The diversity crisis in municipal politics

By Kirk Winter

“Seldom did I ever work with a council that was anything but older white men." -- Harry Kitchen.

Since the last round of municipal elections in Ontario in 2018, experts have been parsing the results and many say they are very concerned with what they have discovered. It is clear to many in the media, politics and academia that municipal councils do not reflect the people they govern, with most councils lacking proportionate representation of racialized minorities, women, Indigenous people, those living in poverty, those under the age of 40 and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Solutions do exist to this lack of diversity, including making council positions full-time jobs, moving council business to the evening, introducing political parties into municipal politics, implementing term limits, establishing programs that support and mentor candidates from non-traditional backgrounds, and engaging and educating all groups on the importance of municipal government.

Numbers do not lie 

The municipal elections of 2018 caused students of municipal government to sit up and ask questions. Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal elected such shockingly non-diverse councils that individual researchers in Ontario began to investigate whether the lack of diversity reflected in the Toronto vote was common across Ontario. Apart from a few bright spots in 2018 like Peterborough City Council with over 50 per cent diversity, municipal councils looked as they almost always had:  a collection of aging white men being re-elected time and time again.

Research done by Cynthia Mulligan of CITY News reported that in Montreal, with a 31 per cent visible minority population, 94 per cent of the city council elected is white. In Vancouver, with 54 per cent of the population identifying as visible minorities, 80 per cent of the council elected is white. In Toronto, with 51.5 per cent of the city identifying as visible minorities, the council elected in 2018 was 90 per cent white.

Analysis across Ontario by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities reinforced the same sad narrative of a glaring disparity between the general population of many Ontario municipalities and the makeup of the councils governing them.

Numbers from London, Ottawa and Sioux Lookout show the same patterns found in Canada’s megalopolises, with communities of diversity significantly under-represented.

The situation in Sioux Lookout is particularly concerning, where a community with a 37.6 per cent Indigenous population has only one Indigenous representative on a six-member council.

According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, only 26 per cent of municipal leaders and 18 per cent of mayors come from Indigenous, racialized and immigrant women populations.

Kawartha Lakes City Council.

Locally, Kawartha Lakes council, consisting of eight councillors and a mayor, features only two women and no racialized minorities or other representatives of diverse communities. Muskoka Regional Council has 28 members with only four women and no racialized minorities, while Peterborough County Council has 15 members of whom 7 are women but none represent racialized communities. Durham Regional Council, representing some of the most diverse communities in the Golden Horseshoe, has 28 members, of whom 7 are women and only two represent racialized minorities.

“(A lack of diversity) was standard in rural Ontario for decades,” said Trent University Professor Emeritus of Economics Harry Kitchen. He has decades of involvement with municipal councils across Ontario and oversaw the creation of the city of Kawartha Lakes. “Seldom did I ever work with a council that was anything but older white men. My dad and dad-in-law were typical of these retired farmers who made the move into municipal politics. Council meetings were in the afternoon and they would not change the times. Full-time employees couldn’t serve. It was retired people only.”

There is a clear disconnect between who lives in these communities and who governs these communities. How has this happened?

Why is there so little diversity? 

“It is not a simple answer,” said Kawartha Lakes Mayor Andy Letham. “Lack of interest in local politics leads to a lack of interest in running for positions … which leads to a lack of diversity on local councils. Running for council requires a financial commitment, time commitment and a flexible schedule commitment. I would argue that those constraints eliminate 75 per cent of the population from having an interest in representing their community. Or, they might have an interest but simply can’t make it work for personal, family or financial reasons.”

The lack of diversity is not a reflection on the quality of current council members, of course, but it does carry a message about who tends to run for office. “(Council) certainly attracts a retired, self-employed, financially stable kind of demographic,” Letham said. “Young people are working to pay off loans, juggle a family, and are not so financially set…”

Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien.

There are numerous barriers to achieving elected office for many segments of Ontario society, including time, money and support, according to Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien, who presides over one of the most diverse councils in central Ontario. She believes that in places like Peterborough “where (council) is considered a part-time job, this means that people need to manage their career and other aspects if they want to run,” Therrien said. “If a single parent with young kids wants to run for council, they need to either bring their children along door-knocking, which any parent will tell you is not feasible, or find child care during campaign time.”

