Muslim Canadian federal election turnout driven by fact 'so much was at stake'

Canada's Muslim population has had one of the poorest voter turnout rates of any religious group in the country, some research suggests — until last month's federal election.

Survey from get-out-the-vote group suggests participation rate was near 80% in federal election

'This is the first election that I've ever actually been engaged in,' Basma Ahmed said of the recent federal campaign. It's not clear why turnout by Muslims has lagged other religious groups, but one researcher says it might have to do with feeling connected to campaign issues. (Shanifa Nasser/CBC)

She's been voting for four years, but this was the first time that Basma Ahmed ever really cared about an election.

"Honestly, this is the first election that I've ever actually been engaged in," the 22-year-old from Hamilton said.

Ahmed is one of Canada's one million or so Muslims, a segment of the population expected to grow so rapidly that Statistics Canada estimates by 2036, they are expected to make up to 7.2 per cent of the population of Canada. But Muslims have historically had one of the poorest voter turnout rates per capita of any religious group in the country, some research suggests — that is, until October's federal election.

Accurate figures are hard to obtain because voters don't have to declare their religious affiliation when casting a ballot. A 2007 Elections Canada working paper put Muslim voter turnout in the 2000 federal election at 67 per cent, compared with 85 per cent for voters who identified as Jewish, 82 per cent for Catholics and Protestants and 78 per cent for Hindus.

Other reports have suggest Muslim turnout was in the 40-per-cent range in the elections of 2000 and 2004.

"This year it's a lot different," Ahmed said.

New numbers released Thursday by the grassroots group Canadian Muslim Vote suggest Muslims came out in record numbers during October's election. The interactive-voice-response post-election poll was conducted for the group by Mainstreet Research.

The poll was focused on select areas and ridings, surveying 802 Muslim Canadians from Nov. 3 to 5 in Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, London, Ont., and the Greater Toronto Area. 

In the GTA, it looked specifically at nine ridings where Muslims comprise a significant percentage of the population: Don Valley East, Mississauga Centre, Mississauga–Erin Mills, Scarborough Guildwood, Etobicoke North, Don Valley West, Mississauga Malton, Scarborough Southwest and Scarborough Centre.

The poll suggests the election turnout was in the 88 per cent range in key ridings in and around Toronto, an area where Canadian Muslim Vote focused most of its efforts, handing out flyers, going door-to-door and encouraging Muslims to vote.

Although the survey relied on self-reported data, meaning that respondents could have over- or underestimated their turnout, skewing the results, the act of measuring Muslim Canadians' participation in itself helps to send a message that it's valued, said Laura Anthony, research manager of the non-profit citizen engagement group Samara Canada.

"Higher turnout is encouraging because we know voting is a habitual activity," Anthony said. "The more you vote, the more likely you are to continue to do so."

Several issues to connect with 

Exactly why electoral participation by Muslims has traditionally lagged behind other religious groups in Canada isn't entirely clear.

Mohammed Ayub Khan, a political science researcher at McMaster University, said earlier this year that one of the reasons Muslims haven't been very active at the polls in the past is that they haven't felt very connected with the issues in parties' election platforms.

But between the debate over the controversial anti-terrorism legislation Bill C-51 and the move toward so-called "two-tiered" citizenship in Bill C-24, along with highly-charged rhetoric around "barbaric cultural practices" and the wearing of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies, there was no shortage of issues for Muslims to connect with during this election.

The voting numbers aren't a surprise to Mohammed Hashim, community activist and organizer for the Toronto and York Region Labour Council.

"Such a high voter turnout had to be expected when so much was at stake for the community. The dangerous rhetoric of exclusion created such a level of anxiety that people felt personally responsible to act and have their own voice projected," Hashim said.

While the ballots have been cast, the people behind Canadian Muslim Vote say their work isn't over.


Moe Ladha, a campaigner with the organization, said it has had interest from other Muslim community groups in Halifax, Winnipeg, Edmonton and around the country and hopes to collaborate with them for upcoming elections.

For example, three of Canada's ridings with the most highly concentrated populations of Muslims are located in Quebec.

"There is a lot still left to do," Ladha said. "Our intent is to connect with as many of these groups as possible and scale out this outreach effort."


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