The Test: Ethnic Voters Could Make Or Break Tories

The Test: Ethnic Voters Could Make or Break Tories

Urban areas and Quebec locked the Conservatives out of a majority last time, and they don't want it to happen again.

By Michelle Collins
Embassy Magazine
Embassy, September 17th, 2008

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may be deliberately shying away from admitting it, but this is his electionthe one he hopes will bring him a majority, and he's counting on the country's ethnic voters to be the key.

That's because Mr. Harper's majority will be won or lost on the number of seats he is able to pick up in Quebec and in Canada's urban centresmost are steadfastly Liberal or NDP and increasingly coloured with a rainbow of ethnicities.

Mr. Harper and the Conservatives have been targeting Canada's immigrant communities for these much-needed votes since January 2007 when he made Calgary MP Jason Kenney his secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity.

The Tories' subsequent “meet and greet” campaign, supported by a backroom strategy for an “outreach team,” has been described as much more mature than the one used during the last election. Campaigning in 2005, Mr. Harper counted on traditionally-value oriented immigrants to fiercely oppose the Liberal's same-sex marriage legislation and, as a result, turn up to vote for him.

With their new approach, which has included apologies, attendance at hundreds of cultural events, and taking specific sides in key international debates, the Tories appear, by many accounts, to be striking the right chords.

Now, for Mr. Harper and the Conservative party, this election is a pivotal test of the most wide-ranging and strategically planned effort to target immigrants and visible minorities in Canada's history. And it is the election that might finally break the Liberals' usually predictable grip on such votes.

'Evolution' in Strategy

Chinese and South Asians are Canada's largest immigrant groups, making up a sizeable population of nearly 1.3 million as of 2006. Many are small business owners and, as tight communities that stay close to their roots, they wield a lot of influence in major ridings around Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

Ever the strategic politician, Mr. Harper's embrace of their demands began to take root during the previous election campaign in late 2005 when he promised to deliver on long-awaited demands for an apology and redress on the Chinese head tax.

Indeed, months after being elected to power, Mr. Harper did just that. The response was overwhelmingly positive. And he didn't stop there.

Mr. Harper went on to deliver on largely immigrant-friendly policies that had been in demand for years, and would appease a variety of cultural groups settled in Canada. He cut the right-of-landing fee for immigrants. He met with the Dalai Lama last October. He facilitated the immigration of more than 150 Vietnamese refugees left stateless in the Philippines for 20 years. He lifted visa restrictions for Eastern European countries. And he was the first prime minister in 10 years to travel to Poland.

On top of this, Mr. Harper and Mr. Kenney have been turning up at national-day and cultural events with impressive frequency. For example, Mr. Harper is the first prime minister who has gone to meet face-to-face with Korean community leaders in Toronto. Mr. Kenney, meanwhile, has attended more than 500 cultural events since being appointed secretary of state, not to mention the countless people he's offered an open ear.

Savvy political observers point out that what Mr. Harper has essentially been doing these last several months is laying the foundations for the election campaign he is now championing dailyone that is focused on small business, the economy and immigrants. An obvious example is the pledge he made on Monday to provide parental benefits for the self-employed, most of whom would be entrepreneurs.

“Two years ago it was pretty obvious the Conservatives were trying to target what I'll say are cultural groups on social issues such as same-sex marriage,” said pollster Nik Nanos. “What the Conservatives I think have realized is that the entrepreneurship and immigration strategy is more likely to yield dividends, political dividends so-to-speak, than focusing on social issues.”

Mr. Nanos calls it an “evolution” in the Conservative's strategy by appealing to ethnic communities, particularly the Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Filipinos, recognizing that many are entrepreneurs who pay close attention to the economy and every detail that affects immigration between Canada and their home countries.

“I think the Conservatives finally wrapped their head around a strategy that could actually move voters,” Mr. Nanos said. “Our polling shows Canadians are much more supportive of immigration policies that bring in new Canadians with the skills that we need.

“So here you have, in a way, almost an alignment of the Conservatives able to put out a message on entrepreneurship and immigration, and those messages are actually in sync with the general population.”

Bringing Home the Voters

Beautiful British Columbiathe West Coast province where 30 per cent of the population is of Asian descent and which welcomed 32,000 immigrants from Asia in the year 2006, compared to only 4,700 from Europeis home to several key immigrant ridings. Most are distinctly urban and currently held by the Liberals and NDP.

But for the first time, there is a noticeable shift in political sentiment sweeping across these very ridings and the Conservatives appear to be gaining ground, or at the very least zeroing in on what resonates with the large Chinese, Indian and Filipino communities that reside there.

