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Municipal Politics

Vancouver Election Controversy: What’s in a ‘Usual Name’?

Some candidates are listing their ballot names in languages other than English. Is that a problem?

Christopher Cheung 28 Sep

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

If you want to run for office in Vancouver, there’s a box on the candidacy form that says “usual name.” There isn’t much information about what constitutes a usual name, just that this is the name you go by and what ultimately shows up on the ballot.

If your legal name is Kenneth Sim but everyone knows you as simply Ken Sim, then that’s what you’d put down. If you have a legal name like Thuan Xuan Ly, but go by a name to cater to English speakers like Tim Ly, then you might put down the latter.

Two elections ago in 2014, one candidate decided to try something different.

Audrey Siegl, who is Musqueam, included her ancestral name on the form and wrote “Audrey Siegl sχɬemtəna:t.” It was a first for the Vancouver ballot. Last election in 2018, council candidate Brandon Yan decided to include his Chinese name beside his English name. It was the first for a Chinese name.

This precedent left Iona Bonamis wondering what to put down on her form this year. “I thought long and hard,” said Bonamis, who is running for council with OneCity, the same party as Yan. “I know the negative attention Brandon [Yan] received when he decided to use it.”

Bonamis took her husband’s last name, of Portuguese origin, after marriage. But as a Canadian-born of Chinese heritage, she also has a Chinese name that she uses. She ended up including it on her form.

For candidates like her who have names in other languages that they go by, she says including is “an expression of our authentic self.”

Bonamis ended up being one of 15 candidates who included names in other languages on their forms, mostly Chinese, but also Farsi and Vietnamese.

However, Vancouver’s chief election officer stepped in. She filed an application to provincial court to have those names in other languages disallowed.

Her argument? Candidates were not using their “usual names.”

What’s in a usual name?

Vancouver’s candidate information package includes next to no information about what it considers as a “usual name.” (The lack of clarity has allowed names of fringe candidates with names like Rollergirl and Mrs. Doubtfire to run on ballots.)

What the package does say is that a usual name can be different from one’s legal name and can be challenged by another nominee or the chief election officer, who is currently Rosemary Hagiwara.

Hagiwara argued that a number of candidates who’ve run for office in the past did not include names from other languages as part of their usual name, specifically mentioning Vision Vancouver school board candidate Allan Wong, the NPA’s council candidate Melissa De Genova and the party’s mayoral candidate Fred Harding. In the case of Harding, Hagiwara also mentioned that he did not include a Chinese name with his initial application, only adding it on three days later.

On Sept. 15, the provincial judge said it would be “unfair” to proceed with the challenge with the Oct. 15 election so near.

As a result, all 15 candidates were allowed to keep their names from other languages as part of their usual name on this year’s ballot.

The matter remains unresolved, but it’s raised a sensitive question about inclusion versus cultural appropriation. Are candidates submitting names in other languages because it’s part of their identity, or are they just including them on the ballot under the belief that they might attract more votes?

‘Pandering’ or ‘part of their community’?

Bonamis’s Chinese name was given to her at birth. On the other hand, she noticed that a number of her fellow candidates who’ve added a Chinese name to the ballot — many of them from the NPA party — appear to have been given one later in life.

If they’re using it just for the sake of the election, she says it’s “pandering” and “cultural appropriation.”

Some of those candidates argued for their inclusion as part of their usual name.

NPA mayoral candidate Harding’s response to critics: he’s had his Chinese name for years because his wife, the singer Zhang Mi, is Chinese. It wasn’t just “plucked out of a hat,” he told the Canadian Press. To anyone who says it’s not his usual name, Harding says, “You really don’t know me.”

NPA council candidate De Genova’s response to critics: she was given her Chinese name by members of the local Chinese community as she “pretty much grew up in Chinatown” with her father, she told CTV. De Genova is of Italian ancestry, but she said that by using her Chinese name, she gets to honour it and show “that I also am a part of their community and I’m here to listen and represent them.”

An ‘offensive assumption’

Yan, the candidate who in 2018 was the first to include his Chinese name as part of his usual name, has been watching the ballot name challenge this year.

He knows candidates had been watching him too. At a recent Car Free Day, a candidate came up to him and was “bending over backwards” to explain their Chinese name to him.

“I could’ve told you when I became involved in that controversy in 2018 that this was going to be an issue in upcoming elections,” he said. “[They] had four years in the intervening time to figure it out.”

The fact that election officials didn’t is “frustrating.”

Yan was caught up in the challenge himself back in 2018 after he submitted his Chinese name as part of his usual name. There wasn’t much to it: he asked the official at the city if he could, and they said it was acceptable as long as it’s his usual name.

Two school board candidates called the decision unfair, even filing a notice of claim to the B.C. Supreme Court. They eventually dropped legal action due to the quickly approaching election.

Aside from the formal challenge, “there were quite a few folks — mostly random from the internet [but also] in-community people — who had nasty things to say,” said Yan. “They perceived it was playing to some kind of weird advantage.”

Yan did not win a council seat.

The idea that a name in a non-Latin script would give a candidate an advantage is something that Kevin Huang has heard over the years. Huang is the executive director of the Hua Foundation, a non-profit that works on issues of racial equity and civic engagement.

