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Ward system becoming more likely for Vancouver

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Vancouver is the only major Canadian city without a ward system, but that may not be the case for long after two of the leading mayoral candidates advocated for a change. 

Both incumbent Kennedy Stewart and councillor-turned-mayoral-candidate Colleen Hardwick described wards as “the one thing” they agree on at a mayoral debate hosted by Business in Vancouver on Monday. 

Under that system, councillors are elected to represent a specific district or area of the city, but vote on all motions to council, similar to how MLAs vote on provincial matters in the legislature. Currently, every Vancouver councillor is elected at-large, meaning each represents the entire city.

“The at-large system and the fact we're now dealing with four-year terms has really removed citizens from having any kind of meaningful involvement and decision-making in policy in the city,” Hardwick said on behalf of TEAM Vancouver, in response to a question on the topic. “Neighbourhoods and residents of the city are being ignored and they need to rise up and take back their voice again.”

Stewart pointed out that he and Hardwick had voted alongside COPE councillor Jean Swanson for a motion that supported wards, but they were outnumbered.

“If elected with a majority I will pass a bylaw that will bring that in, and we'll finally get a ward system here,” said the FORWARD Vancouver leader. “I think Colleen's absolutely right, I think neighbourhoods need that representation at city hall.”

COPE is pledging to “immediately implement” a ward system with 10 seats to help voters make sense of the 11 parties fielding more than 130 candidates for mayor, council and school board.

“Instead of a crowded, confusing city council ballot of 60 names, with a ward system voters would get a ballot of fewer candidates who could focus on directly engaging with residents in their respective wards,” said candidate Tanya Webking in a press release.

HAS PUBLIC OPINION SHIFTED?

In 2004, the City of Vancouver held a plebiscite on the issue with 14 proposed voting districts and the mayor elected at-large by everyone. It failed with 54 per cent opposed to the idea.

But an opinion poll conducted online by Research Co. in June found 58 per cent of respondents in Vancouver supported the concept, with 16 per cent unsure.

Pollsters also looked at the rest of the Lower Mainland and found while there was majority support in Surrey, there was less enthusiasm other municipalities. 

Surrey councillors voted in favour of exploring a ward system there in 2020, but a spokesperson for the city says “there has been no further direction to move forward at this time.”

VANCOUVER A MAJOR CITY OUTLIER

The idea of implementing wards comes up every few years, typically when Metro Vancouver voters head to the polls, but this election cycle is different.

Issues of diversity and representation are now at the forefront, and the current free-for-all maintains a status quo that sees a predominantly white, middle-class council making decisions for diverse cities.

“There could be an advantage to candidates who are more akin to those who vote, who are wealthier, drive a car, have a university degree, and that’s a problem,” said Sanjay Jeram, a Simon Fraser University political science instructor.

He emphasized that wards don’t solve every problem and that friction and combative attitudes between councillors representing wards with very different interests are an issue the same way they are on the provincial and federal level.

Jeram also pointed out that Canada’s other major cities have restructured themselves into metropolitan areas making them large centres, geographically and population-wise, so there’s a greater focus on making sure people from all parts of the metro area have representation.

The City of Toronto has 25 wards, spans an area of 639 square kilometres and has a population of nearly 2.8 million people. Councillors have staffed constituency offices, much like MLAs.

Vancouver’s population is 631,000 people over 115 square kilometres.

“It's very, very small compared to say Toronto or Winnipeg or Edmonton geographically,” said Jeram. “Its density is high because another unique thing about Vancouver is it hasn't had a lot of amalgamation to spread the footprint of the city and absorb the suburbs.” 

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