She added that running for office is a challenging decision and in communities that are predominantly white, that challenge is compounded for candidates from diverse communities, who experience racially motivated comments coming not just from constituents, but from staff and their council peers.

Peterborough councillor Stephen Wright is a self-described member of the BIPOC community. (This is a U.S. term that has found purchase north of the border, meaning Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour).

“Roughly 73 per cent of Canadians today are of European descent, meaning that only 27 per cent of the Canadian population descended from outside of Europe. As a result, many minority groups often feel alienated and struggle to integrate into the public sphere. It is common for minorities to lose faith in civic bodies when their unique concerns are not heard.  Some communities may not feel public life is a viable option for them, especially when they see a lack of diversity and representation within the governing body.”

Wright added that running a campaign requires considerable time and money. “Members of diverse groups often work precarious jobs and do not have the time or the resources to invest in a campaign.” he said.

To successfully campaign for any kind of government position, Wright said, a person needs great networks, the ability to fundraise, and even to sustain oneself financially for an extended time if they have to forgo income while running.

“Those things aside, the community that you are asking to trust you might not connect with you. This is common in regions that fundamentally lack diversity. Stigmas and stereotypes often have more significant impacts when diversity is low.”

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), which set a goal of 50 per cent female representation in municipal politics by 2026, says women are not under- represented because they are unqualified. Thirty-five per cent of Canadian women 25 to64 hold post-secondary certificates compared to 30 per cent of men in the same age cohort.

Instead, the FCM’s website points out that deeper systematic issues in our society are to blame. “These include stereotypes, biases, systematic discrimination, unfair distribution of household responsibilities as well as policies, processes and attitudes rooted in colonialism and patriarchy.”

The FCM has stated publicly that pursuing gender parity and greater diversity in political leadership “is a matter of balance, fairness and justice.”

Potential Solutions 

Multiple options do exist for reforming the way municipal councils are elected and expanding the diversity on council of all disenfranchised groups. The only thing lacking, at least right now, is the political will of those making the decisions to experiment with changes that might threaten their own power. 

Option One – Make council positions full-time jobs 

Kitchen, Letham and Therrien said there is value in taking a serious look at this potential reform.

“There is a credible argument to be made “that making council positions full time with a credible salary would help the issue with diversity,” Kitchen said. “Councillors are not overpaid. I was involved with two separate commissions looking into salaries of councillors in Niagara Region and Ottawa-Carleton. Independent committees made of a broad cross-section of citizen volunteers, after looking closely at the data, recommended significant pay increases in both areas.”

Letham said that making councillor a higher-paid full-time position “would attract a younger, more diverse population.”

Therrien pointed out that in mid-sized cities like Peterborough and Kawartha Lakes, council jobs are theoretically supposed to be part-time positions, but in reality, the workload is full-time. That makes sitting on council unappealing for many who would need to balance their council commitments with their primary careers, a difficult task at the best of times. Leaving a full-time job for one that pays about $50,000 isn’t always realistic.

Option Two – Move more council business to the evening 

Many councils in Ontario meet during business hours to ensure senior staff can contribute their expertise to complex policy discussions.

While daytime council meetings benefit the city’s bottom line by reducing the need for staff overtime, it is a hardship to prospective council members who are not retired or self-employed.

The current Kawartha Lakes council features four retired people (Letham, and Councillors Doug Elmslie, Pat O’Reilly and Pat Dunn), four self-employed people (Councillors Tracy Richardson, Kathleen Seymour-Fagan, Emmett Yeo and Ron Ashmore) and one still working a traditional day job (Andrew Veale).

This council, as currently constituted, has no impediment to meeting during the daytime multiple times a month. They also have no reason to change the typical meeting times, which exclude many of those who might want to serve but are working full-time.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has made it a cornerstone of its diversity policy that employers need to make workplaces more flexible to empower people of all genders to be able to serve and have a balance between career and family.

Option Three – Introduction of political parties to municipal politics 

As Canadian municipalities struggle with appropriate representation for the entirety of their communities, they may wish to look the United States, where the presence of the Republican and Democratic Party fully ensconced in municipal politics has ensured that both women and racialized minorities do not feel intimidated from running and are proportionally represented. The party apparatus backs them up so it doesn’t feel like they’re left to face a daunting campaign process on their own.