“That’s a very offensive assumption,” he said. “It’s kind of demeaning, as if we don’t have civic literacy to make our own choices, so we vote for the people who have Chinese names thinking they might stand with us.”

For racialized people in Canada, carrying names that English speakers aren’t used to is often a disadvantage, said Huang. That goes for children facing racism at school or, as studies have shown, people with non-white names rejected for employment.

Experiences like immigration and discrimination lead people to “adopt or even be given,” a new name to fit in, said Huang. Kevin, for example, is not part of his legal name.

“Heritage is important, especially for Indigenous folks — [that] right to use their heritage names in a colonial society if we really want to address white supremacy and colonialism. So many racialized folks have to give up their original names in the public sphere.”

It’s well known that language continues to be a barrier for civic participation, adds Huang.

His non-profit has worked on campaigns during the pandemic to ensure that locals who speak other languages than English and French were able to access health guidelines, vaccines and employment supports.

Of the candidates that are claiming Chinese names they’ve received later in life as part of their usual name, Huang hopes that “rather than fighting for the ‘right’ to use it, they advocate for the right for more language justice across the board, across civic processes.” Translating a ballot, he suggests, would be a boon for accessibility.

Heritage and homophones

As in the past two elections, this 2022 election resulted in some firsts for the Vancouver ballot.

Vision Vancouver council candidate Honieh Barzegari, هانیه برزگری, is the first person to have a name in Persian included. Forward Together council candidate Tesicca Truong is the first to have a name in both Chinese and Vietnamese, 張慈櫻 and Trương Từ Anh.

The other 13 out of 15 candidates who had their names challenged by the city’s chief election officer included their Chinese names.

In Metro Vancouver, it’s common to see politicians running for all levels of government advertise themselves with more than just their Latin-character name.

Conservative MP Wai Young included her Chinese name as well as a Punjabi name, while Liberal MP Harjit Sajjan, the Minister of International Development, included his Punjabi name as well as a Chinese name. NDP MP Don Davies’ signs have a total of four names: including his Chinese, Punjabi and Vietnamese names.

However, these names on places like lawn signs and social media do not show up on the ballot.

The red Liberal poster for Harjjit Sajjan (with Latin characters, a Punjabi name and a Chinese name) and the orange NDP poster for Don Davies (with Latin characters, a Chinese name, a Punjabi name and a Vietnamese name).
Ads featuring the many names of federal politicians Harjit Sajjan and Don Davies.

It’s common for non-English news media or campaign managers to give Canadian politicians names in other languages. One route is to create a simple homophone, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Chinese name 杜魯多, Duluduo when romanized in the pinyin system from Mandarin.

For Chinese names, a more challenging route is to turn the English name into the typical Chinese format of a single-character surname followed by a two syllable given name, but with somewhat of a homophone so that Chinese readers will still know who it is. For example, the Chinese name of Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former attorney general, is 王州迪, or Wang Zhoudi in pinyin. When choosing a homophone, there is also the challenge of choosing to cater to Mandarin or Cantonese speakers, as a name could lose its homophone in the other language.

The several NPA candidates who’ve included a Chinese “usual name” they appear to have been given later in life follow the simpler homophone route. Cinnamon Bhayani is 芯娜萌 雅妮, Xinnameng Yani. Dave Pasin is 戴夫·帕辛, Daifu Paxin.

If a public individual isn’t a household name, like a municipal politician, it’s unlikely that Chinese-language media would use an individual’s Chinese name without its Latin alphabet counterpart. For example, the newspapers Ming Pao and Sing Tao both include the name Fred Harding alongside his Chinese name.

Judgment pending

The provincial judge who said it was “unfair” to proceed with the ballot names challenge before the 2022 election adjourned the matter for an unspecified date.

“The legal ruling is going to be fascinating,” said Huang. “What constitutes proper use and history of use?”

Whatever the judge decides, he hopes there will be some sort of threshold to determine what constitutes a “usual name.”

“[Candidates] really need to do the work and tell the story of how they use the name,” said Huang. “How were they given the name? Is it just beyond elections that they’re using it? If you have a long history of usage beyond electoral politics and beyond the ballot, fine.”

Having this clarity would mean a lot to Vancouverites hoping to run for office in the linguistically diverse city. According to the 2021 census, 42 per cent of residents reported a native language that was not English or French. The bulk of that includes about 77,400 Cantonese speakers, 41,700 Mandarin speakers, 18,700 Tagalog speakers, 16,700 Spanish speakers and 13,300 Punjabi speakers.

As for Brandon Yan, who didn’t end up winning a council seat last election, his brush with the name controversy was just one step on his journey to reconcile with his identity.

“Growing up in Langley, Chineseness wasn’t something I readily embraced,” he said. “I tried to distance myself from being the ‘other.’ Our high school was fairly homogenous, mostly white folks. We had a Korean exchange program. I can remember at the beginning of every school year, doing attendance for the first time, they’d ask the new Korean folks in your classroom where they’re from — and they’d ask me the same question. I had been at that school forever! As an adult, I’m trying to reconnect and embrace my culture and heritage.”  [Tyee]

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