Fifty individuals with visible minority origins won their way into Parliament in the federal election of October 31, 2019 – the largest number of such MPs ever to be elected. However, the achievement is tempered somewhat by the fact that the increase from the 2015 election is fairly modest and the population-based deficit in representation is about where it had been in that previous election. On the other hand, when candidates are taken into consideration, the picture that emerges for 2019 is somewhat more positive. The evidence points to the parties, at least in their local guises, continuing to do more to champion visible minority candidacies. Indeed, it is possible that the candidate data yield a better indication of the openness of the electoral process to minorities than simply a tally of the number of visible minority MPs elected.
There are multiple reasons to pay attention to the progress that racialized minorities or, in official government parlance, visible minorities make in getting elected to Parliament.1 Any compact list would include the implications that their presence as MPs has for the representation of immigrant and minority communities. More visible minority legislators can potentially bring about better substantive representation as these MPs give voice to, and undertake actions regarding, policy matters that are of disproportionate concern to these population segments. But even absent such responsiveness, minority populations can find symbolic or psychological value in “feeling” more represented as they identify and relate to legislators with backgrounds that they share. In doing so, they gain a sense of being recognized as part of a multicultural and inclusive society. Symbolic representation is also relevant for the institution of Parliament itself, since the legitimacy it can claim is, at least partially, bound up with how well it captures the growing heterogeneity that characterizes Canadian society. Finally, paying attention to the electoral trajectory of visible minority MPs affords perspectives on how well minorities are integrating into Canadian political life. Just as it is important to investigate their involvement in more ordinary political activities, there is also great value in comprehending the dynamics of political engagement at the elite level. Such inquiries can have something to say about how open and accessible the political process is to categories of Canadians who have been traditionally absent and/or excluded.
So what do the numbers look like in the wake of the latest federal election, held on October 31, 2019, and how do they stack up compared to previous elections.2 The short answer is that additional progress was made in 2019 but hardly in astonishing fashion. On the positive side, and not unimportantly, a record-setting 50 MPs3 with visible minority origins were elected, a number that translates into 14.8 per cent of the House’s membership. What is also notable about 2019 is that it is the third consecutive election to witness an increase from one election to the next. This consistency stands out as a relatively new phenomenon: elections covering the period from 1993 – when visible minority MPs were first elected in detectable numbers – until as late as 2008 featured a mix of increments and decrements across election pairings.
On the other side, the increase in the number of visible minority MPs elected in 2019 relative to the last two elections is quite modest. From 2008 to 2011, their numbers bumped up considerably from 22 to 29, and then much more so to 47 in 20154 — with percentage equivalents of 7.1, 9.4, and 13.9, respectively, of the House of Commons seats available. By contrast, the 50 MPs elected in 2019 constitute only a modest up-tick.
A tempered outlook on the 2019 election is also warranted when the figure of 14.8% is juxtaposed against the incidence of visible minorities in the population at large. According to the 2016 census, visible minorities comprised 22.3% of the Canadian population, which yields a “ratio of representation” of approximately two-thirds.5 Full representation — a ratio of one — would have hypothetically occurred had 75 visible minority MPs won their way into Parliament. More to the point, the ratio of two-thirds is about the same as it was following the 2015 election, so the representation deficit measured this way has not altered very much over the four-year period.6
The lack of any major turnover in individual MPs elected from 2015 to 2019 might also suggest that change was limited between the two elections. Of the 50 MPs elected in 2019, fully 36 were re-elected to the House. As for personnel changes, some occurred through party wins and losses: a visible minority replacing a non-visible minority incumbent (three), and vice versa (two) and minority individuals from different parties winning in 2019 (two). Another part of the turnover can be attributed to incumbent/candidate alterations within the same party: a visible minority replacing a non-visible minority incumbent (four), and vice versa (two) and different minority individuals elected but from the same party (five).
