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Many in Markham don’t speak English. So candidates are pitching plans in Cantonese, Mandarin

When candidate Ritch Lau is out knocking on doors, he starts by saying “hi” in all the languages he knows — English, Mandarin and Cantonese, his mother tongue.

Lau is running for municipal council in Markham, where nearly 17 per cent of residents predominantly speak Cantonese at home; for Mandarin, it’s just over 12 per cent. He feels his approach especially resonates with seniors and new immigrants.

“They instantly smile,” said Lau, a host and news reporter who spoke Cantonese on air but stepped down from his job to run. 

“They feel like you are one of them. They feel at home.”

Depending on what he hears back, Lau then quickly grabs for a brochure from the back pocket of his pants. In one pocket, he’s got pamphlets in traditional Chinese. The other has his English fliers. He memorizes which pamphlets are in each pocket so he’s not grabbing the wrong one.

Lau’s campaigning in Markham’s Ward 2, an open race with no incumbent running. At least four of the five candidates, including Lau, speak both Mandarin and English, while three also speak Cantonese — and are using these languages at the door.

CBC Toronto did not hear back from one of the candidates.

Many of the election signs around Markham include traditional or simplified Chinese, in addition to English. The majority of candidates in the city’s Ward 2 are campaigning in multiple languages. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Driving around Markham, curbs and corners are packed with campaign signs, many including traditional or simplified Chinese as well as English. For Lau, it was a difficult decision to include traditional Chinese on his signs and fliers.

“I don’t want to be off putting for English speakers when they look … to be like, ‘Oh, there’s a language that I don’t really understand,'” he said.

“But I hope they understand on the other side of the story …  it’s a choice that we can take to be more inclusive and take care of people who are being left out, mostly.”

Making elections more accessible

Lau knows language barriers pose a significant challenge to getting people involved in elections and thinks Markham could be doing more to fix that.

The City of Markham says it’s translating key election information on its website and has a voter helpline, offering election assistance in more than 150 languages. The city also says it’s been running election education sessions in multiple languages.

The City of Toronto is touting its how-to-vote booklet — which comes in 25 languages — and is running election ads on radio, Facebook, online and in community papers in several languages.

On election day, the city says staff who are fluent in multiple languages will have name tags with all the languages they speak. Voters can also bring an interpreter if they wish. If none of that works, the city suggests calling 311 for interpretation.

Seher Shafiq has done a lot of front-line work in past elections to make them more accessible for people who speak limited English or none at all.

She applauds campaign literature in other languages — both from candidates and election staff — but says the biggest barrier is lack of civic literacy.

  • LISTEN | How to knock on doors in different languages:

8:42The role of languages in the municipal election campaign

Election signs have been popping up around the city by now. And depending on where you are in the GTA, many of those signs are in languages other than English. Here and Now’s Haydn Watters met with candidate Ritch Lau in Markham and went door knocking with him. Lau speaks speak Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

“Newcomers don’t understand the way the system works … For example, an MP versus an MPP sounds very similar,” said Shafiq, who works with North York Community House creating a civic engagement curriculum for groups who serve immigrants and refugees.

“You’re answering things like, ‘How do I register to vote? How do I find out where to vote?'”

Shafiq says a good approach is tailoring campaigns directly to communities with lower voter turnout. That might include using local community leaders in advertising about how and where to vote.

Markham council candidate Ritch Lau out door knocking, standing in a purple campaign shirt out front of a black door, waiting for its resident to answer.
Lau figures he’s knocked on about 5,000 doors so far. It depends on the neighbourhood, but he says he’ll end up talking to a resident between 30 and 50 per cent of the time. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

“If there’s two posters, one has a local community leader that you see at your mosque every week … versus a stranger’s face, you’re more likely to engage with the one that you resonate with.”

She says more work needs to be done in the years between elections, not just in the months leading up to them. But Shafiq says the local grassroots organizations that do this work don’t have the resources.

She thinks this is where the city could step up by making more funding available.

“That could go a really long way.”

The full list of candidates for Markham Ward 2 includes:

  • Trina Kollis
  • Larry Lau
  • Ritch Lau
  • Steven Sun
  • Yan Wang

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