Many newcomers have never voted in Ontario elections. These groups are trying to change that

·5 min read
A group called The Canadian-Muslim Vote launched its efforts at mosques from Cambridge to Ottawa on April 15 at Friday prayer.  (Submitted by The Canadian-Muslim Vote - image credit)
A group called The Canadian-Muslim Vote launched its efforts at mosques from Cambridge to Ottawa on April 15 at Friday prayer. (Submitted by The Canadian-Muslim Vote - image credit)

Gamachu Bariso isn't a frequent voter in provincial elections, but this time, he says he'll cast a ballot for sure on June 2.

CBC News spoke with Bariso, who came to this country about 12 years ago from Ethiopia, after he filled out this form on why he opted not to vote in 2018.

For years, he says he felt like he had to focus simply on getting his new life in Canada together, leaving little time to even understand what powers fall to the provincial government.

"People just don't have a lot of time to dig into all these issues and navigate how the system works, as complicated as it is," he said.

"So most of the time, the people who are being left behind are people like new immigrants, minority communities."

Bariso says he feels more settled in his life heading into this election. He says he sees newer immigrants struggle with housing, labour issues and more, especially due to the pandemic. He's also been researching ways in which provincial powers can affect these problems.

"We just can't afford not to vote," he said.

Submitted by Beatriz Alas
Submitted by Beatriz Alas

People in situations similar to the ones Bariso describes — those busy working long hours who may be unsure how the political system works and if their vote will make a difference — are the target for a variety of organizations hoping to them to get out to the polls.

These organizations say they recognize that newcomers, those with lower incomes and those from racialized and marginalized groups, may face unique barriers. So, they're launching targeted, creative, non-partisan campaigns to try to turn could-be voters into will-be voters.

Educating early

The Ontario election has not yet been officially called, but many organizations say getting information out early is key.

A group called The Canadian-Muslim Vote launched its efforts last week at mosques from Cambridge to Ottawa. Organizers say they have already reached thousands of Muslims by meeting them where they already are en masse, Friday prayers during Ramadan.

On the first Friday of the campaign, volunteers and staff with the group set up a table at the Jame Masjid Mississauga, where 3,000 to 5,000 Muslims congregated. Many stopped to chat, says Umair Ashraf, the director of the organization's get-out-the-vote campaign for the provincial election.

Ashraf says he tells people, "We don't care who you vote for. We just want you to go and vote."

Submitted by The Canadian-Muslim Vote
Submitted by The Canadian-Muslim Vote

The organization has determined that there are 48 ridings with a sizeable Muslim population and it is focusing on reminding Muslims how much their votes count in these ridings.

Disinterest isn't the reason newcomers often aren't politically engaged, says Beatriz Alas, the community engagement coordinator at North York Community House, an organization that works with immigrants.

Instead, she says, it's often about a lack of time, missed information and not fully understanding how the system works.

"A lot of times, people don't even see who it is [running] in their riding until they're actually in front of their ballot," she said.

And that's not always their fault, she says. Not all candidates try to reach every apartment block and it isn't unusual for newcomers to work two jobs trying to make ends meet, which may mean they miss candidates and their teams knocking on doors.

Alas and her colleagues hold tailored learning sessions for specific Toronto neighbourhoods with high populations of new immigrants.

Submitted by Beatriz Alas
Submitted by Beatriz Alas

As soon as candidate lists and polling locations are confirmed, she makes posters specifically for those who live in different polling districts and gets permission from landlords to put them up in laundry rooms or on other community boards.

She says she knows it has worked.

"Sometimes, people will just take out their phones, take a picture. And they'll even call me and say, 'I used that to remind me of where I needed to go,"' she said.

Young people in the neighbourhoods she serves have also been involved in drawing chalk murals that start right at the front door of apartment buildings pointing the way to the polls, she says.

From voting to policy change

Sarah Watson, the director of community engagement at North York Harvest Food Bank, says she often finds herself dispelling the idea that the votes of those with few financial resources don't matter.

"People who are disenfranchised, who face a lot of systemic barriers, have often lost faith in the electoral system," she said.

When members of the organization set up tables or engage in other voter education efforts, they "try to draw connections between successful policy changes that have come out of elections," she said.

Right now, she says, many people the organization serves are frustrated with social assistance rates or the dearth of affordable housing. So explaining to people the path to changing these things is through policy, through government and elections,sometimes encourages them to say they will give voting a try, Watson says.

Submitted by North York Harvest Food Bank
Submitted by North York Harvest Food Bank

The organization also has mock voting stations, complete with voting screens, ballots and pencils so people can practise the process. Instead of ballots with candidates' names, the organization has participants vote on which issue is most important to them, which also lets the organization know where to put its advocacy efforts, she says.

Meantime, Bariso says his decision to cast a ballot in the upcoming election wasn't influenced by community organizations, but he thinks the work they do could have helped him.

He says sometimes it's just about trust, and people or organizations that have already won someone's trust can be in the best position to encourage voting.

"Sometimes people need help, they desperately need help. But just because they don't trust the person they're going to, they just let it go," he said.

He sees the need for policy change all around him and says even though he isn't sure who he is voting for yet, he thinks voting will be "worth it."

CBC News is looking to speak with Ontarians who didn't cast a ballot in 2018. If that's you — whether you plan to vote on June 2 or not — please consider filling out the form below and a journalist with our team may reach out to talk.

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