Table 1 speaks to party connections. It presents the visible minority MP numbers broken down by party affiliation for the 2019 and the four previous elections. Plainly, the Liberals, with 37 minorities elected, continued to be the party with the largest number of such MPs. This was also true in 2015 (39 MPs). These back-to-back feats reversed a period of decline, which culminated in 2011 when the party found itself with only two minority MPs in its caucus. The Conservatives continued to be a distant second with 10 minority MPs elected in 2019, though this does represent an improvement over their 2015 tally when the party elected only six such individuals. The only other party to have any of their minority candidates elected is the NDP. Three were elected in 2019, one more than in 2015. In the 2011 election, however, it was the NDP that ended up having the most visible minority MPs – 14 out of a total of 29. This occurred as a by-product of the NDP’s larger accomplishment of gaining official opposition status, the result of a dramatic upswing in support towards the end of the campaign. If the particularity of the NDP’s surge helps account for the 2008 to 2011 boost in the overall number of minority MPs elected, the Liberal party’s victory in 2015 might be similarly identified, as it brought about an even larger advance in minority representation. While the polls at the outset of the campaign pointed to a three-way competitive race, the Liberals did pull ahead decisively in the closing stages of the contest.
In 2019, there were no similarly exceptional developments that took place during the campaign – the minority outcome perhaps reflecting this electoral flatness. Most surveys pegged the Conservatives and Liberals as competitive with one another as early as six months out from the election, each with roughly a third of the projected vote, and it was a pattern that mostly held throughout the campaign and more or less characterized the final vote. The NDP lagged well behind with a level of support that remained fairly horizontal throughout the period. Exceptionally, the BQ, did markedly increase its standing over the course of the campaign; the jump in its support over the last three weeks ultimately translated into a major legislative comeback for the party. However, its fortunes could not have had much of an impact on overall visible minority MP numbers, since the party has had only a limited association with minority office-seekers and (as will be seen) the 2019 election was no exception.
Visible Minority Candidates
This reference to candidates raises an obvious point, but no less important because of it, namely, the need to take the candidate teams into account as part of any understanding of the relationship between party success (or failure) and visible minority MP numbers. After all, the NDP’s impact on increasing minority representation in 2011 was mostly due to the party’s substantial promotion of many minority candidates (in districts where the party was not expected to win but ultimately did so). As well, in 2015, the relatively larger impact on minority MP numbers tied to the Liberal’s success reflected the party’s greatly enhanced efforts, certainly compared to 2011, to field minority candidates. This is not to say that the other two national parties were wanting in this regard. Indeed, both parties (as will be seen) improved upon their promotional efforts in 2011. It seems highly plausible that heightened inter-party competition to win over minority votes is at least partly responsible for the stepped-up advancement of visible minority candidacies from 2011 to 2015.
In turn, this makes consideration of the 2019 election all the more compelling. Did the parties’ efforts increase even further, as might be suggested by an emphasis on “competition?” Certainly, the incentives have only grown. According to the 2016 census, fully 41 federal districts were comprised of populations where visible minorities formed a majority (compared to 33 such constituencies in 2011) and, more generally, about 20 per cent of all ridings had minorities making up at least a third of the districts’ populations. Candidate teams also merit attention because they might plausibly yield a better indication of how open the electoral process is to minorities, as compared to an ex post facto tally of the number of visible minority MPs elected. After all, most Canadian voters do not discriminate against visible minority candidates. Ultimately, how many get elected will more strongly depend on the way that the larger, fluctuating, and often unpredictable campaign electoral forces at the regional and national levels play out. The number of MPs elected may go up or down a bit but it is not strongly tied to whether a candidate is a visible minority or not. The final MP tally is to a significant degree hostage to other factors including, as noted above, the unexpected success or failure of parties with more or less visible minority candidates. 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. Their promotional efforts can have a lot to say about the openness of the political process and how much access is afforded minority office-seekers.
