Tories hope for a breakthrough with visible minorities

Posted by admin on Sep 11th, 2008

John Ivison, National Post. Published: Thursday, September 11, 2008

VAUGHAN -How to turn conservatives from visible minorities into Conservatives? Over a working breakfast with reporters, Stephen Harper mused on the biggest hurdle standing between him and majority government. “I honestly think the problem we’ve got in Toronto, where we haven’t done as well, is not that there are more Liberals but that conservatives don’t vote Conservative, especially new Canadians,” he said.

Ever since he united the right five years ago, Mr. Harper has been trying to create an inclusive party that attracts all cultures and creeds, having concluded that the traditional base of anglophone Protestants was insufficient to win a modern election. He was able to create a bridgehead in Quebec at the last election but has had more limited success in winning the support of new Canadians, many of whom he believes share the same values and work ethic as other Conservative voters.

Even the most optimistic of Conservatives don’t think a Quebec-style breakthrough in ridings with a large visible minority communities is going to happen at this election.

“We’re looking for steady progress but we’re not realistically anticipating a massive breakthrough,” said Jason Kenney, the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, who is in danger of turning into a rubber chicken if he attends many more dinners at ethnocultural events. “It’s more about progress measured in increments, as we gain the trust of new Canadians.”

The Conservatives have spent the past day or so wooing ethnic voters in  and around Toronto, a city where 47% of the population is classed as belonging to visible minority communities.

On Tuesday evening, the Prime Minister attended a rally for the Polish-Canadian and other ethnic communities in Mississauga, where Mr. Harper announced he was restoring the Veterans’ Allowance for veterans living in Canada who fought with the Allies during the Second World War. A number of Polish veterans were at the rally and the announcement was greeted with wild enthusiasm by a crowd already disposed toward the Conservatives for lifting visa requirements for all Poles.

Yesterday, he was the main speaker at a lunch at the Indo-Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Vaughan, north of Toronto, where he boasted of Canada’s improved trade ties with India. This follows on the heels of a list of initiatives targeting new Canadian voters — an advertising campaign in ethnic publications highlighting the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage; an apology for the Chinese head tax; the introduction of lower landing fees for immigrants; and moves to better recognize foreign credentials.

Mr. Kenney said the party is running 45 to 50 candidates from visible minority groups — “more than the Liberals” — and expects to see the Conservatives pick up more votes from first-generation immigrants than any other party at this election.

Whether any of those candidates gets elected is another matter. While the Conservatives saw an increase in their Chinese and Korean vote in the Vancouver Quadra byelection this year, this uptick was not replicated in the same communities in the Willowdale byelection in north Toronto on the same day. Mr. Kenney said the party has always done better with new Canadians in the West but can offer no particular explanation.

Since then, many ethnic voters, particularly from the Chinese and Muslim communities, have been spooked by the Conservatives’ new immigration legislation. The Conservatives say they are modernizing the immigration system to reduce the backlog of nearly 900,000 applicants and to target the kind of immigrants the economy needs.

The Liberals say the reforms are designed to reduce the number of family reunification cases. One Liberal MP reportedly told an audience of Pakistani Canadians that the changes were aimed at stopping Islamic immigration because the Conservatives don’t like Muslims.

There’s no doubt that immigration is a high priority for Mr. Harper– in his lunchtime speech he reiterated that Canada’s biggest challenge in the years ahead will be labour shortages, not unemployment.

The Indo-Canadian business people in Vaughan lapped up his message and the hope among Conservatives is that those from more tight-knit ethnic groups, such as the Sikh community, will convince others that the Tories share their values and aspirations.

If Mr. Harper can replicate his success in Quebec by winning seats in places such as Mississauga, Markham and Etobicoke, the Conservatives will become the dominant political force in Canada. But the early signs are that the breakthrough won’t happen in this election and large numbers of conservatives will once again vote Liberal.

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