Research by CITY’s Mulligan found that in Los Angeles, 50 per cent of the population are recognized racialized minorities and they make up 53 per cent of council. In both New York City and Chicago, the populations are 55 per cent racialized minorities and minorities fill half of the council seats in both cities.

Under this model, there are fewer concerns about funding, logistics or volunteers as the party apparatus provides that much-needed muscle to level the playing field for candidates from very different backgrounds. Another option is municipal-specific political parties such as those in Vancouver, Quebec City and Montreal. Candidates have the backing of a larger organization but must then also toe the party line when in office. 

Option Four – Term Limits 

Legislation requiring municipal representatives to step down after a certain number of years in office is another possibility. Term limits would open up the positions of councillors and mayors after a set number of years, encouraging fresh new perspectives every 8 to 12 years.

“Term limits might be an answer, but they are virtually unheard of in Canadian politics and very controversial,” Erin Tolley wrote, an assistant professor of political science at University of Toronto, in 2018 on the Policy Options website.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie told CBC in 2018 that long-serving incumbent councillors are “notoriously difficult to unseat” and sometimes diverse candidates have to wait for a death for a seat to open up for them to have a legitimate chance of winning, she told the CBC in 2018.

Andray Domise, a political activist who lost to Rob Ford in the 2010 Toronto mayoral race, told City TV that Ontarians should at least consider term limits, pointing to his own city. “We have councillors who have been in power in Toronto since the 1980s.” 

Option Five – Mentorship 

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says that “to achieve gender parity and open doors for women across all diversities, we need women and men who are willing to champion and support women running for office and remaining in office.”

Having a mentor could be crucial for politicians from diverse communities who may lack important contacts, money and name recognition in campaigns that are often under-reported by cash-strapped local media.

Lesley Parnell, the longest-serving woman on Peterborough city council, credited former mayor Daryl Bennett with keeping her engaged and involved with important committee and portfolio assignments when she was the only woman on council in 2010.

“I do not regret (the workload) at all as I learned much plus really felt in the loop,” Parnell shared.

The Peterborough mayor encouraged citizens who know someone who would be a good elected representative to suggest they run and support them if they decide to do so.

“Numerous studies tell us that women and marginalized people are less likely to run for office and that it takes up to a dozen times for them to be asked before they decide to do it,” said Dianne Therrien. “Together, we can make sure that everyone is represented in politics, though we still have a long road ahead of us.”

Option Six – Increased public education/engagement on the importance of municipal government 

Kawartha Lakes Mayor Andy Letham said increased engagement starting in educational settings could help. “Local politics exposure at the school level might help create an opportunity for some who might not have considered it.” 

Education and engagement are the keys to increasing diversity within government and public service, Councillor Wright said in an emailed response to the Advocate.

“As governing bodies, we need to continue to let minority groups know that their experiences and perspectives are valued and essential. We need to highlight the importance of public life and civic interactions. We also need to establish new channels for discourse and find new ways to implement policies that support minority communities. When minority groups feel more seen and heard, they will likely see the value in participating in and leading civic discourse.”

Kawartha Lakes Mayor Andy Letham.


The mayor acts as chief executive officer of the municipality and provides leadership to council, presiding over council meetings so that its business can be carried out efficiently and effectively. The mayor represents the municipality at official functions and carries out the duties of the head of council under the Municipal Act.

Pay: About $113,000 per year, plus expenses.


A councillor’s primary role is to represent their ward and the people who live in it. Councillors attend city functions and ceremonies, ward or town-hall meetings, community groups and constituent meetings. Councillors determine the number of committees they wish to participate in. Each year a councillor is appointed deputy mayor with their responsibilities approved by council.

Councillor Doug Elmslie. Photo: Roderick Benns.

Pay: About $48,500 per year, plus expenses.


Boards and committees provide advice and recommendations to council. Most committees include members of the public, and members of council. Some advisory committees are provincially legislated, while others are created by council to address a specific topic or facility. Advisory committees or task forces may be created on a temporary basis with a specific end date. Being a part of a committee is a great way to get a sense of how municipal politics works, and it’s a great contribution to your community.

How can I get involved?

Interested in joining a board or committee? Go to for more information on each committee and how to join. More information about the election process and candidate rules, regulations and procedures is also available at

1 Comment

  1. Michael says:

    Yeah. Because older white men are evil …because its 2021. What a crock of nonsense.

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