Published in The Tyee | May 3, 2013 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly readers
In the wake of a raft of election candidates being cut loose — one New Democrat and four Conservatives so far — a rejected Green Party hopeful is filing a human rights complaint against the party only weeks before election day.
Imtiaz Popat says he was blocked from running because of a bad credit rating — the result, he alleged, of a cellphone contract gone awry and student loan debts. The longtime Surrey activist, who has run for various political offices since his first BC Green candidacy in 1991, alleges that the party discriminated against him because of his disability and economic status.
“It is a question of democracy and participation,” Popat told The Tyee. “The issue of cellphone plan contracts is a big political issue; I’m a victim of that.
“[The Green Party] could have taken the opportunity to raise the issue of these stupid cellphone contracts in the election, like other parties have done. But rather than doing that, the Green Party has become punitive, running scared, and running away from these issues, saying, ‘We don’t want to run candidates who are low-income or who have a disability.'”
But the party’s provincial campaign coordinator, David King, insisted that disability has “never been a consideration” in the Greens’ candidate vetting process, and that the party encourages people with disabilities to run for office.
“We should encourage people in all kinds of conditions to stand for office,” he said. “The stereotype of the condition should not be determinative.”
King — who also sits on its election readiness committee — told The Tyee he could not comment on Popat’s case specifically, but explained that personal financial woes have in the past become an unwanted source of attention on the campaign trail.
“It’s very rare, but it has happened a couple of times that I can think of,” King told The Tyee. “I’m not commenting on any specific situation or this case, but your financial dealings might conceivably reflect on your trust relationship with other people. “They might conceivably reflect on your ability to focus on the work of being a candidate and, in the event of election, focus on the role of being an MLA. Financial difficulties can sometimes be extremely distracting for people.”
Popat’s March 6 rejection letter, obtained by The Tyee, did not divulge details of the Green Party of BC (GPBC)’s rationale, but party chair Mike Hickey acknowledged the activist’s “willingness” to put himself forward.
“The Election Readiness Committee cannot approve your application to be a GPBC Candidate in the May 2013 Provincial Election,” Hickey wrote, “since the ERC believes your candidacy could potentially be problematic.”
Popat told The Tyee that the Hickey was “very sympathetic” in explaining the party’s financial concerns over the phone. But on April 21, Popat announced he would file a grievance with the BC Human Rights Tribunal — focused on economic difficulties resulting from his disability, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Popat admitted that discrimination based on economic status is a “grey area” under the Human Rights Act, and that’s why his complaint focuses on alleged discrimination based on disability. If accepted, the case could break new ground in terms of accessibility to the political system, but Popat admitted it would certainly not be resolved before the May 14 election.
“It’s the principle of it,” he said. “It probably won’t affect this election, but a decision is really important, because it will send a message to all political parties that this type of discrimination is unfounded.”
Popat claimed that he was forced to cancel his cellphone plan after the budget for a film production he was involved with ran out. But with most telecom firms charging hefty fines for breaking their stringent contracts, Popat was unable to pay from his social assistance income, and his credit plummeted.
“What do you do when you can’t afford to pay it any more?” Popat said. “You have no choice but to cancel the contract, and there’s a heavy penalty you have to pay.”
According to Lindsay Meredith, marketing professor at Simon Fraser University, most political parties are becoming increasingly strict in vetting candidates, particularly with the speed with which online social media can spread embarrassing details or scandal.
“Nobody wants to make a mistake at this point, especially if the race is going to narrow at all, and have a candidate who may bring issues of potential attack-points for the other party into the foreground,” Meredith told The Tyee. “If in fact the candidate is correct, and it simply is a battle between himself and the telephone company over a telephone contract, indeed you might start to say, ‘Well, hold it: How far are we going to go here?’
“You can also understand how parties go into overdrive trying to make damn sure they don’t get into any issue of damage control after the fact.”
Former BC Conservative organizer Dean Skoreyko, who had vetted would-be candidates before his own ouster from the party, told The Tyee he is skeptical of Popat’s claim, and said that running for a political party is not a human right.
“Credit checks are commonplace,” he said, “and although a cell debt is a pretty silly reason to disqualify someone, it sounds like this person has more issues than just that.”