Table 2 sets out the principal candidate information. As background, the first row reveals that for the three elections spanning the 2004-2008 period, the overall percentages of visible minority candidates running for the four largest parties, the BQ, Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP, stood at around nine or 10 points and at 9.7 per cent did not alter much in 2011. However, the 2015 election saw a sizeable increase, up about four points to 13.9 per cent. Importantly, the 2019 election is similarly associated with a notable increase of visible minority candidates; such contestants comprised a record-setting 18.2 per cent of the total four-party candidate base. Once again, the BQ, with 5.2 per cent, had the fewest minority candidates. In fact, if that party is put to the side, then the percentage figure among the three remaining parties rises to 19.2; in other words, nearly one in five of the candidates who competed for the larger pan-Canadian oriented parties in 2019 have visible minority origins. For the sake of completeness, it can be noted that minorities made up 11.6 per cent of the candidates running for the Greens and 16.3 per cent for the People’s Party. As for the three national parties taken individually, the entries in the next three rows of Table 2 make it clear that the contemporary trend to nominate more and more visible minority candidates is true of each one, even if there are variations across the parties. In the case of the Conservative party, the shares of minority contestants within its ranks over the 2011-2019 interval rose from 10.1 to 14.2 per cent, and then to 16.6 per cent. The Liberal experience is even sharper with the party’s nomination of minority candidates mushrooming from 9.1 per cent of its contestants to 16.9 per cent in 2015, followed by another increase in 2019 to 18.6 per cent. Unlike the Liberals, the largest increment for the NDP was between the 2015 and 2019 elections. In fact, in 2019, the NDP led all parties in nominating the most visible minorities – 22.4 per cent of all its candidates. This represents a sharp rise of nine percentage points from four years earlier.
First-Time Visible Minority Candidates
These patterns align with the proposition that the promotion of visible minority candidacies bears a connection to vote-searching in response to the growing electoral significance of minority communities in the competitive urban environments. The suggestion gains more backing when the analysis drills down to focus on the subset of new candidates who ran for the parties. Examining first-time candidates has the advantage, as this author has repeatedly pointed out in previous reports in the Review7 of gauging the party’s latest commitment to the promotion of visible minorities as an upcoming election looms. Thus, it is net of whatever efforts may or may not have been made in earlier elections. Relatedly, factoring out repeating candidates also neutralizes any effects associated with the tendency of previous candidates to be re-nominated.
It turns out that the three larger national parties did take steps to add more new visible minorities to their candidate line-ups for the 2019 election. While, as noted, minorities formed 19.2 per cent of these parties’ overall collections of candidates, they comprised an even greater 21.5 per cent among their first-time contestants. The bottom panel of Table 2 reveals that, once again, this is true for each of the three parties and further indicates that the advancement of minority candidacies has consistently increased over the last few elections. In the Conservative Party, visible minorities comprised 13.4 per cent of its new candidates in 2011, 18 per cent in 2015, and 19.7 per cent in 2019. For the Liberals, the corresponding sequence of percentages jumps sharply from 9.1 to 17.5 and then up to 18.4. In the case of the NDP, minorities comprised 12 per cent of the party’s ensemble of new candidates in 2011, 14.3 per cent in 2015, and (again) a leading 24.6 per cent in 2019.
New Visible Minority Candidates and Constituency Competitiveness
The notion that parties are doing more to promote visible minority candidacies is also evident when the nomination of candidates in winnable or competitive ridings is taken into account. It is one thing for a party to promote minority candidacies in constituencies with dismal electoral prospects; it is quite another matter to have them carry the party’s banner in districts with some chance of victory (even if it remains true that the party undertakes this exercise under varying degrees of uncertainty). At the very least, the equal or near-equal promotion of visible minority and non-visible minority candidates might well be expected as part of any reasonable approach to the championing of the former. In order to investigate this, federal electoral districts were apportioned between those that, from each party’s perspective, could be considered as relatively non-competitive or competitive based on its 2015 performance. In particular, non-competitive districts were deemed to be ones where the party lost by 11 per cent or more; districts that could be judged to be competitive were ones where the party either won the riding in 2015 or, if they lost, they did so by a margin of 10 points or less. The combined results for the three parties and their new candidates indicate the parties were more likely to favor non-visible candidates over their visible minority counterparts in competitive ridings, but only by a slight margin of 28 to 25 per cent. This actually represents a reversal of what occurred in 2015 when the three parties gave the advantage to their new visible minority candidates (33 per cent to 26 per cent). But not all parties favoured non-visible minorities in 2019. Table 3 sets out the results for each party and also bifurcates the competitive category according to whether or not an incumbent MP competed. This is based on the assumption that an open constituency would be more prized. Looking at the row results for visible minority candidates only, it is quite evident that the Liberals did the most to promote new minority contestants. More than half of them (57 per cent) were nominated in competitive ridings, with the largest subset in open constituencies (33 per cent). This compares with figures of 20 and 16 per cent for the Conservatives and NDP, respectively, in connection with competitive districts taken as a whole; among the sub-category of open seats, the percentages are only nine per cent for the Conservatives and four per cent for the NDP. Still, the Liberal advantage might not be altogether unexpected given that the party could identify many more potentially winnable constituencies going into the 2019 election, stemming from its commanding victory in 2015. What really matters is what the parties did given what they had to work with, which, in turn, directs attention to intra-party comparisons.
