The number of federal ridings in which immigrants make up more than half of all voters has grown to 33 in Canada, almost all in pivotal Metro Vancouver and Toronto.
Politicians are desperate to find ways to appeal to the “immigrant vote” in those 33 exceptional ridings — as well as in 122 more electoral districts where the share of immigrants ranges from a consequential 20 to 50 per cent.
Efforts to woo immigrant groups were on display last month when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inflamed India with the accusation that its agents appeared to be involved in the slaying of a pro-Khalistan activist in Surrey.
One of Trudeau’s unstated aims seemed to be to show support for the country’s 770,000 Sikhs, most of whom are in immigrant families. Unfortunately, Trudeau also alienated many of Canada’s 828,000 Hindus.
Chasing after immigrant voters is a tricky, fraught business.
How best can politicians appeal to immigrants, who have become a force to be reckoned with in almost half of the country’s federal ridings? It’s not easy when immigrants come from disparate countries, ethnicities and religions. Political parties are constantly trying to figure out what appeals to immigrant populations through their private polling, which they resolutely decline to share with journalists.
Here are a few thoughts from experts on working with voters who are immigrants:
Focus on across-the-spectrum issues
Regardless of whether immigrants come from India, China or the Philippines, many issues affect both immigrants and non-immigrants in roughly the same way: All people relate to policies on taxation, employment, education and cost of living.
Defend immigrants against intimidation, foreign and domestic
Since many immigrants not only come to Canada to take advantage of economic opportunities, but also to escape discrimination in their homelands, Andre Machalski, whose company Mirens monitors Canada’s more than 800 ethnic media outlets, says politicians can benefit by defending immigrants’ rights.
That’s a tack Trudeau took when he declared there were “credible allegations” that Indian agents were involved in the June murder of a pro-Khalistan activist outside a Surrey gurdwara.
“Trudeau’s unassailable message to all immigrants is, ‘We will stand up for you,’” said Machalski.
That message can hit home for people who have left behind all sorts of conflict-ridden nations, whether China, Ukraine or Nigeria.
Andrew Griffith, a former high-level director in Canada’s immigration department, says politicians believe they benefit electorally by defending immigrants, 70 per cent of whom are people of colour, from hate or discrimination.
Be in power
It’s conventional political theory that a party draws votes by being in office when a newcomer obtains citizenship status, which includes the right to vote.
B.C. radio talk-show host Harjit Singh Gill is among those convinced one reason Trudeau has hiked migration to record levels is he realizes immigrants and refugees, whether from Iran, Syria or India, “will vote for him because of it. They will worship him, think he’s a hero.”
Since the Liberal party has been in power more than the Conservatives in the past three decades, many say that’s one reason polls generally show immigrants lean toward the Liberals. People from India are also more inclined to vote Liberal, and since Trudeau was elected in 2015, immigrants from India have skyrocketed into by far the largest cohort.
The Liberals have raised the immigration target to 500,000 a year, double the number when they came into office. Canada’s population grew by a record 1.1 million last year, 98 per cent due to migrants. CIBC Capital Market economist Benjamin Tal adds Ottawa has also allowed in two million foreign students and guest workers, most of whom yearn to be citizens.
Recognize both pros and cons of migration policy can draw votes
It’s time for politicians to get over the idea immigration is a “third rail,” too controversial to touch, Griffith writes in Policy Options.
Many immigrant families, like many other Canadians, are concerned about immigration levels, Griffith says. While generally pro-immigration, they fear the negative effects of Ottawa inviting too many newcomers too rapidly, particularly because they contribute to demand on housing and medical services, both of which are in crisis.
Sponsoring older immigrants is a winner. And loser
Trudeau’s cabinet ministers often boast they have quadrupled the number of parents and grandparents that can be sponsored to move to Canada. The expanding program aims to bring in 28,500 older family members this year, 34,000 next year and 36,000 in 2025.
“It’s both a real vote getter, and a real vote loser,” says Griffith.
While many immigrants want to bring their parents or grandparents here, others worry about the drain on publicly funded health services, since they arrive as seniors and haven’t had the chance to pay significant taxes in Canada.
Informing parents on pronouns
Since polls show immigrants tend to come from socially conservative cultures, it’s not surprising many Canadian Muslims, most of whom are immigrants, have been at the forefront of opposition to school districts refusing to tell parents if their children want to change their gender pronouns at school.
An Angus Reid poll found 78 per cent of all Canadians believe parents should be informed if their child wants to change their gender identity or pronoun at school.
Support ethnocultural groups, and be honest
The ethnic media in Canada, Machalski says, is full of examples of politicians saying one thing to one ethnic group and another to the wider public. That plays out whether the contentious subject is Khalistan or attending a banquet hosted by an organization that is a mouthpiece for China. When courting immigrant groups, politicians should avoid speaking out of both sides of their mouths.
The old-fashioned way of wooing a group, whether immigrant or otherwise, might still be best. Show up at town halls, shake some hands, get to know people. For what it’s worth, Machalski, who was born in Argentina, believes these days that Conservative party Leader Pierre Poilievre is showing up the most — “making serious inroads” into immigrant communities.
The timing for Poilievre is also auspicious, Machalski says. “He is going up in the polls, and like most people, immigrants like to back a winner.”
Douglas Todd: Trudeau’s defiance of India killing two birds with one stone
Interactive map of Metro Vancouver (and Canada), which shows immigrant proportion by neighbourhood
Douglas Todd: Warnings of today’s foreign-student exploitation began a decade ago
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