No such thing as an ethnic vote

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by BEATRICE PAEZ 

Conventional wisdom has it that the Conservatives won the 2011 federal election handily among ethnic voters, but this may not be entirely true.

The Conservative victory was, in large part, built on capturing suburban ridings in the coveted 905 area—but it did not hinge on the visible minority vote, said Chris Cochrane, a professor at Munk School of Global Affairs.

“The Conservatives do especially well among white immigrants,” said Cochrane. “[They] have not made marked inroads among visible minority voters. There is some disconnect between the narrative and reality.”

Cochrane was among five panelists at a Munk event, “Courting the Ethnic Vote: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 2015 Federal Election”  On the agenda for discussion: the media’s portrayal of visible minority candidates, voting behaviours, the representation of immigrants’ interests, and issues of importance to immigrant communities.

Historically, the Liberals, as a party supportive of immigration, could count on immigrant voters, said Jeffrey Reitz, the panel moderator and a professor at Munk. And New Democrats, as the “party of the underdog,” also had their share of the vote, while the Conservative base was considered to be more apprehensive about immigration.

That narrative began to change course as the composition of new Canadians shifted, with more cultural groups outside of Europe settling in Canada, said Reitz.

It’s a tale of “old-stock Canadians, meets new-stock Canadians with conservative values,” he said. (“Old-stock” and “new-stock” Canadians, were terms used in the Globe and Mail leaders’ debate by Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, which drew strong reactions from various quarters, who called it divisive.)

What may appear to be an unlikely alliance owes its foundation to shared values, with respect to work and social conservatism’s stance on abortion and gay rights, said Cochrane.  Harper saw what the old guard did not: by appealing to the conservative sensibilities of some immigrant groups, they could undermine the Liberal advantage.

Back in 2006, Jason Kenney, then the minister of Citizenship and Immigration, set out to engage ethnic community leaders across the country. Kenney was credited for wooing the ethnic vote, with his frequent trips to cultural and religious gatherings, as part of the Conservatives’ outreach efforts.

“There’s no question about the dominant narrative [regarding] conservative inroads in immigrant communities,” he said. “That story itself makes perfect sense – at least when we look at the election results.”

Using data pulled from the exit surveys conducted by IPSOS, a research firm, Cochrane analyzed immigrant-voting behaviours of 110,000 people across the last three elections. And what he found departs from the view that visible minorities constituted a huge block of support for the Conservatives.

While voting patterns reveal that political leanings can fall along racial, ethnic or religious lines, there’s diversity within immigrant communities. Cochrane found that for those of Middle Eastern heritage, the vote is split quite evenly among the three parties. South Asian-Canadians tend to favour the Liberals, while African-Canadians throw their support behind the NDP. East Asian-Canadians seem particularly drawn to the Conservatives, along with those from Europe and the Americas.

When it came to religion, Catholic immigrants, who tended to be slightly Liberal, began to vote more for the Conservatives by 2011. A similar pattern emerged among Jewish immigrants, who began to choose the Conservatives over the Liberals. As for Muslim immigrants, the NDP benefited from the shift away from the Liberals.

The 2008 election saw the Conservatives gain footing among immigrants, but the big breakthrough was in 2011.

“Immigrants did shift from the Liberal party to the NDP, and especially to the Conservatives, but so did native-born Canadians,” said Cochrane. “The last election was an unmitigated disaster for the Liberal party.”

The narrative of a singular ethnic block responsible for propelling the Conservatives to victory neglects how diverse voting behaviour can be, he added.

Ranjit Bhaskar, a panelist and an editor at New CanadianMedia, said it’s time to do away with the “catch-all phrase” that lumps ethnic groups as one voting block.

Concerns about family reunification, small business taxes and recognition of foreign credentials are some issues which speak to a shared experience, but ethnic voters will vote for what’s good for them, just as other Canadians do, said Bhaskar.

Just as no one party can claim to have captured the entire “ethnic vote,” visible minority candidates don’t only speak to the interests of their ethnic community, said Ratna Omidvar, head of Ryerson’s Global Diversity Exchange.

“The politics of representation should be a reflection of our values as a society,” she said. “[Conservatives] were not only courting the immigrant vote, but they were engaged in the issues,” said Omidvar.

Symbolic gestures like the government’s apology for the Chinese head tax helped broker better relations with communities, said Omidvar. But what may have helped, she said, was its introduction in 2011 of the super visa, which allows parents and grandparents of Canadian citizens and permanent residents to visit their families in Canada for up to two years. “It was a masterful stroke and a huge cornerstone,” said Omidvar. “It gets them off the hook for family reunification. It’s one policy that made a difference.”

Heading into this election, Omidvar speculates that more immigrant voters will head to the polls than in the past, thanks to the creation of new ridings where visible minorities will be running. “Now there are people running who look like them. They’re aware of their voting power and heft by virtue of the Conservative win.”

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