“We are Not an Ethnic Vote!” Representational Perspectives of Minorities in the Greater Toronto Area

Minorities from different ethnic groups have different preferences for how they would like to be represented by elected officials. These preferences depend on various contexts and are influenced by the minority groups’ historical experiences, collective resources, and voting power at the polls.

McMaster Researcher


Bird, K. (2015). “We are Not an Ethnic Vote!” Representational Perspectives of Minorities in the Greater Toronto Area. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 1-31. doi:10.1017/s0008423915000256

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What is this research about?

The way citizens, especially minorities, want to be represented by elected officials in Canada has largely been neglected by Canadian political scientists. The purpose of this research is to examine how minorities in the Greater Toronto Area (an urban and highly diverse setting) evaluate political actors' claims to represent them, and to look at the objections citizens raise in the face of such claims.

What did the researchers do?

Political representation has multiple components: the accountability of elected officials; the extent to which representatives resemble those being represented; the activity of representatives; and what the representative means for those being represented. To examine the importance of each component from the minorities' perspective, the researcher interviewed nine focus groups that included black, South-Asian, and Chinese Canadians. Participants were asked a series of questions concerning their views on representation, including their opinion on the effectiveness of local politicians in addressing the needs in the local community and whether the politicians can be trusted to represent the minorities. The investigator also compared the three communities to assess similarities and differences in their experiences and preferences regarding political representation.

What did the researchers find?

The researcher found that:

  • The components that are important and that incite feelings of being represented vary. For instance, in contexts where language is an issue, having a representative who shares one's ethno-cultural identity matters most.
  • When considering good representation, participants often placed greater emphasis on the quality of contact and communication with their elected representatives in their communities over the policies the MPs are trying to develop.
  • The vast majority of participants wanted MPs to make their own decisions instead of following majority preferences in the constituency. That is, they expected the elected representative to act as a “trustee” rather than a “delegate” of citizens’ interests, and that this approach to representation would better protect minority rights.
  • Large differences exist across ethnic groups in their views of how important it is that representatives resemble them. Most participants support having more members of their ethnic group in Parliament, but few felt that this would lead to different policy outcomes. Participants mainly focused on accessibility and a sense of comfort with same-ethnic elected officials and the communicative benefits that come from having this kind of official.  
  • Participants also recognized the dangers of placing too much trust on ethnically similar MPs. Some were concerned about the tokenistic role of such representatives, and feared that it could not address the deeper sources of marginalization and exclusion facing their community. Others were more confident that their community can hold the MPs accountable at the polls.

How can you use this research?

By gaining a better understanding of minorities' reasoning and logic for accepting or rejecting representative claims, policymakers and politicians can understand and improve the quality of representative democracy in Canada. This research also provides important information for developing better approaches to political representation and responsiveness that can help minorities feel included in our political system rather than feel manipulated by political elites.

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