 to 2021 involved only a mild increase of three additional MPs and the representation ratio that considers the broader visible minority population continued to index a striking deficit that has barely changed over time.

The story of the 2021 federal election also dovetails with what has already been discerned in recent elections as an encouraging narrative about the promotion of visible minority candidates. The election is the third one in a row to witness the political parties, especially the larger parties, augment the proportion of minorities among their candidate teams. Tellingly, this trend line includes new candidates. By 2021, visible minorities made up nearly one quarter of all of the new contestants nominated by the four main parties, an incidence level that more closely approximates their population occurrence. Among the parties, the Liberals did the most to facilitate visible minority candidacies in electorally viable constituencies.

More generally, the results suggest that all of the parties showed signs of nominating more visible minority candidates in response, it is believed, to heightened competition for minority votes. This also means that the candidate nomination process dominated by the constituency parties is an important focal point to judge how open the political process is to minority office seekers. Doing so helps bring a bit more optimism to the study of visible minorities in federal politics.


1. The “official” term “visible minorities” is employed here, in part as it matches the language used by Statistics Canada in the collection of census and other data; the term “minorities” is used alternatively to ease repetition.

2. These percentage estimates are extrapolations based on the entire visible minority population, which is the preferred benchmark used by this author. For a rationale for its use, and, as well, a discussion about an alternative measure that restricts the visible minority population benchmark to citizens only, see Jerome H. Black and Andrew Griffith, “Do Canada’s most powerful federal posts reflect the country’s diversity?Policy Options, June, 2020.

3. Not considered here, but important to remember is the fact that not all visible minority origin groups are represented by MPs to the same degree, if at all. For example, in 2021, South Asians continued to be overrepresented among MPs, while Chinese and Southeast Asians remained underrepresented. One noteworthy change in 2021 is an increase in Black MPs, from 5 in 2019 to 9 in 2021. For more on this, see Jerome H. Black and Andrew Griffith, “Do MPs represent Canada’s diversity?” Policy Options, January, 2022.

4. Jerome H. Black, “Visible Minority Candidates and MPs in the 2019 Federal Election,” Canadian Parliamentary Review Vol. 43, No. 2, 2020, pp. 17-23, at p. 19.

5. For the sake of completeness, it can be noted that visible minorities made up: (1) 11.5 per cent of the candidates who competed for the Bloc (up from 5.2 per cent in 2019), (2) 14.3 per cent of Green candidates (up from 11.6 per cent), and (3) 8.4 per cent of the People’s Party candidates (down from 16.3 per cent).

6. Black, “Visible Minority Candidates and MPs in the 2019 Federal Election,” p. 22.

7. For the Bloc, 29 vs. 16 per cent, for the Greens, 33 vs. 17 per cent, and for People’s Party, 49 vs 20 per cent.

Table 1

Visible Minority MPs, 2008-2021

  2008 2011 2015 2019 2021
Bloc Québécois 3 1
Conservative 8 12 6 10 6
Liberal 10 2 39 37 43
NDP 1 14 2 3 3
(N) (22) (29) (47) (50) (53)a

Includes one Independent.

Source: For 2008-2019 data, see Jerome H. Black, “Visible Minority Candidates and MPs in the 2019 Federal Election”, Canadian Parliamentary Review Vol. 43, No. 2, 2020, pp. 17-23. MP data for 2021 assembled by author.

Table 2

Visible Minority Candidates, 2008-2021

  2008 2011 2015 2019 2021
All Candidatesa (%) 10.1 9.7 13.9 18.2 21.7
By Party (%)          
Conservative 9.8 10.1 14.2 16.6 17.2
Liberal 9.8 9.1 16.9 18.6 24.0
NDP 10.7 10.4 13.4 22.4 26.9
New Candidates (%)          
Conservative 11.2 13.4 18.0 19.7 22.6
Liberal 7.8 9.1 17.5 18.4 24.5
NDP 12.3 12.0 14.3 24.6 25.4

Includes Bloc Québécois, Conservative, Liberal, and NDP parties.

Source: For 2008-2019 data, see Jerome H. Black, “Visible Minority Candidates and MPs in the 2019 Federal Election,” Canadian Parliamentary Review Vol. 43, No. 2, 2020, pp. 17-23. Candidate data for 2021 assembled by author.

Table 3

Visible Minority Candidates, Parties, and Constituency Competitiveness, 2021

(New Candidates Only)

    Incumbent MP?
    Yes No
Conservative 83 14 2 (42)
Liberal 70 10 10 (41)
NDP 97 3 0 (63)
Conservative 76 15 8 (144)
Liberal 76 13 11 (118)
NDP 95 4 2 (185)

Row percentages.

See text for definition of competitive and non-competitive constituencies.