Wednesday, 29 October 2014
The Great Divide in voting
Upscale neighbourhoods like Wellington Crescent
have higher turnout and more say in city politics than
low income areas like Lord Selkirk Park.
Top: Wellington Crescent House
Bottom: Lord Selkirk Park Apartments
Image Source: NOW Winnipeg
“Aboriginal Winnipeggers are the fastest-growing segment of the middle class,” trumpted Kevin Chief, the provincial minister for Winnipeg, in a sunny editorial for the Winnipeg Free Press. “All the evidence shows a big part of that success is education. This is an incredible emerging story, and Winnipeggers are recognising it and responding.”
Much of the city’s aboriginal community, however, remains underemployed, undereducated and relegated to relatively impoverished neighbourhoods in Winnipeg’s inner city and North End. Two of the three poorest postal codes in Canada are in Winnipeg. Both are predominantly indigenous neighbourhoods. They are plagued by substandard housing, inadequate financial and retail services and higher-than-average levels of violent crime, mostly because of the domestic violence associated with poverty but also because of the presence of indigenous gangs.
In an exit interview in September, outgoing mayor Sam Katz portrayed aboriginals as refugees in their own country. “I know that there’s a lot of First Nations people leaving the reserves and coming to the big city of Winnipeg. They have no training. They have no education. They have no hope,” he said. “I’m sorry, you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out what’s going to happen. They’re going to end up in gangs. They’re going to end up in drugs. They’re going to end up in prostitution. And from there, it only gets worse.”
In this divided city, those are often the only indigenous people whom some suburbanites like Lorrie Steeves see: the panhandlers, solvent abusers and mentally ill. Steeves’ rant which may have precipitated the subsequent decline of popular support for her husband, but it also garnered some praise – adding insult to injury for many indigenous Winnipeggers.
("The 'great indigenous divide': Winnipeg stares into an ethnic chasm". Bartley Kives, The Guardian (Oct. 21, 2014.))
There has been some speculation over whether the Metis Brian Bowman, as Winnipeg's first indigenous mayor, can bridge the divide. I'll personally adopt a wait and see approach, as while the mayor-elect promised the moon we still have yet to see what he'll actually spend his political capital on. Closing the great divide will also take a lot more than one person, even someone as mighty as the (soon to be) mayor.
The election which generated a landslide win for Bowman itself demonstrated a great socioeconomic divide. Poorer neighbourhoods, with high indigenous and other racialized populations, in the North End and parts of the downtown did not go heavily for Brian Bowman like the middle class and upscale suburbs did.
A great illustration of this is a map in the Freep article about Ouellette and his ability to attract unlikely voters.Judy swept the North End and Robert Falcon-Ouellette did well in eastern downtown and eastern inner city subdivisions. A map of voter turnout, however, reveals that the areas won by Judy and Robert were lightweights in turnout, with some subdivisions boasting less than 19% turnout. Bowman leaning Tuxedo subdivision CT03, by contrast, had 58.2% of eligible voters at the polls.
The Great Divide in voting may help explain why a solid left progressive hasn't sat in our mayor's chair since the early 1940s. While lower turnout doesn't matter as much in provincial elections, where poor areas are cut off into ridings (in which case, it doesn't matter for a party whether you win the riding with 20% turnout or 70% turnout) it does matter for city-wide elections. It also probably matters somewhat for council ward races, as our council wards are much larger than provincial city ridings (15 wards vs 31 provincial ridings in Winnipeg) so that a richer neighbourhood outvoting poorer neighbourhood dynamic probably shapes the vote within wards. This is certainly the case with federal Winnipeg ridings (of which there are only 8).
This Great Divide in voting is a cause for concern. The poor have less platforms than middle and upper middle class Winnipeggers to let their grievances and issues known. A working poor single parent may have less time to prepare a brief for a City forum or a letter to the editor. Given the elite social circles politicians often frequent, our fellow citizen may be uncomfortable approaching most of them about issues. Giving campaign donations is also harder when you have less money to spend.
If poor Winnipeggers are giving up on the ballot box come civic election time, they're giving up on one of their few feasible options they have for participating in the political system. A class, both by circumstance and by choices shaped by past experiences, locked out of the electoral system should concern all Winnipeggers.
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