It is no secret. Whenever an election is nearing, the number of appearances by incumbents, prospective candidates, ministers and party leaders at roundtables, speeches, photo-ops or other events organized by ethnic and immigrant community groups increases.
And, particularly in an election year, these politicians hope that their presence will gain the one vote that will determine their success in the upcoming elections.
The recent numbers are impressive – the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce has hosted four federal ministers in as many months, and the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada has hosted six high-profile individuals, premiers, ambassadors and ministers since the beginning of 2015.
While Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander could not beat preceding minister Jason Kenney’s record attendance of community engagement events (at times as many as six appearances in a night), he has also dedicated a significant amount of time for community engagement, meeting members of the Polish and Chinese communities in the last month.
The ‘shaking-hands-and-baby-kissing’ explanation of how immigrant communities vote oversimplifies a complex relationship between immigrant communities, representative interest groups and political leaders.
Yet, the ‘shaking-hands-and-baby-kissing’ explanation of how immigrant communities vote oversimplifies a complex relationship between immigrant communities, representative interest groups and political leaders.
Immigrant groups have an important effect on elections, policies and party platforms by helping politicians position themselves to appeal to respective communities.
An interest group’s most effective role is its ability to identify issues that are electorally important for the immigrant community. It provides candidates and parties with a pulse on the issues that exist within a community. It serves as a forum where active members of immigrant communities discuss, dissect and organize around these issues.
Members of ethnic interest groups in Canada have been vocal on issues of visas, the temporary foreign worker program, small- and medium-sized business development and reduction of trade barriers to developing economies.
Political science research has shown that people actively involved in their communities – including interest groups – are more likely to be involved in aspects like fundraising and volunteering for political parties.
The Chinese-Canadian National Council, for example, has been a long-time advocate of the ‘super visa’ for parents and grandparents, a 10-year visa that allows holders to stay in Canada for up to two years a visit. It has also been vocal against the government’s caps on applications (only 5,000 applications were accepted in 2014).
Similarly, Indo-Canadian groups have played a significant role in identifying the major trade barriers between Canada and India in the completion of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.
Political science research has shown that people actively involved in their communities – including interest groups – are more likely to be involved in aspects like fundraising and volunteering for political parties. And the numbers show that members of the Conservative Party have reaped the benefits of this.
A 2013 CBC article found that nearly 60 per cent of the $143,000 raised by Kenney’s Calgary riding association came from the Chinese-Canadian community in Ontario and a significant (but smaller) amount from the South Asian community also outside of Alberta, indicating their support for his approach to community engagement.
In addition, organized and formal interest groups provide a forum for politicians looking to connect with immigrant and ethnic communities, while helping to moderate messaging of the more radical groups in line with government interests and policy. Politicians are then able to prioritize issues that they can more easily act upon, instead of focusing on ‘splinter’ issues within particular groups that have unfavourable, anti-state and sometimes violent ideologies.
For example, in recent years, members of Parliament (MPs) have distanced themselves from events such as Vaisakhi parades where participants have advocated for violent separation from India, or rallies in the Tamil community, which promote and fundraise for the Tamil Tigers.
Are Politicians Listening?
Correlation between these community engagement activities and influence on policy is hard to prove. But there are signs that political candidates are listening to interest groups.
For a period of three years between 2008 and 2011, the ruling Conservative party issued formal apologies for injustices committed against numerous ethnic communities in Canada.
For a period of three years between 2008 and 2011, the ruling Conservative party issued formal apologies for injustices committed against numerous ethnic communities in Canada, including the Komagata Maru incident, the poor handling of the Air India attack and the Chinese head tax.
Significant changes to immigration policies have seen the landing fees for new residents nearly halved. They have created opportunities for skilled labour to gain access to work, benefiting those most likely to be politically engaged and involved in ethnic organizations.
But these policy platforms are not limited to the ruling party.
Justin Trudeau has recently taken aim at what he calls the racist anti-Muslim policies of the Conservative government, including the proposed ban on headscarves at citizenship ceremonies and Canadian Terrorism Act (Bill C-51), both issues taken up by the National Council of Canadian Muslims, while Tom Mulcair has promised improvements to the immigration system to speed up visas for family reunification.
The question now remains: which one of these approaches will reap the most electoral benefits in the future?
Anita Singh is a founding partner of Tahlan, Jorden & Singh Consulting Group and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Her research examines the role of diaspora groups and their influence on foreign policy, particularly the Indo-Canadian community and Canada-India relations.