The Conservatives were the least promotional of their visible minority candidates; among their new recruits, they nominated more non-visible than visible minority candidates in competitive districts (30 per cent vs. 20 per cent), though, importantly, the same levels (nine per cent) in those particular ridings without an incumbent running. For its part, the NDP’s placement for the two categories was similar: one in seven of both their non-visible minority and visible minority candidates were selected in competitive ridings (and four per cent, each, in open districts). As for the Liberals, the intra-party assessment merely confirms that the party did, by far, the most to support the cause of minority candidacies. They nominated more of them in competitive districts by a 10-point margin (57 vs. 47 per cent) and recruited them much more frequently in the more attractive open constituencies. Indeed, one in three of the party’s first-time minority candidates ran in these potentially most advantageous ridings, while this was true of only 17 per cent of the party’s non-visible minority contenders. While there are significant differences among the parties, on balance, it does seem that the parties were at least fair, and sometimes more than fair, in their placement of visible minority candidacies. Again, this leans toward a characterization of the local parties as being caught up in 2019, as they had been in 2015, with the facilitation of visible minority candidacies.
One of the constant ways that racial diversity plays out in contemporary electoral politics in Canada is a very strong predilection on the part of the parties to concentrate their visible minority candidates in districts with large minority populations. This relationship can be explained from a “bottom up” perspective: minority office-seekers are more likely to pursue the nomination of the local parties in diverse ridings because they are able to rely on the resources and supportive networks that accompany their growing and increasingly established minority communities. However, it is also feasible to understand the positive relationship between district and candidate diversity from a “top down” standpoint, as being driven by competition among parties for the minority vote. Again, the presumption is that there is an impulse to nominate minority candidates in order to win the more tightly fought urban districts. In reality, the two accounts interact with one another but it does seem that the former vantage point does not completely exclude the latter perspective. One author, for instance, finds that both constituency diversity and the presence of visible minority local party presidents, understood as enabling gatekeepers, have independent effects with both contributing in their own way to the emergence of more minorities contesting nomination battles.8 So there is at least the suggestion that a competition-based narrative also underpins the concentration of visible minority candidates in heterogenous districts.
The evidence for the relationship itself is at least as strong in 2019 as it has been in earlier elections and in some cases stronger. Visible minority candidates newly recruited by the Conservatives competed in districts where the minority population averaged 53 per cent, compared to 15 per cent in ridings where their non-visible minority counterparts ran. This is a gap that is slightly larger than it was in 2015 (47 vs. 12 per cent, respectively). For the Liberals, the 2019 divide is noticeably larger than it was in 2015; in the previous election, their minority candidates ran in districts with a minority population mean of 27 per cent compared to 12 per cent for their non-visible minority candidates. In 2019, the spread was significantly wider: 39 vs. 12 per cent. As the far as the NDP goes, the spread remained about the same in 2019 as it was in 2015, but still amounted to a substantial differential: 39 vs. 16 per cent in 2019 and 35 vs. 12 per cent in 2015. Finally, it can be noted that the pattern of concentration in 2019 holds for all of the parties, including the BQ and the People’s Party.9
A review of how visible minorities fared in getting elected to Parliament in 2019 reveals a mixed picture. On the one hand, the 50 visible minority MPs elected, comprising 14.8 per cent of the House’s membership, established a high water mark in both absolute and relative terms. On the other hand, this amounted to a bump up of only three MPs compared to the number elected in 2015. Moreover, comparing the 2019 numbers with the visible minority population at large yields a representation ratio that indicates no further progress beyond what had been achieved in the previous election.
