Nearly one in five, or 19.1 per cent of people in Hamilton identify themselves as visible minorities, newly-released data from Canada's 2016 census shows.
But only 13.8 per cent of leaders across municipal, education and volunteer sectors in Hamilton were visible minorities as of last year, according to a Western University study published last year.
That gap of underrepresentation and what can be done about it will be the focus of a discussion coming up Wednesday, moderated by Hamilton native Marie Bountrogianni. She was a former Hamilton Mountain MPP and cabinet minister who worked to pass accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.
Now she's the dean of The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, which is affiliated with a national group called Diverse City on Board, which aims to connect women, visible minorities, Indigenous people and those with disabilities with positions on corporate and government boards.
In business, she said, "it matters because they are the client," she said. "People from all perspectives are the clients."
But it's also important from a "human rights perspective," Bountrogianni said. "[Any group of people is] not fully integrated into society until you do sit on important decision-making boards."
The panel discussion comes at a time when diversity on at least one local board has been a hot topic.
Hamilton's police oversight board, which is all-white, just voted to send itself to "cultural competency" training in the wake of a long-running spat between its members over some alleged comments about Auschwitz.
The board's October meeting drew a large crowd of people, many of whom were there to say the board lacks the diversity it needs to properly represent the city.
Javid Mirza, president of the Muslim Association of Hamilton, said at the meeting that the board should reflect the diversity of the city it serves, and suggested the lack of diversity may have got the board into the mess it's in now.
Bountrogianni called the transparency of the board signing up for cultural training a good first step.
"The positive part about being transparent — things can get done," she said.
Transparency is the first step because it leads to awareness, she explained, adding then awareness can lead to solutions.
'If you are on the board, you are a role model for others'
Once there is one person representing a certain group on a board or a leadership group, people from a similar background can start to see themselves in similar positions.
"It is huge … for all underrepresented groups, whether you're a woman, whether you're a person with a disability, whether you're a visible minority, whether you're someone from the LGBTQ2 community," she said.
"If you are on the board, you are a role model for others."
Bountrogianni said she's had her own experiences with feeling outside the mainstream. Born in Hamilton to Greek immigrant parents, she went door-knocking in 1995 when she first ran for office on the Mountain.
She was challenged more than once because of "my name ending in a vowel," she said. "I was not Anglo-Saxon."
She knocked on one door, and the person at the door said, "Why can't we get a Canadian to run up here?" she recalled.
'Hamilton is not alone'
"We that have positions on boards have the responsibility to be transparent and to tell communities that these opportunities are there," she said.
"And to be open to people from diverse backgrounds, and to search for them."
Bountrogianni said people who belong to underrepresented groups should make sure to apply to opportunities, to be confident in putting your name in the ring for a municipal board or commission, for example. "A lot of people don't know that they have these opportunities," she said.
"It's not uncommon across the country," Bountrogianni said.
"Hamilton is not alone. One thing I can say about Hamilton, when they do decide to reach a goal, the Hamiltonians do it with heart and with passion."
Bountrogianni hopes the event Wednesday will be the start of an "even more coherent dialogue" on the diversity, or lack thereof, in local leadership.