Media and mayoralty: race matters


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Last week, Winnipeggers elected Brian Bowman as their mayor. Bowman's official biography mentions his working-class background, his love of the Jets and the family dog, Indiana. Not mentioned is the fact Bowman is also Métis, something that was rarely referred to during the campaign, either by him or the media.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/10/2014 (3143 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last week, Winnipeggers elected Brian Bowman as their mayor. Bowman’s official biography mentions his working-class background, his love of the Jets and the family dog, Indiana. Not mentioned is the fact Bowman is also Métis, something that was rarely referred to during the campaign, either by him or the media.

Nonetheless, in the coverage that followed his election, many outlets shifted gears, calling the win “historic” and noting Bowman is the city’s first aboriginal mayor.

Contrast this to Robert-Falcon Ouellette, the mayoral race’s third-place finisher.

Ouellette is Cree, something he mentions on his website. While referencing his ethnic identity, Ouellette touted unity in his platform, and his policy booklet was entitled Policies for Everyone. Nonetheless, his aboriginal status was frequently mentioned in his media coverage, and Ouellette referred to Winnipeg as a city divided by race.

These mayoral candidates exemplify the fine balance that must be struck by politicians with minority backgrounds. While it is often difficult to completely conceal one’s ethnic heritage, candidates must decide whether and how they will negotiate their individual identity in a diverse landscape.

Even in Winnipeg — which has the largest urban aboriginal population in the country — no candidate could win election by appealing only to this segment of voters. A broad coalition of supporters is needed. This is particularly so given aboriginal Canadians are comparatively disenfranchised, with a significant number experiencing high levels of poverty and homelessness and many opting not to vote or participate in formal politics.

An electoral strategy that targeted them alone would fail. As a result, while Ouellette chose to proclaim his heritage and Bowman did not, both needed to look beyond their co-ethnic communities to secure electoral support.

Despite this, media coverage has now drawn attention to the ethnic backgrounds of both politicians. This is partly a result of news practices that prioritize reporting on events that are novel or unexpected. The Canadian Press stylebook, for example, suggests in its section on ethnicity “race is pertinent in reporting an accomplishment unusual in a particular race.” This is why we do not see news headlines touting the election of one more middle-aged white male. Such an occurrence is so common, journalists see little reason to report on it. When media coverage focuses on a politician’s race or ethnicity, it disproportionately affects those with minority backgrounds.

I have identified this pattern in my own research, which looks at the media’s coverage of visible-minority politicians in Canada. Although examples of overtly racist reporting are rare, coverage is definitely not race-neutral. The media are much more likely to draw attention to the subject’s socio-demographic background and to their interest in so-called minority issues. This is despite the propensity of most visible-minority candidates to downplay their minority status — Bowman’s strategy — often so they are not pigeonholed as minority candidates. Their coverage is typically more negative and less prominent than that of their white counterparts, often appearing off of the front page and with less attention to their policy positions and ideas. This pattern holds, even when other factors such as political experience and party affiliation are taken into account.

Because of this, candidates with minority backgrounds may be perceived as undesirable political outsiders who care more about the concerns of their “own” communities than about those of other Canadians. In a context in which broad electoral appeal is a necessity, such reporting puts minority politicians at a disadvantage. It also leaves the impression race is only relevant when you are in the minority. If you are white, your coverage focuses not on your background or the colour of your skin but on issues that actually matter in politics.

Although Canadians pride themselves on their acceptance of diversity, race still matters. It’s typically not racist slurs or overt prejudice, but a more subtle differentiation between those who are white and those who are not. In Toronto, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, a major newspaper just this weekend published an editorial cartoon depicting mayoral candidate Olivia Chow with exaggerated and stereotypical “Chinese” features.

Certainly, Canadians are not averse to voting for and electing candidates with minority backgrounds; our politicians are more diverse than ever. But that doesn’t mean we are race-blind. That an aboriginal politician’s background is still considered newsworthy shows race still matters to the media and, as a result, it matters to all of us.


Erin Tolley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Twitter: @e_tolley

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