When Ken Yee Chew and Erin Caton decided to run for city council last year, neither did so in the hopes of blazing a trail for inclusion and diversity, but that’s what happened.
They bring never before heard voices and lived experiences to local decision-making – something many candidates openly called for during their campaigns, but it’s something neither made a key aspect of their election efforts.
Chew is the first known Guelph city councillor from a visible minority group, while Caton is the first known councillor who identifies as non-cisgendered, confirms city clerk Stephen O’Brien..
They were elected last October and have been serving since November.
“For a wider spectrum of citizens, they see themselves reflected in the people making decisions on their behalf,” said Julia Simmons, an associate professor in the University of Guelph’s political science department. “I think it's important for the legitimacy of our political institutions that the people that are elected to them reflect the diversity (in the community).
“In this case, we know that there is cultural and racial diversity to the citizens that live in Guelph, as well as a spectrum of genders, and so having individuals that reflect that diversity to some degree is a positive step.”
Chew was born and raised in Richmond, British Columbia, the son of Malaysian parents who moved to Canada in the late 1980s, with family lineage that tracks back to southern China. He moved to Guelph about seven years ago to attend university and decided to stay.
Being a member of a visible minority group was a “blessing” for Chew when he began knocking on doors to solicit support in his council run.
“If anything it's been rather positive than negative, especially down the south end of Guelph, it's predominantly made-up of visible minorities,” he said. “I think having a person of different ethnicity has allowed for first impressions to be a lot easier at the door. And it's allowed for more genuine conversations.”
Chew, a political newcomer, captured 28.37 per cent of the vote and was one of two councillors elected from Ward 6, which is at the city’s southern end. The other was incumbent Dominique O’Rourke, who garnered 36.1 per cent of the vote.
Caton, who identifies as non-binary, is also new to politics. They finished second in the race for two seats representing Ward 1 in the city’s east end.
With 18.58 per cent of the vote, Caton’s campaign was bested by only incumbent Dan Gibson, who finished with 31.11 per cent of voter support.
“It wasn't really a part of why I ran. It just just happens to be the case,” Caton said of being the first known councillor in city history who identifies as non-cisgenered.
Caton was born in Hamilton and mostly grew up in Sudbury, then lived in Toronto for a while before moving to Guelph about three years ago.
“I thought it was one of the more culturally sensitive and diverse communities when I was trying to pick a place to move to outside of Toronto,” Caton said, adding they experienced discrimination on a few occasions during the campaign “but that was very limited compared to the amount of people that I talked to.”
Though Chew and Caton cast but a single vote each of 13 on council, sharing their perspective and lived experience can influence others and lead to changes in decision-making and policy-setting.
“Everybody's lived experience informs the positions they have on a spectrum of issues and if we have a diversity of lived experiences informing the decisions or informing the perspectives that are represented in the city council, that is beneficial,” said Simmons, noting the experiences within any group can be “widely diverse” – Caton and Chew can’t be expected to speak on behalf of the entire minority group to which they belong.
To illustrate her point, Simmons used the example of previous calls for women on council at a time when it was dominated by men.
“What is a woman's perspective like? That is not a uniform thing,” she said.
Influence can often be made in subtle ways.
“I think that there's been a couple of times where I just had to kind of remind people when they're posting about things like generally people say, you know, happy International Women's Day to all of my colleagues and I'm not in that list,” Caton said when asked what impact their gender identity has had on their duties as councillor. “But everybody who I've had to remind has been very apologetic and kind, and I haven't had any issues within council on that.”
There’s also casual conversations, such as the one Caton had with a council discussion mediator, while working with the rest of council to develop a new strategic plan, about the lack of gender-neutral washrooms at city hall.
“Traditionally we've had a lot of cisgendered straight white people on council, and when you don't run into these things on a daily basis, it's not like you don't want to advocate for everybody in the population, but it's just that something that's top of mind,” said Caton.
With the addition of members of minority groups to council, Chew hopes to see an uptake in the public’s interest in city happenings – public meetings, open houses, opinion surveys and especially at election time.
“I hope it would encourage more people to be more involved,” said Chew, lamenting the fact only about 28 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the municipal election. “It's quite low and I was quite shocked to be honest with you because I thought our team had brought in a lot of new first-time voters.”