However, a more positive picture emerges when information about candidates is brought to bear. In fact, while the outcome of visible minority MPs elected, taken at face value, seems to imply only a modest endeavour by the parties to promote visible minorities, the candidate information imples a more, and continuing, pronounced effort. Altogether, the parties, and especially the three most electorally successful national-oriented parties, distinctly added to the advances they had already made in 2015. They nominated even more visible minority candidates in 2019 and the same is true in connection with the key group of new candidates. The Liberals did the most to promote new visible minority candidates in electorally attractive constituencies; for their part, the two other parties were more or less even-handed in the placement of candidates, the Conservatives a little less so.
These patterns, along with the ongoing heavy concentration of visible minority candidates in diverse constituencies, suggest that the rivalry for minority votes in key urban centres continues to motivate parties to provide more space for visible minority candidacies. The candidate focus also suggests a possible corrective to any conclusion that might be drawn about diversity and the openness of the political process based solely on the MP numbers. Taking into account candidacies yields a rather more optimistic perspective about minorities gaining access to potential entry points as they aspire to join the legislative elite. Where the parties, organized in their local electoral districts, have more say, the response to visible minorities office-seekers has been somewhat more progressive.
- The “official” term “visible minorities” is employed here; the term “minorities” is used alternatively to ease repetition.
- The information reported here comes from a larger data set gathered and put together by Andrew Griffith, the Hill Times, Samara, and myself. The sources of information used to determine racial origins included official party biographies, media articles, social media platforms, and last name and, especially, photo analysis.
- This number includes an individual of Argentinian origin and one of Chilean background. This constitutes a change in classification. The author’s first study of visible minority MPs was for the 1993 election and followed Statistics Canada’s approach (in the 1986 and 1991 census) to exclude these origins from the Latin American category; for the sake of consistency, this practice was followed for subsequent elections until 2015. However, most students of politics and diversity in Canada now include the two origins and this practice is followed here. The effect is relatively minor. The change adds one MP to the visible minority count in each election reported here (as shown in Table 1).
- This includes one additional MP who was originally misidentified as a non-visible minority in the analysis of the 2015 election.
- An alternative benchmark that tallies only visible minority citizens from the 2016 census (17.2 per cent) naturally yields a narrower and more optimistic MP-population difference. This reference group could be justified on the grounds that only citizens can become candidates (and MPs) and thus is the relevant population recruitment pool. (Conversation with Andrew Griffith.) The preferred, broader (total) population approach adopted here is based on, among other things, an emphasis on MP representativeness that embraces non-citizens as well. Non-citizens can also derive symbolic satisfaction from witnessing fellow community members being included in elite settings and they can also benefit from the substantive representation that community-based legislators might provide on issues of particular concern.
- Not considered here, but an important matter on its own right, is that the differential is highly uneven among the composite groupings. South Asians are actually overrepresented among MPs, but most categories are variously underrepresented, for example, Blacks, or not at all represented, for example, Filipinos.
- For instance, Jerome H. Black, “The 2015 Federal Election: More Visible Minority Candidates and MPs,” Canadian Parliamentary Review Vol. 40, No. 1, 2017, pp. 16-23.
- Erin Tolley, “Who you know: Local party presidents and minority candidate emergence,” Electoral Studies, Vol. 58, April, 2019, pp. 70-79.
- The Bloc’s non-visible minority candidates ran in constituencies where visible minorities formed about 12 per cent of the population, while their – admittedly small number of – visible minority candidates ran in districts where their population counterparts formed 24 per cent of the district. Interestingly, the spread is much greater in the case of the PPC: a visible minority population averaging 18 per cent in the districts where their non-visible minority candidates ran compared to an average of 42 per cent where their visible minority candidates ran. The pattern for the Greens also displays a significant spread in the same direction: a visible minority population of 20 per cent vs. 37 per cent.