Courting ethnic vote fraught with pitfalls, but parties still do it

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, receives a gift, at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir opening in July 2007 in Toronto. (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette) CANADA (CP PHOTO/Nathan Denette)

In a multicultural country like Canada, the word minority can sometimes be a misnomer — especially when minorities actually make up the majority in 33 of the 338 federal ridings up for grabs in the Oct. 19 election.

According to the government’s 2011 census figures, visible minorities account for 19.1 per cent of Canada’s total population; more than two-thirds of them (65.1 per cent) were born elsewhere and emigrated here.

In that same census, more than 200 different ethnic origins were reported, and 13 of them had surpassed the one million mark.

Wooing the so-called ethnic vote can be fraught with pitfalls, but parties ignore it at their peril.

There are 15 electoral districts where the population is 70 per cent visible minorities, and another 18 ridings with 50-70 per cent visible minorities, according to data from research firm Environics.

For obvious reasons, immigration policies are of particular interest to foreign-born and minority Canadians, and the Liberals have, over the past couple of decades, lost their lock on these groups.

“They were the party of immigration, of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was important to many groups who were concerned about their rights in a new country,” says University of Carleton professor and political commentator Paul Adams.

But the collapse of the party over the past couple of decades left its constituency ripe for the picking by the other two main parties, who swooped right in.

The Conservatives made the biggest inroads by maintaining high levels of immigration, gradually chipping away at the anti-immigration image that was a remnant of the now-defunct Reform Party.

“But their approach has been fundamentally different from the Liberals,” Adams says. “They have been much more selective in the groups that they pursue. They tended to identify ethnic groups who, if you look at socioeconomic status and social values, would naturally be conservative, like for example Chinese Canadians who are entrepreneurial and tend to be socially conservative on things like gay rights.”

This cherry-picking strategy was a resounding success in the last election, the Conservatives having widely seen to have “won” the ethnic vote.

But the NDP also made significant gains — mainly among the groups the Conservatives chose not to court, like West Indian/Caribbean Canadians, and Arab and Muslim Canadians.

The latter group in particular clashes with some of the current Conservative government’s more controversial policies.

“Canadian Muslims are extremely concerned with the political rhetoric that has emerged in recent months,” says Amira Elghawaby, of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. “The terminologies around security and terrorism used by the federal government have cast a pall of suspicion over the diverse communities of this country.”

The government’s “divisive language” conflates religion with terrorism, she says, as does Bill C-51, the contentious anti-terror legislation that passed into law this spring.

The NDP opposed the bill and have vowed to repeal it if elected, while the Liberal Party supported it but promised to make amendments to the law.

“Canadian Muslims often bear the brunt of national security investigations, and often pay a higher price than fellow Canadians,” Elghawaby said in an interview with Yahoo Canada News. “This is troubling for Canadian Muslims because while many Canadian Muslims want to be partners in finding ways to effectively challenge this issue of extremist violence, they are being treated as the problem.”

The Canadian Arab Institute is also apprehensive of C-51, as well as Bill C-24, which made it easier for the government to revoke Canadian citizenship.

“The national security/civil rights file is of great concern to many in the community,” president Raja Khouri told Yahoo Canada News.

But Khouri says foreign policy and trade deals are also key issues.

“We see a lot of unrealized potential for trade and investments with Arab countries,” he says. “We’d like to see a Canadian government that’s more open to these kinds of relations.”

How all of this plays out for the three parties is yet to be seen.

But just as no party has the ethnic vote cornered, no party has cornered the market on ethnic gaffes.

During the 2011 election campaign, a staffer for Conservative candidate Ted Opitz invited multicultural groups to wear their “national folklore costumes” for a photo op with the prime minister.

In 2013, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau outraged Chinese Canadians when he expressed admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship.”

And just last week, NDP candidate Morgan Wheeldon resigned after allegedly posting comments on Facebook saying Israel was trying to “ethnically cleanse the region.”