“The Conservatives have a much stronger chance than they had in the past because people's concerns are shifting, people's economic wherewithal are shifting,” explains Michael Roberts, managing editor of the Vancouver-based Post Group Multimedia, which produces three weekly newspapers serving the Chinese, South Asian and Filipino communities of B.C. Those communities are increasingly wealthy, cosmopolitan, well-educatedand more than 50 per cent are between the ages of 25 and 54.

Mr. Roberts explains that despite the somewhat awkward optics of Mr. Harper's campaign launch last Sunday in the living room and backyard of the Huang family home in Vancouver, the prime minister's message hit home for many immigrants in B.C.

One day after paying a visit to the governor general to dissolve Parliament, Mr. Harper invited the hordes of media folk following him to the home of a young Chinese-Canadian family in Richmond, B.C.a town where 66 per cent of the population is Chinese. With TV cameras rolling, Mr. Harper sat with the young couple and their two young children at the kitchen table to tout his party's family-friendly approach.

“He's got this sort of Mr. Rogers thing going on with his sweater vest and ear-to-ear smile, and shamelessly does that press conference in the family's backyard, but it was effective,” Mr. Roberts said. “The message that day was 'I, Harper and the Conservatives, stand behind the immigrant middle-class community in Canada, building bridges because we all have the same issues and same concerns.'

“Those are the votes I think the Conservatives are going for,” Mr. Roberts said.

It's also a vote they've been targeting. Even back in May 2006, Mr. Harper was making appearances at key events, such as for the third anniversary party for a Multicultural Helping House in Richmond, B.C., hosted by the local Filipino community.

Across the country, it does seem the Conservatives are making headway.

Hunsdeep Ranger, producer of South Asian programming at Chin Radio in Ottawa, said that over the last two years, there has been a “surge” in attention to the community from all political parties, but the most active on the scene by far has been the Conservative party.

“It's been sort of like getting acquainted with a party. Are they legit? Is there a so-called fear factor with Harper? It's been very interesting,” Mr. Ranger said. “There has been a shift. I would say the 45 and above [age group] is a little slower to adapt to a new party, but I would say the 25 to 40 range is a little more responsive.”

Anson Wong, assistant station manager for a Chinese radio station in Toronto, said above all, his listeners are fed up with elections and minority governments. He said they mostly hope Mr. Harper can form a majority, “to see if he can do something.”

“I can say that I didn't hear a lot of negative or bad words about the Conservatives over the last two years. Overall, I think they're satisfied in terms of what the government is doing,” Mr. Wong said of Toronto's 283,000-strong Chinese community.

He said Mr. Harper's decision not to attend the Beijing Olympics generated a lot of criticism from the Chinese in Toronto, but he doubts this will influence how many of them vote for the party.

However, there do remain some very real challenges for the Tories. Many former Liberal voters are said to still be hesitant about casting their vote for the Conservatives. The Liberals have long dominated in the minds of these voters and many from these communities have run and represented them as Liberals, particularly from the Indo-Canadian communities in Mississauga and Brampton.

Liberal MP Navdeep Bains, a Sikh who has twice been elected by the mostly-immigrant riding in Toronto's 905-region of Mississauga-Brampton South, said he has heard “absolutely nothing” from ethnic voters about the Conservatives outreach to them. Instead, he said these voters are paying close attention to who is helping them with the daily issues that matter to them, and that many see through the Tory “strategy.”

“I think you'll be surprised in this campaign. [The Conservatives] will not make the inroads that they claim that they've made. I think the issues of the environment, the economy, and more importantly which party defends their values will be a key issue,” Mr. Bains said. “I genuinely feel this so-called strategy they have is being laughed upon. Frankly speaking, I don't know what their strategy is, other than they have a strategy.”

Gursimrat Grewal, editor of the Punjab Star newspaper, which serves the GTA's Punjabi-speaking communities, said the Conservatives have been trying “quite hard” to reach out immigrants in the area ever since the last election.

For example, he said, the Conservatives have been much more responsive in helping them to solve issues around immigration or visiting visas for their families. And as soon as the election was called, the Conservatives began running ads across the local newspapers and radio, in English and Punjabi, touting their immigrant-friendly record, such as reducing the head tax and the GST.

“But there's still a lot of things to do from the Conservative side, like immigrant communities, still they're kind of scared of Conservative Party,” Mr. Grewal said. “It's still new.”

Many are also very concerned about the changes Immigration Minister Diane Finley made to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act earlier this year, worried this could mean their friends and family won't be welcomed to immigrate. The troubles plaguing some visa offices in India are also a major issue.

And, out in B.C., the Sikh community there is still upset that Mr. Harper chose to apologize for the Komagata Maru incident only at a public rally, and not in Parliament.

“Why are they making apologies here and there in small gatherings? It is not serving community purposes; it is serving a certain group's agenda,” said Sabjit Bains, president of Gurdwara Dukh Niwaran Sahib, which has a congregation numbering in the thousands.

