Opinion: A candidate’s name on the ballot is not community outreach
Displaying a name in non-Latin characters on the ballot should be about a candidate’s identity, “not their desire to appeal to an ethnic community,” says columnist Mo Amir.
A candidate’s name on an official ballot has always been a formal identifier. In Vancouver, however, names outside of Latin languages (such as English) have historically not been authentically expressed on the ballot.
Fortunately, times are changing. Whether Global Neetu Garcha inform viewers about the pronunciation of his name or CBC Tarnjit Kaur Parmar by using his real name, more and more people in public life adopt the correct expression of their first names. In the 2018 Vancouver mayoral election, OneCity Vancouver candidate Brandon Yan was the only candidate on the ballot to have his name listed in both English and his first name in Chinese characters.
These examples should have been torchbearers for others to reclaim their ancestral names in the face of pressure to formally anglicize their identity. Instead, the floodgates have opened for others to rather cynically adopt names outside of their ancestry or legal names.
Fifteen candidates – including 10 from NPA Vancouver – will have their names additionally written in non-Latin characters, mainly in Chinese characters. Some of these candidates, like Suzie Mah, candidate for the COPE school board, or Iona Bonamis, candidate for the city council of OneCity Vancouver, make a fair point: they were born with these non-Latin script names.
Others — like NPA Vancouver councilor Melissa De Genova — argue that their “connection” to a certain ethnic community justifies adding a name in non-Latin characters, even if it’s not about their birth name, their legal name or a name in their own ancestral language.
Now, it is common for political parties to translate communication into different languages for different ethnic groups, including adding a non-Latin name on advertisements and social media usernames. Embracing cultural expressions can be a sign of respect. The desire to reach as many people as possible – including those whose first language is not English – is a worthy pursuit. This should, of course, be a reciprocal effort, accompanied by a type of representation that listens to, involves and empowers communities.
However, effectively claiming quasi-ethnicity by insisting that your name be officially recognized on an official ballot in a language to which your own ancestry has no connection is not community outreach. It is cultural appropriation, seemingly in pursuit of nothing but electoral advantage.
The Vancouver Charter allows “the nominee’s common name, if the person’s full name is different from the name they usually use” to be used on the official ballot. For example, “Robert Smith” might be printed as “Bob Smith”. More pertinently, this clause can (and should) allow for the inclusion of an ancestral name in a non-Latin script.
Arguably, these additions highlight a name on the ballot, providing an electoral advantage. But, ultimately, an ancestral, given, or legal name is a real name. In a society that values multiculturalism, the authentic expression of a name seems reasonable to include on an official ballot.
However, this should not allow a candidate to claim a “common name” on the ballot that is expressed in a language unrelated to the candidate’s ancestry or legal name. It is rather insulting for a candidate to claim that since he “practically grew up in Chinatown”, he has the right to use an additional “common name” in Chinese characters on the ballot (such as argued Councilor De Genova).
It’s akin to someone with an honorary doctorate insisting on being called “doctor” as if he had actually achieved such a formal title. At least this practice is not insensitive to ethnic communities that have long struggled to be accepted in public life.
Ultimately, that case was adjourned by Provincial Court Judge James Wingham and could raise a constitutional challenge. But, it needs to be settled after this year’s municipal elections to ensure the integrity of the ballot going forward.
Ballots are, after all, official documents that carry out the process of democratic elections. Names, as printed on these ballots, signify identity. They are not intended to be – most charitably – community outreach exercises or – most cynically – an electoral advantage at the expense of ethnic communities.
Mo Amir is the host of This is VANCOLOUR, Vancouver’s authentic culture and politics podcast, now also airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CHEK.