Apologies: Ethnic votes or ethics?

Posted by admin on May 16th, 2008

OMAR EL AKKAD. Globe and Mail. May 16, 2008 at 4:54 AM EDT

When Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko arrives in Canada for an official visit this month, it will be on the heels of a gesture by the Conservative government to commemorate historical injustice against Ukrainian Canadians. Last week, the government announced a $10-million grant to the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko to “support initiatives related to the First World War internment experience that predominantly affected the Ukrainian and other East European ethnic communities in Canada.”  The grant is part of a $29-million program to commemorate various shameful incidents in Canadian history, such as the Chinese head tax and the Komagata Maru incident, where more than 350 would-be Indian immigrants were held on a ship in Vancouver harbour and denied entry to Canada almost 100 years ago. More than half the grant money was allocated in a series of rapid-fire announcements within the past week.

The motivation and timing behind the announcements are the subject of much debate. Groups that have spent years lobbying for such acknowledgment say it’s the right thing to do, and long overdue. Opposition politicians say the announcements are a clear case of political pandering.

What is clear is that many of those Canadians most affected by these acknowledgments live in some of the most competitive ridings in Canada – particularly in British Columbia and Central Canada.

“My take is in the Lower Mainland – which I think is the prime objective of these policies in a political sense – the competition is pretty fierce across the parties,” said Allan Tupper, head of the political science department at the University of British Columbia. He said, however, that it is difficult to isolate how much impact an issue such as historical recognition has on a broader political playing field.

Several of the historical incidents the government plans to commemorate – including the Chinese head tax and the Komagata Maru incident – resonate with Asian Canadians in British Columbia. When Jason Kenney, the federal Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, announced a grant to commemorate the Komagata Maru incident last weekend, he did so in Surrey.

The commemorative announcements also affect groups in fiercely competitive ridings in Central Canada. Ukrainian Canadians may well end up deciding Conservative fortunes in several ridings in Manitoba – in one riding in Winnipeg, the Conservative candidate won by little more than 100 votes in the 2006 election.

The string of commemorative announcements has not been without criticism. Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla described the Conservative announcement of $2.5-million for the Komagata Maru incident as “cynical politics at its worst.

“It is important for the Prime Minister to realize that an apology is the right thing to do for the country, not a tactic to score political points,” she said in a statement.

But as Prof. Tupper points out, the Conservatives have little to lose with such a move.

“[There is] no major downside because the persons who, ironically, might be critical of these kind of politics are likely PC voters now,” he said. “That’s actually one of the ironies of those kinds of things – people who have criticized politics of reconciliation have tended to be identified with conservative political parties in Canada and other countries, so the Conservatives proceed on this assuming their base is pretty stable and there’s nowhere to go for someone if they were offended by these kind of gestures.”

Immigrant and ethnic communities have proved vital to a Liberal Party trying to regain office and a Conservative Party trying to win a majority. Among a host of issues in Ottawa this year, the Liberals were believed to most likely force an election over proposed changes to Canada’s immigration system.

But if the Conservative government’s recent gestures are intended to draw votes, a key measure of success will be how the party fares in those B.C. ridings that are not a lock for any one party.

“Where the advantage lies is very uncertain,” Prof. Tupper said, “but the point is every party believes Lower Mainland, B.C., is a sort of promised land for it.”

Alienation in Canada: Historical incidents for which the Tory government is providing commemoration grant money.

The Komagata Maru

The Komagata Maru, a Japanese steam liner, arrived in Vancouver on May 23, 1914, with 376 passengers – most of them Sikhs – hoping to move to Canada. After two months, only about 20 passengers who had resident status were allowed to stay.

The St. Louis

In 1939, more than 900 Jewish refugees fled Nazi Germany on the steamship St. Louis, bound for Latin America. However, countries there, and the United States and Canada, rejected them. The St. Louis returned to Europe just as war broke out. It is estimated that at least a third of the passengers were killed by German forces.

The Chinese head tax

About 81,000 immigrants from China paid the head tax from 1885 until 1923. In 2006, the Conservative government formally apologized for the tax and the subsequent 24-year ban on immigration from China. Living head-tax payers and their spouses were eligible for a $20,000 settlement.

First World War internment

During the First World War, thousands of Ukrainian Canadians and other Canadians of Eastern European descent were interned in camps across Canada. Thousands more were forced to register as “enemy aliens” and required to report to authorities on a regular basis.

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