T.O. Tory staffer makes 'ethnic costume' rally appeal

An email sent out by a Conservative campaign staffer in a Toronto riding seeking people in "national folklore costumes" to appear at a photo-op is an insulting use of so-called ethnic voters as props, critics say.
Stephen Harper delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Ajax, Ont., April 6. A Toronto Conservative candidate is distancing himself from a staffer's email calling for supporters to dress in 'ethnic costume' outfits for a Harper rally in Etobicoke Thursday. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

An email sent out by a Conservative campaign staffer in a Toronto riding seeking people in "national folklore costumes" to appear at a photo-op is an insulting use of so-called ethnic voters as props, critics say.

Canadian Arab Federation president Khaled Mouamar received an email late Tuesday from a Conservative campaign staffer for the Etobicoke Centre riding asking "representation from the Arab community" for a Thursday visit from Stephen Harper.

"Do you have any cultural groups that would like to participate by having someone at the event in an ethnic costume? We are seeking one or two people from your community," the email signed by Zeljko 'Zed' Zidaric said. 

The email stated that the Etobicoke Centre campaign was seeking to create a "photo-op about all the multicultural groups that support Ted Opitz our local Conservative candidate and the Prime Minister."

"The opportunity is to have up to 20 people in national folklore costumes which represent their ethnic backgrounds," the email said.

Ted Opitz's campaign spokesperson Patrick Rogers confirmed that Zidaric is a campaign staffer. 

"The email was sent by a campaign staffer without my knowledge. I do not support its characterization or intent," Conservative candidate Ted Opitz said in an email. 

Zidaric could not be reached for comment.

'You would think that this is a joke'

The email quickly drew criticism as it made the rounds on blogs and via emails on Wednesday.

Mouamar compared the photo-op to asking people to come to "a Halloween party."

The Conservative government cut off more than $1 million in funding to the Canadian Arab Federation after the president expressed "hateful sentiments" toward Israel and Jews, according to then immigration minister Jason Kenney.

"So suddenly now we exist as props for a photo op?" said Canadian Arab Federation president Khaled Mouamar. "This is hypocrisy."

Borys Wrzesnewskyj, the Liberal incumbent who has represented the west-end Toronto riding since 2004, said he was stunned to learn of the email.

"It's really unfortunate," said Wrzesnewskyj. "My goodness, we're not in the 1950s here… Canada is a global village and Toronto is especially so."

The Conservative Party has aggressively courted the ethnic vote in hopes of wresting ridings from the Liberals and gaining a majority. Outreach efforts have been spearheaded by Kenney.

Video criticizes search for 'ethnic vote'

The Conservatives are not the only party seeking inroads into potentially vote-rich ethnic communities. A satirical YouTube video surfaced Wednesday poking fun at the lengths to which all political parties will go to secure the so-called "ethnic vote."

In the video, a dozen people from different backgrounds sing their own version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" as they hold styrofoam containers full of various ethnic foods like springrolls and samosas.

"Don't wanna be an ethnic, be Canadian," they sing. "It's time to take a stand. Get a ballot in your hand. So beat it!"

Shalini Konanur, a member of the Colour of Poverty campaign that released the video, said while the Tories have overtly pursued the ethnic vote, all major campaigns have been guilty of it.

"That term, the ethnic vote, is quite a divisive term," said Shalini Konanur. "We've always had the view that we're all Canadians. We have Canadian issues. And those issues are larger than the "ethnic communities" or the racialized communities that we come from."

Be glad for attention: prof

But one expert says the demographic should appreciate the attention they are receiving, since a lot of groups — Aboriginal people, the poor and those with disabilities — have gone relatively unmentioned during the election campaign.

"It gives you political power when people are focusing on you," said Alex Marland, an assistant professor at Memorial University who studies political marketing. "They should be saying 'Listen to us, we matter and these are the concerns we have and we're glad you're paying attention.'"

Several commuters at Toronto's Union Station asked about the term "ethnic voter" hadn't even heard it. There was mixed reaction from those who had. Some agreed that it wasn't offensive, while others blasted it for creating divisions.

Amin Manji, 48, of Pickering, Ont., said he sees it as a sign that the demographic is beginning to increase in importance.

"It makes a lot of sense," Manji said about the targeted campaigning. "If you look around you, 90 per cent of the people are ethnic."

But Dennis Ng, 35, a consultant from Whitby, Ont., questioned the definition, saying an ethnic minority in one community might not be identified as such in another.

"What is ethnic or even visible minority?" asked Ng. "What does that even mean?"