Cross Country Checkup

Canadian politicians will court the ethnic vote, but will it benefit any one party?

For years, the Liberals could count on votes from immigrant communities, but with visible minorities a majority in 41 federal ridings, experts say that newcomers are politically diverse — and offer no guarantees for any one party.

Visible minorities form majority in 41 federal ridings, but experts say immigrants are politically diverse

Abdikheir Ahmed is the director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, an organization that helps immigrants and refugees get settled in the city. (Submitted by Immigration Partnership Winnipeg)

Abdikheir Ahmed vividly remembers casting his ballot for the first time in Winnipeg's 2010 municipal election. Not only was he excited, he had an entourage.

"I brought my family. I brought my kids. I brought everyone," Ahmed said. "It was the first time in my life that I voted."

The 39-year-old Winnipeg resident arrived in Canada from Somalia as a refugee in 2003. It took several years before he could legally vote as a Canadian citizen, but he was eager to do so.

"I feel that I have a responsibility to decide the direction that this country goes in," said Ahmed.

Now, he runs Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, an organization that helps immigrants and refugees get settled in that city. Visible minorities make up one-quarter of the population in Winnipeg, according to Statistics Canada, though not all are recent immigrants.

Volunteers with Immigration Partnership Winnipeg launch the 'Got Citizenship? Go Vote!' campaign in August 2018. (Submitted by Immigration Partnership Winnipeg)

It's become conventional wisdom in Canadian politics that immigrant voters can have a powerful influence in elections.

According to Ahmed, immigrants — new or long-settled — are a potentially powerful block of voters.

"It actually makes sense to court the so-called immigrant vote because that is the determining factor, and it's a growing population," said Ahmed.

But as the battle begins for this year's federal election, experts say no party has a monopoly on any particular ethnic group or religious minority.

Myth or reality?

Canada's major parties have been competing for immigrant voters since the 1960s, according University of Toronto political science professor Phil Triadafilopoulos.

"The main sources of immigration were different then, but the dynamics were very similar. It's an urban Canadian story," said Triadafilopoulos.

In the 2019 federal election, ridings in Toronto and Vancouver are considered key battlegrounds that can make-or-break a party. Both have high Chinese and South Asian populations.

But they aren't the only cities where politicians are courting ethnic voters.

Certain very racist policies, like the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and tip line ... woke up communities to actually say, 'We cannot tolerate this in our country.'- Abdikheir Ahmed, Immigration Partnership Winnipeg

Andrew Griffith, a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Environics Institute, says data on immigration and ethno-cultural diversity from the 2016 census shows many Canadian communities now have a larger percentage of visible minority residents than in 2011.

Of 338 federal ridings in Parliament, 41 have populations where visible minorities form the majority, compared with 33 five years earlier.

"Parties, when they're developing their electoral strategies, take that into account in terms of how they advocate policies and programs to attract them," said Griffith.

What's more difficult is pinning down whether immigrant voters have partisan preferences.

A hand places a ballot into a ballot box.
A voter casts a ballot in the 2011 federal election in Toronto on May 2, 2011. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

New Canadians could once be counted on to vote Liberal, ever since Pierre Trudeau opened the door to more immigration in the 1970s, but that unwavering endorsement became less pronounced over the past decade.

Griffith says recent polling data suggests some ethnic communities still lean toward certain parties. Sikh-Canadians, for example, have a "general tendency" to vote Liberal and NDP, while Conservatives enjoy more support among Chinese-Canadians.

But, Griffith cautions, "We should never make the assumption that all members of the community are identical and behave the same way, whether it be in the polling booth or in other aspects."

Encouraging newcomers to vote

In Winnipeg, Ahmed says it shouldn't even be assumed new immigrants will exercise their franchise. He's working to mobilize visible minority and newcomers who have earned citizenship to vote in this year's federal election.

"Many newcomers have never voted in their own countries or have engaged in electoral processes that are not transparent, so do not actually trust the process and don't see the importance of voting in it," said Ahmed.

Ahmed has organized campaigns to encourage new and long-settled immigrants to vote. (Tanner Grywinski/CBC)

To encourage refugees and immigrants to vote in last fall's municipal election, Ahmed's non-partisan group launched a electoral campaign with the slogan "Got Citizenship, Go Vote."

Immigration Partnership Winnipeg developed posters and videos on how and where to vote that were translated into 12 different languages, and concentrated on ethno-cultural community organizations to get the message out.

Ahmed's impression is that immigrants don't vote in blocks, but he says ethnic communities will respond electorally if they feel targeted by an issue.

For example, when the federal Tories campaigned in 2015 on policies such as banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies or setting up a "barbaric cultural practices" tip line, Ahmed says it spurred newcomers to vote against them.

"The messaging from the Conservative Party came across as anti-immigrant," said Ahmed.

"Certain very racist policies like the Barbaric Cultural Practices Act and tip line ... woke up communities to actually say, 'We cannot tolerate this in our country.'"

It's a point echoed by Triadafilopoulos, who suggests large numbers of immigrant voters is one of the reasons Canada has not experienced the same kind of xenophobic populism sweeping Europe and the United States.

"The demographic and institutional facts [in Canada] just make it a losing proposition," he said.