Friday, February 22, 2008

Immigrants are a political gold mine

Friday » February 22 » 2008

Immigrants are a political gold mine

Deirdre McMurdy
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Statistics Canada may be scrupulously neutral in the collection and analysis of its information, but it formally opened a new political frontline yesterday with its latest report on census data on immigrants collected last year.

The fact that one in five Canadians is now foreign-born -- a 13.6-per-cent increase since 2001 -- precisely quantifies the single greatest challenge confronting traditional political parties: How to engage this massive and growing part of the Canadian population, 68.9 per cent of which has gravitated to Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.

"The days when a candidate could make a one-off courtship visit to a temple or a festival are long over," says John Wright of Ipsos Reid. "Working at the ethnic vote has become more mainstream and it's going to get even more so."

But acknowledging that reality and actually addressing it are two very different things.

For one thing, Mr. Wright says it typically takes three generations for new Canadians to become politically active -- and even then it may depend on the culture, religion and community background of the individual.

For example, according to a study from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, Muslims overall are one-third less likely to vote than Hindus or Sikhs and 40 per cent less likely to vote than Jews. Muslim women have an even lower propensity to vote than Muslim men.

(A study by a McGill University political scientist, Jerome Black, for Elections Canada disputes the point that it takes three generations to engage politically. He cites research that "found only minor differences between the foreign- and native-born, and only for those in Canada less than 10 years was there a lesser likelihood of voting in federal elections."

He also points to findings that show the highest electoral participation levels are found among second-generation Canadians, while voting by fourth- and fifth-generation Canadians is below-average.)

Still, Victor Wong, of the Chinese Canadian National Council, is adamant that there are hurdles for new Canadians when it comes to politics.

"Language is a huge issue when it comes to voting and political participation, not to mention the fact it takes years for people to settle when they change countries," he says. "It's even more complicated when people come from a country where there's a lack of democratic tradition, like China."

Those cultural and linguistic differences pose more than just the obvious road blocks for politicians who want to win ethnic votes: these groups can also be very hard to track and poll.

"It's only been the last three years that there's been any focused effort by retailers and political organizations to poll ethnic groups," says Mr. Wright. "It's a challenge because of language and process. Some don't like to use the phone, some need to chat for a long time before answering questions -- a variety of things enter the mix."

As a result of that dearth of detailed profiling, politicians often make the mistake of lumping all Chinese or Indians together -- when in fact, they're widely diverse groups in terms of language, religion, community and experience.

"It's a very common mistake to assume there's a monolithic Chinese vote out there," insists Mr. Wong. "People from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China are all coming from very different places."

But even if they come from very different places, they're most likely to settle in one of three: Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. And that sort of urban concentration is, at least for the Conservatives, a tough barrier to expanding their base of support.

To date, they've gained nominal ground in the three cities where immigrants cluster. And their appeal won't have improved after federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently told Canada's largest cities to "stop whining" for infrastructure funding.

Furthermore, language education -- where federal Conservatives could connect directly with the growing number of immigrants who speak no English -- is a provincial domain. And the Harper government has strong views on messing with powers devolved to provinces.

That language issue is also cited as a factor in Quebec, which is entitled to a 25-per-cent share of all immigrants to Canada, but only attracted 17 per cent (compared with 52.3 per cent in Ontario) according to the census.

That's data that will almost certainly resurface in the simmering feud between the federal government and Ontario over proposed electoral reforms.

But perhaps the ultimate political frontier that's emerging is followup policies that will engage the immigrant influx politically and economically much faster.

"We have to come terms much more effectively with the fact these are, increasingly, people who are fundamentally different from the immigrants who used to come to Canada," says Linda Duxbury, a professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. "The whole point of immigration is economic and we seem to be missing that crucial point."

Ms. Duxbury adds that Canada needs to "spend money differently to capitalize on the skills of newcomers who are good people with good credentials -- but have weak language and communications ability."

If we fail to do that, she insists, we're going to lose the increasingly intense international competition to attract the talent required to bolster the fortunes of an aging population.

"Canada has a policy of welcome, but not the practice," says Mr. Wong. "Whoever manages to put the two together, we'll remember at the polls."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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