CBC News Federal Election


Analysis & Commentary

New Canadians and the political process

By Laura Carlin

You've decided to change your life, move halfway around the world and start over. You may not speak the language of your adopted country and certainly many things are different than they were where you began, but you adjust, and gain your citizenship. Then, you are faced with another change: a whole new political system to get used to.

Elections Canada doesn't collect statistics on voting by ethnocultural community, but Statistics Canada and groups that work with immigrants suggest that many immigrant groups vote in lower numbers than people who were born in Canada.

Many politicians are keen to change that. According to the last census, about 18 per cent of the population were born outside the country. About 84 per cent of those became Canadian citizens. And the numbers are growing. According to Statistics Canada, the number of immigrants in the population is projected to go up at least 25 per cent in the next decade.

Particularly in the major urban centres of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, the number of people born elsewhere is significant. Many ridings have more naturalized citizens than those born in Canada.

Andy Mark, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council, says political participation often depends on where people have lived. "A lot of them come from mainland China, where it's a one-party election system, so they're still getting used to the concept of a true democratic process where they're entitled to vote," he says. "A lot don't realize simple things like employers would give you an hour off to go vote."

Mark says outreach programs from Elections Canada, maybe through partnerships with ethnic-specific organizations like his, could help.

That's exactly what Elections Canada is trying to do. Out of its budget of $10 million for advertising, the elections regulator is spending $750,000 to advertise to people whose first language is something other than English or French. Print, radio and TV ads promote the importance of voting and let people know how to get information in their mother tongue.

They have created pamphlets in 26 languages for organizations to hand out, or for individuals to download, that describe how to get registered and vote.

But these efforts have been tried in the past. Mark also says that sometimes, there are particular issues that spur people to vote � or not to vote.

Mark says for Chinese Canadians, the head-tax issue is big this time out. He says many baby boomers have supported the Liberals in the past. But, he says, the refusal to apologize for the head tax is bothering people.

"They feel slighted," he says. "I got a real sense from the guys, that they are just not going to vote. Others are going to go with the NDP and some even with the Conservatives because Stephen Harper said he would be in favour of a formal apology and compensation to the survivors of the head tax."

For Raymond Micah, executive director of the African Canadian Social Development Council, the issues revolve around poverty levels. He says that contributes to a greater level of political apathy. "The degree of poverty among African Canadians is double that of the general population," he says. "There is no sense that the system is ready and happy to pay particular attention to the particularity of African Canadian issues."

Micah says those issues include employment, equity, immigration and credentials for foreign-trained professionals. He says all of these things make it less likely that people will want to get involved in the political system. "They are both doubly much more impoverished and much more apathetic. In a way, one might say, we cannot blame them. At the same time, we feel it would be defeatist to simply throw in the towel."

A report by Statistics Canada suggests that people with lower income levels and education, no matter where they are born, are less likely to be involved in political activity.

But trying to predict the behaviour of the "immigrant population" is a mug's game. Christian Bourque of Leger Marketing points out that, not surprisingly, different immigrant populations behave in different ways. "It's hard to kind of say if you were to draw up one immigrant voter, it would be tough to get a picture of who that person would be."

Bourque describes the question as "under-researched," partly because obtaining a large enough sample size within an ethnic community is difficult and therefore expensive.

Bourque, Mark and Micah all agree that past assumptions are no longer valid. It used to be that the Liberals believed they could count on a significant number of new Canadians when it came to election day. Most of the immigrant population is concentrated in the cities, which tend to vote centre-left more often than smaller centres. Now, many groups are uncomfortable with certain social issues, including same-sex marriage.

Candidate Ishrat Alam says it's time for more people who came as immigrants to get involved. "This is the only way ethnics can prove they don't need to be on sidelines; they can come forward and make their statement," she says. Alam is running for the Conservatives in Saint-Laurent-Cartier in west Montreal. She says in her riding, about 52 per cent of people have a first language other than English or French.

She says being an immigrant means she can relate to what people are going through, and "ethnic people" are her first priority.

Alam says her own candidacy inspires others to want to help out. She says getting involved is the best thing for them to do. "They have to vote. I often hear that, 'What does it matter. They're not going to listen to us.' The reason we obtained citizenship is to obtain our rights, and voting is the only way to make our government hear what we want."


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