“These people are very educated on politics these days, they don't vote like a herd, they look at issues and platforms and who's going to give them what,” he said.

All for Naught?

When the Conservatives announced they were lifting travel visas on some Eastern European countries this past Marchfor Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania and Hungarythey did so at Pope John Paul II Cultural Centre outside Toronto. The massive hall is used by the large Polish community across the GTA and hundreds of members showed up to see Ms. Finley deliver on something that had long held great political and emotional significance for them.

“The hall was full, people were standing, I think not all the people were able to fit in the room,” said Wladyslaw Lizon, president of the Canadian Polish Congress. “The Canadian Polish community was waiting many years for it to happen, and it finally happened this year. People were happy.”

In an exchange of high-level visits, including the Polish foreign minister to Ottawa and Ms. Finley and Mr. Harper to Poland, the Conservatives also signed social security and youth exchange agreements with the eastern European country.

Then, in the first few days of the campaign, Mr. Harper appeared at a rally in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. Before hundreds of people, he promised that his government would deliver on an issue many in the community have been asking for for years: to give benefits to all Second World War veterans, Canadian or not.

These actions haven't gone unnoticed by the community.

“If you ask people in the Canadian-Polish community, the common answer was that they will vote Liberal, [but] I think people have their eyes open. I don't think that's still a common answer,” Mr. Lizon said. “I'll be surprised if all the work of the [Conservative] government was not noticed by the community. People see what's done and people judge politicians by what they do, and not by what they say.”

Marco Levytsky, editor and publisher of Ukrainian News in Edmonton, said the community there has also noticed there's been a considerable amount of attention given their way, and many of their demands have been responded to. These include resolving citizenship problems and finally getting two historic bills through the House of Commons after years of waiting; one on redress on internment, and one which recognized the Holodomor.

There are more than one million people of Ukrainian heritage in Canada, many of whom live in Manitoba and have long voted Liberal or NDP.

Roman Yereniuk, acting director at the Manitoba Centre for Ukrainian Studies at the University of Manitoba, said Ukrainians are concerned about stability in their home country, that they will want to see CIDA continue to provide aid and democratic support, and that Canada stands by its support for Ukraine's NATO membership.

But he said it is difficult to say if many will switch to the Conservatives.

“Basically people think this election is going to bring very little change, a lot of people are saying we're going to end up with another minority government,” Mr. Yereniuk said. “They would have liked to have waited another year [for an election.]”

Everyone Has Their Issues

In recent weeks, some media have taken issue with the fact that Prime Minister Harper has mailed Rosh Hashanah cards to Jewish-Canadians to woo their loyalty.

Bernie Farber, CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said the practice has been happening for decades and that cards have come from every political party. These cards, he said, are not going to change the way people vote.

“Jews are like every other Canadian out there; they have significant interests in rising gas prices, significant concern about issues in health care, poverty issues, issues of human rights…there is a diverse range of interests,” Mr. Farber said.

While Mr. Farber said traditionally it could have been said Jews were more apt to lean towards the Liberals, over the last generation or two, this has changed.

“We are not a monolithic community,” said Mr. Farber, whose organization does not endorse any of the parties. “I don't think today any particular party can count on a 'Jewish vote.' It's how individual Jews see the issues.”

As prime minister, Mr. Harper has made clear his support for Israel and security for the Jewish people. Mr. Farber said the clear stance has been important and increased the Conservatives' profile, but that it won't necessarily be the ballot issue for Jewish voters.

“Jewish people are like anybody else, maybe a little more so political animals, and they will be moved based on how their issues are being dealt with,” he said.

Unlike in some other cultural communities, Mohamed Elmasry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said he has not been pleased with the Conservative government.

He said for many Muslim-Canadians, their concerns often align with the more left-leaning parties, and that he was this year supporting the NDPparticularly on withdrawing Canadians troops from Afghanistan.

Mr. Elmasry said Mr. Kenney has turned up in recent months to reach out to sectors of the Muslim community around Toronto, but that he has been strategically selective and meeting mostly with more orthodox Muslims.

“He's paying attention to those who are known to be extra-orthodox in their family view, anti-abortion, anti-lesbian or gay,” Mr. Elmasry said.

He said former Reform party leader Preston Manning has also turned up to appeal to the more orthodox members of the community, but he said they are shrewd political observers and he doubts this will necessarily sway their votes.

Regardless of their political preference, however, Mr. Elmasry said the key issue is encouraging the community to vote at all.

“I'm an Imam and I give service on Fridays. My theme during the election is that voting is both a civic and religious duty, I back this with quotation from Quran. And that they must vote for the best candidate. It's better for them to have a say.”