Winnipeg councillor Mike Pagtakhan looked around at a Federation of Canadian Municipalities meeting this year and was delighted to see some non-white faces among the throngs. Until he introduced himself.
"I asked, 'Hey, are you councillors, reeves, mayors?' They said, 'No, no: We're with the administration.' I thought, 'Uh, okay.' … It was unreal. I was just shocked."
A decade after he went into municipal politics, Mr. Pagtakhan is still Winnipeg's only Filipino-Canadian councillor. But with two visible minority councillors out of 15, the city is actually doing pretty well by Canadian standards.
Canadian politics is known as somewhat laggard when it comes to representing the country's diverse population. But nowhere is that gap as stark as at the local level.
Municipalities with some of the greatest diversity levels on the planet remain governed by councils that don't match the community.
Blame the same factors that lead to often abysmal engagement in local politics across the board: a high incumbency factor and a reliance on name recognition makes it next to impossible to unseat anyone running for re-election; there's no party system, so newbies with few political connections are at a significant disadvantage; the messy minutia of local politics can turn even federally or provincially engaged people apathetic.
Voters feel distanced from councils that don't represent them, so they're less likely to get involved, which in turn means they're less likely to be represented among elected officials.
A report released on Monday by Ryerson University politics professor Myer Siemiatycki found dismal visible-minority presence in Toronto-area politics – about 11 per cent in Toronto, 9 per cent in Brampton and zero in Mississauga.
But other Canadian cities fare little better: Richmond, B.C., according to the 2006 census, was 65-per-cent visible minority. But Derek Dang is the city's only councillor who'd fit that bill.
"If you're looking at the ethnic makeup of the community versus the representation on council, it does seem to be disproportionate," Mr. Dang said. "I don't have a ready answer for that."
He noted that he's seen people who want to run but lack the political know-how or the linguistic ability. And because Richmond councillors are elected at large, he said, there's no opportunity for the kind of micro-targeting that allowed the federal Conservatives to zero in on ethnic enclaves in swing ridings.
As head of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, Thomas Saras has seen plenty of municipal politicians from his vantage point in the belly of Toronto's city hall. Many of his own members have sought his advice on prospective bids for council. But "as an outsider," he said, "you cannot do anything."
Jagdish Grewal, editor and publisher of the Brampton-based Punjabi Post, can rattle off a list of would-be ethnic entrants to local politics. He said their low success rate indicates the limitations of identity politics. Without the backing of a federal or provincial party, candidates who try to run solely on connections in their micro-communities are doomed to failure.
"People are creating their own ghettos," he said. "They don't intermix with other communities – that's what is stopping them from being elected at the municipal level."
Hammad Khan, in the midst of a by-election campaign to become Winnipeg's first Pakistani-Canadian councillor, insists he's never felt discriminated against. His community is under-represented on council, he says, because "nobody thought about it. Nobody took the opportunity."
Mr. Khan, who came to Winnipeg from Lahore 12 years ago, is making up for that.
"I am 200-per-cent confident I will win."