Amber Paquette - Edmonton Historian Laureate
Introduction The City of Edmonton has a long historic trend of diversity among the demography. Despite this, ethnic and gender minority representation has remained an unbalanced and prevalent factor in the city’s municipal politics. This report will take an in-depth look at the historical electoral representation of women, First Nations, Métis and other ethnic minorities throughout Edmonton’s historic timeline.
The Numbers: Minority Representation
For the municipal election year of 2017-2021, Edmonton’s City Council presently consists of 11 men and 2 women, of which only 2 individuals represent ethnic minorities. At present, women and ethnic minority sectors only represent 15% of Edmonton’s City Council, whereas the city’s visible minority population is an estimated 37% — with a 5.5% Indigenous population. This is 1 not counting less visible minorities or public school trustees. Overall, statistics show a disparity between Edmonton’s diverse population and those who represent them on a municipal level. This disparity is not an uncommon trend throughout the city’s history. Since Edmonton's official incorporation in 1912 — there has been minimal affiliation between the municipal government and the city’s minorities. According to the Edmonton Journal: “ In the Oct. 16 (2017) election, 69 people ran for a council seat in Edmonton. Of those, about 25 per cent were from a visible minority community, plus three per cent were Indigenous.”2 There have been 2 Indigenous people on council throughout the city’s history: Kiviaq (David Ward) who served two terms in 1968 and 1974 — and Aaron Paquette, who was elected in 2017. There have also only been two councillors from ethnic communities: Amarjeet Sohi, who became the first city councillor from an ethnic community since Kiviaq in 1968 — and Mohinder Banga, who was elected in 2017.
The Numbers: Gender
Politics In terms of gender representation, Edmonton saw an increase of 20% women who ran for office in 2013 — to 33% in 2017. 131 of the candidates were women. In 2013, the city saw only one woman sit on council, Bev Essingver, for the first time since 1971. When Sarah Hamilton was elected in 2017, the number increased to two women on council.5 Prior to 2013, in 2010 there were four women on council and five in 2004. Five times there have been at least five women on council. When Mayor Jan Reimer was elected in 1989, she was Edmonton’s first female mayor and had seven women serving on city council — the first and only time in the city’s history that female gender representation outweighed male. According to The Star: “A gender analysis of the country’s 441 largest municipalities (those with a population of 9,000 or more) reveals only 53 — or about 12 per cent — have a council on which women equal or outnumber men.”
The History: Who could vote?
The First official election of Greater Edmonton took place on February 16, 1912. Prior to this, Edmonton had been divided into two distinct settlements: Edmonton Settlement and Strathcona Settlement. There were 44 River lots surveyed on the banks of the North and South Sides of the North Saskatchewan River.
According to the primary source census data, up until the late 1880’s — Edmonton’s population was predominantly 57% Métis and First Nations in 1881. This would change once the city saw 7 a drastic increase of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) immigration from Ontario and Eastern Canada, largely as a result of the arrival of the railway.
Ethnic demographics in Edmonton changed drastically after the 1885 Riel Resistance in what is now Saskatchewan. Due to illegal scrip speculation and subsequent enfranchisement and 8 other racial policies forced upon Métis and First Nations by the Canadian government — many lost their homesteads and riverlots to land speculators.
Many of Edmonton’s first “founding fathers” and city councillors were in fact, illegal land speculators who acquired a vast amount of their wealth and political control through scrip and forced land surrenders (such as the Enoch and Papaschase Cree land surrenders.)
Under the Indian Act First Nations were barred from Canadian citizenship and therefore not eligible to vote in municipal or federal elections up until 1960. Métis were eligible to vote only 10 if they took scrip and extinguished their inherent Indian rights to obtain Canadian citizenship. In 1893, the NWT Legislative Assembly ruled that unmarried women and widows of Canadian or British Ancestry — over the age of 21 who owned land — could vote in municipal elections. The stress on the fact that being a Eurocandian landowner was necessary to vote (for both women and men) should not be understated.
As such, any person born in Canada —even those of Eurocandian ancestry who did not own land — were also excluded from municipal elections. For Asian-Canadians, even those born in Canada, it was not until after the Second World War that citizenship - and therefore voting rights - were extended. Chinese Canadians fought and won the right to vote in 1947, while Japanese Canadians won the same in 1949. This necessarily undercut the political 12 participation and representation of minorities.
In 1912, people who owned property in Edmonton (but who did not live there) could likewise vote in city elections, but people who rented could not vote. The right for renters to vote was amended in 1912 — adding an astounding 3000 voters to the 8000 people on the voters list of that year. The clause allowing non-residents who owned land to vote was not removed until 1983.
Regardless, the right to run as a Candidate had separate qualifications. Municipal election Candidates were required to own land up until 1968. These qualifications would naturally have an astounding impact on the city’s overall gender and minority representation as a whole.
By default, First Nations could not own land and the Métis had been dispossessed of much of their land as well. As such, restricting municipal elections to wealthy Eurocandian landowners is inherently problematic. By default, these statistics would restrict the political agenda to reflect the sole interests of wealthy proprietors.
The History: Women on City Council
Alberta has a relatively progressive history in terms of gender representation. The Female Suffrage movement was initially born in Alberta. Emily Murphy and Nellie Mclung, two of the Famous Five, both lived in the city of Edmonton. During the provincial election of June 7, 1917 14 — Premier Sifton was forced to cave when:
“By their votes the women of Alberta will either vindicate the right to take part in political discussion or sanction the propaganda to abuse and insult them off the platforms.”
The first woman who ever ran for city council deserves mention. Miss Gertrude McBain would run as the first female candidate in 1925. She was unmarried at the time. According to records held by Library Archives Canada, someone attempted to “to have proceedings stopped” to a G. McBain, during the exact same year she ran. At the end of her campaign, she unfortunately received only 31 votes.
Following McBain’s legacy, several other women would continue to run for city council. It is interesting to note that the majority of early female Candidates were married to males already on city council. This trend would continue for several decades.
1989 saw the highest representation of women on the City Council — the year Mayor Reimer was elected, the numbers were approximately equal. Since that time, the number of women on council has significantly regressed.
Despite Edmonton’s history of diversity, marginalized communities have largely been underrepresented at a municipal level. Notwithstanding a brief period where gender representation approached parity, Indigenous peoples, women, and visible minorities have not had their interests represented by members of their own communities. Overall, this report indicates that these disparities are worth examining further and improving upon