When candidate Ritch Lau goes door to door, he begins by saying “hello” in all the languages he knows: English, Mandarin and Cantonese, his mother tongue.
Lau is running for council in Markham, where nearly 17% of residents primarily speak Cantonese at home; for Mandarin, it’s just over 12%. He feels his approach resonates especially with seniors and new immigrants.
“They smile instantly,” said Lau, a broadcaster and journalist who spoke Cantonese on air but quit his job to introduce himself.
“They feel like you’re one of them. They feel at home.”
Based on what he hears, Lau quickly grabs a brochure from the back pocket of his pants. In a pocket, he has pamphlets in traditional Chinese. The other has its English leaflets. It remembers which brochures are in each pocket so you don’t grab the wrong one.
Lau is campaigning in Ward 2 of Markham, an open race with no titular race. At least four of the five candidates, including Lau, speak both Mandarin and English, while three also speak Cantonese – and use those languages at the gate.
CBC Toronto has not heard from any of the candidates.
Driving around Markham, the pavements and bends are full of campaign signs, many of which include traditional or simplified Chinese as well as English. For Lau, it was a difficult decision to include traditional Chinese on his signs and flyers.
“I don’t want to be off-putting to English speakers when they seem… like, ‘Oh, there’s a language I don’t really understand,'” he said.
“But hopefully they understand the other side of the story…it’s a choice we can make to be more inclusive and care for the people who are left behind, mostly.”
Make elections more accessible
Lau knows that language barriers pose a significant challenge to involving people in elections and thinks Markham could do more to address this issue.
The town of Markham says it translates key election information on its website and has a voter helpline, offering voter assistance in more than 150 languages. The city also says it holds voter education sessions in multiple languages.
The City of Toronto touts its How to Vote booklet – which is available in 25 languages – and runs election ads on radio, Facebook, online and in community newspapers in multiple languages.
On election day, the city says staff who are fluent in multiple languages will have badges with all the languages they speak. Voters may also be accompanied by an interpreter if they wish. If none of that works, the city suggests calling 311 for interpretation.
Seher Shafiq has done a lot of frontline work in previous elections to make them more accessible to people who speak limited or no English.
She applauds campaign literature in other languages — both from candidates and election workers — but says the biggest obstacle is a lack of civic literacy.
- LISTEN | How to knock on doors in different languages:
8:42The role of languages in the municipal election campaign
“Newcomers don’t understand how the system works… For example, an MLA versus an MLA looks very similar,” said Shafiq, who is working with North York Community House to create a civic engagement program for groups that serve immigrants and refugees.
“You respond to things like, ‘How do I register to vote? How do I know where to vote?'”
Shafiq says a good approach is to tailor campaigns directly to communities with low voter turnout. This could include using local community leaders in advertising how and where to vote.
“If there are two posters, one has a local community leader you see at your mosque every week… compared to a stranger’s face, you’re more likely to engage with the one you resonate with .”
She says more work needs to be done in the years between elections, not just the months before them. But Shafiq says the local grassroots organizations doing this work don’t have the resources.
She thinks this is where the city could step in by making more funds available.
“It could go a long way.”