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Opinion: A candidate's name on the ballot is not community outreach

Showing a name in non-Latin script on the ballot should be about a candidate's identity, 'not their desire to appeal to an ethnic community,' says columnist Mo Amir.
Candidates in the 2022 Vancouver Civic Election may display their names in non-Latin script alongside their names in English on the ballot.

A candidate’s name on an official voting ballot has always been a formal identifier. In Vancouver, however, names outside of Latin languages (like English) have not historically been expressed authentically on the ballot.

Fortunately, times are changing. Whether it’s Global’s Neetu Garcha informing viewers on the pronunciation of her name or CBC’s Tarnjit Kaur Parmar using her real name, more people in public life are embracing the proper expression of their given names. In Vancouver’s 2018 municipal election, OneCity Vancouver candidate Brandon Yan was the only candidate on the ballot to have their name listed both in English and their given name in Chinese characters.

These examples should have been torchbearers for others to reclaim their ancestral names from the 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 the NPA Vancouver – will have their names additionally written in non-Latin script, mostly Chinese characters. Some of these candidates like COPE school board candidate Suzie Mah or OneCity Vancouver city council candidate Iona Bonamis make a fair argument: They were born with these names of non-Latin script.

Others – like NPA Vancouver city councillor Melissa De Genova – argue that their “connection” to a certain ethnic community warrants the addition of a name in non-Latin script, even when it is not their birth name, legal name, or a name in their own ancestral language.

Now, it is common practice for political parties to translate communication into different languages for different ethnic groups, including the addition of a non-Latin name on advertisements and social media usernames. Adopting cultural expressions can be a sign of respect. The desire to reach out to as many people as possible – including those whose first language is not English – is a worthy pursuit. It should, of course, be a reciprocal endeavour, accompanied by the kind of representation that listens to, involves, and empowers communities.

However, effectively claiming quasi-membership of an ethnic group by insisting that your name be formally 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 except electoral advantage.

The Vancouver Charter allows for “the usual name of the person nominated, if the full name of the person is different from the name the person usually uses” to be used on the official ballot. For example, “Robert Smith” could be printed as “Bob Smith”. More pertinently, this clause may (and should) allow for the inclusion of an ancestral name in non-Latin script.

Arguably, these additions highlight a name on the ballot, providing electoral advantage. But, ultimately, an ancestral, given, or legal name is a real name. In a society that values multiculturalism, an authentic expression of a name seems reasonable to include on an official election ballot.

However, this should not allow for a candidate to claim a “usual name” on the ballot that is expressed in a language not connected to the candidate’s ancestry or legal name. It is rather insulting for a candidate to claim that since they “pretty much grew up in Chinatown,” they are entitled to use an additional, “usual name” in Chinese characters on the ballot (as argued by Councillor De Genova).

It is akin to someone with an honorary doctorate insisting that they be referred to as “doctor” as if they actually earned such a formal title. At least that practice is not insensitive to ethnic communities who have long struggled with acceptance in public life. 

Ultimately, this matter was adjourned by provincial court Judge James Wingham and may invoke a constitutional challenge. But, it needs to be settled after this year’s municipal elections to ensure ballot integrity in the future.

Ballots are, after all, official documents that carry out the process of democratic elections. The names, as printed on those ballots, signify identity. They are not intended as – most charitably – exercises in community outreach or as – most cynically – electoral advantage at the expense of ethnic communities.

Mo Amir is the host of This is VANCOLOUR, Vancouver’s bona fide culture and politics podcast, now also airing on Thursdays at 9 p.m, on CHEK.