Canada Scores Low Marks for Political Participation by Immigrants - New Canadian Media
Photo of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Canada Scores Low Marks for Political Participation by Immigrants

Canada has a reputation of being a welcoming country, but a recent study shows that Ottawa can do better in one regard: encouraging political participation by immigrants.

One would be hard pressed to find a more energetic person than Meisam Sharifi, an Iranian immigrant to Toronto, Canada. He loves talking about politics and his vision for how the world ought to change. “There is something fundamentally wrong with society. You see, all the people who do the jobs don’t get the benefits. The people who get all the money are the ones who do nothing,” Sharifi told NCM. Meisam Sharifi is not his real name.

He is active with the group Fightback, a Marxist-Leninist political action group based in Toronto. He still has family in Iran and he is worried the country’s secret police, the Basij, might harass them for adopting a belief system contrary to the fundamentalist government of the country. He asked NCM to use Meisam Sharifi to protect his identity.

Sharifi is a proud Canadian citizen now, but there is one aspect of Canadian society and policy that dissatisfies him: Canada takes a hands-off approach to getting immigrants politically involved. “I personally didn’t have any education about [Canada’s system of government]. I kind of learned that because I am active with Fightback,” Sharifi told NCM.

Sharifi came to Canada in 2009 at the age of 19, which means he did not attend any civics classes in Canada. “I’m going through my memories; I think there was something in the immigration test. I think there was a little bit about how the system works. But it was very very basic,” he said.

Last December, the Migration Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) placed Canada in the top five for immigration policy out of 52 countries for the year 2019. This was cause for celebration for a number of news outlets, especially in the wake of the Trudeau government’s sweeping changes to immigration policy. However, while Canada’s overall policy scored well, the country did very poorly in political participation.

Canada can be proud of the fact that immigrants have great access to education, are broadly protected from discrimination and can unify with their families. But when it comes to immigrants participating in Canada’s democracy, the international metric says the country leaves a lot to be desired. MIPEX’s creators did not return NCM’s requests for interviews.

The MIPEX score

MIPEX measures policy along eight metrics and assigns scores between zero and 100 for each metric by country. They examine current policies against the highest standards set by scholars. Canada’s score in areas where it did well is by no means perfect, but it is still head and shoulders better than the rest. The country did the best in terms of anti-discrimination, with a perfect score across all subcategories.

But in the subcategories of political participation, it’s a failing grade. Right to vote: 0. Strength of national consultative body: 0. Active information policy: 50. Canada did get top scores in political party inclusion and funding of national immigrant bodies, but that only bumped the overall average score to 50.

By contrast, Finland scored higher than Canada overall as well as in the category of political participation. There was not a single score of zero in their report card and the lowest score they received was a 75, in the right to vote category. Foreigners do have the right to vote in municipal elections in the country and even to run in them as candidates, as long as they have lived in the municipality in question for at least two years. Newcomers from the European Union (EU) can also vote in the EU parliamentary elections. National elections are reserved for Finnish citizens only. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, just to name a few, have policies similar to those of Finland.

The report also praises Finland’s National Advisory Board on Ethnic Relations. The board works in conjunction with the country’s Ministry of Justice and is a network of experts that provide consultation on policy concerning minority groups. Finns describe it as “national forum for dialogue. The Board brings together migration experts from national, regional and local levels ranging from public officials to civil society representatives.”

“Political mobilization, getting people to vote, was never really part of the multicultural idea in the first place [in Canada],” University of Toronto professor of sociology Jeffrey Reitz told NCM.

“In general terms, when [Pierre] Trudeau first announced multicultural policy, he said that its purpose was to integrate people into the country and encourage equal participation. I think the most attention has been given to employment, economic variables, rather than political ones.”

Reitz did provide one caveat regarding studies such as MIPEX. He believes indexes like MIPEX are a “useful overview of policies” but “it has to be recognized that they are not validated in the same way that, for example, a vaccine is validated. [MIPEX] is in the category of best practices.”

About the author

Mansoor Tanweer is New Canadian Media’s Local Journalism Initiative reporter on immigration policy. An immigrant himself, he has covered municipal affairs and the Brampton City Council in addition to issues relating to newcomers over several years.

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