This is what council looks like in a B.C. city with 160,000 South Asians. Here’s how that may change

Click to play video: 'Ex-Surrey city councillor discusses the challenges South Asians have getting elected'
Ex-Surrey city councillor discusses the challenges South Asians have getting elected
Surrey is a city with a population that's around 30 per cent South Asian, and yet few members of the community have ever been elected to council or school board. Ex-city councillor Barinder Rasode talks to Sonia Deol – Oct 5, 2018

Surrey, B.C. — it’s the 12th most populous city in Canada with nearly 520,000 people.

It’s largely considered a suburb of Vancouver, and it’s a place on the grow — the civic government there estimates that the city’s population could grow to just under 600,000 people by 2021.

That growth is expected to persist enough that it could eclipse Vancouver’s population by 2041.

Coverage of Surrey, B.C. on

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As the city has grown, so has its South Asian population, which made up more than a 30-per-cent share of the people who live there in the 2016 Census.

That makes it the second-biggest in Canada’s 25 largest municipalities by population.

Nearly one-third of the residents — and yet, in the past decade, South Asians have only ever occupied two out of nine spots on council, including the mayor’s chair.

READ MORE: Surrey mayor gets emotional in final ‘State of the City’ address

An analysis of election results by Global News showed that, in the past decade, there were 35 South Asian candidates for mayor, council and school board.

There were seven elected in the three elections that happened in that time frame.

In 2014, for example, there were 16 South Asian candidates. One was elected to council and one was elected to school board, for a success rate of 12.5 per cent.

In 2011, there were 12 South Asian candidates. Two were elected that time, both to council — a success rate of 16.7 per cent.

At left, 2018 Surrey mayoral candidate Tom Gill. At right, 2014 Surrey mayoral candidate Barinder Rasode. Facebook/File photo

The two elected that year were Barinder Rasode and Tom Gill.

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The latter had previously been elected to council in 2005 and 2008, and is now running for mayor.

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Rasode, meanwhile, ran for mayor in 2014, but came third to winner Linda Hepner with 21,335 votes — representing just under 21 per cent of the total that year.

READ MORE: Surrey First to run Coun. Tom Gill as mayoral candidate in October election

Rasode had a few ideas for how to elect more South Asians to city hall.

She talked about “bridging two worlds” when she ran for mayor — and the challenge of gathering votes in both.

“I was too brown for some people in Surrey, but I was definitely too white for some South Asian men,” Rasode said.

She recounted people slamming the door in her face when she went knocking on doors, with residents saying, “your people are taking over, I’m not voting for you.”

But Rasode also recounted her challenges connecting with the South Asian community.

“I was limited in how I could campaign,” she said.

READ MORE: Barinder Rasode says she has the best plan to fight crime in Surrey

Rasode said she couldn’t go to a kabaddi event — a contact sport originating in South Asia — where thousands of men were in attendance because “that would be frowned upon in my community.”

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“I can’t go to the meet and greets at the garage, where they’re cooking goat in the garage while they’re drinking,” she said.

Rasode said she faced the additional challenge of being a woman.

“It is no secret that we are still as women fighting a double glass ceiling if you’re a woman of South Asian heritage in Canada,” she said.

“People who go to school with South Asian women know that they don’t frequent dances or go to the movies, and what your life is like at home is fundamentally different from what your public life is.

“It doesn’t matter what title you hold outside.”

WATCH: From 2014 — Barinder Rasode as a Surrey mayoral candidate

So what does it take to break through so many barriers? Rasode said she’s “always been a very strong advocate of people integrating, not creating their own tables.”

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She encouraged people to be part of the bigger table — to, instead of creating a South Asian business association, to join boards of trade and business improvement associations.

“For our future generations, and for the needs that we have, which are not any different from any other resident in the City of Surrey, we sometimes keep our own voice from being represented at the table,” Rasode said.

READ MORE: More needs to be done to keep Surrey gangs from recruiting pre-teens — city Coun. Tom Gill

Gill, meanwhile, noted that South Asians aren’t underrepresented at every level.

“I think we likely have an over-representation, both at the federal level and provincial level,” he told Global News.

South Asians certainly do have clear representation at those levels — of the five federal ridings that cover Surrey, two are represented by South Asians, while at the provincial level, they represent four out of nine ridings.

“On the same token, we have a tad less than what the representation should be at the civic level,” Gill added.

For him, succeeding in politics has meant building a broad level of support “right across the spectrum.”

He described acting as a “navigator” for different groups at city hall — cricket enthusiasts, for example, wondering how to approach the government, and ethnic groups besides South Asian ones.

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“I think that as we progress as a community, and it doesn’t mean South Asian community, I think that people’s boundaries change,” Gill said.

“I think when people understand other people’s culture, language, those boundaries expand.”

READ MORE: B.C. municipal election 2018 — Surrey

Gill went on to say that, as Surrey has evolved, people have started to integrate at a “faster rate.”

“I think progression sometimes is slow and I think understanding why people do things is always an interesting part of any culture,” he said.

The current election

The current Surrey election has seen nearly as many South Asian candidates — 29 — running for office as there have been in the past three combined.

There are three running for mayor, 16 running for council and 10 running for school board.

Voters would have to elect nine out of that group to match the South Asian share of Surrey’s population — again, more than all who have been elected in the past decade.

Ultimately, Rasode also suggested people shouldn’t assume that a candidate group, a community like South Asians will have its unanimous support.

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“It’s actually the opposite,” she said.

“The community is harder on candidates from their own heritage than they are on others.”

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