Political parties and media have always needed each other. Considering that Canada has a large number of multicultural and ethnic communities existing alongside the so-called mainstream, it is not surprising that political parties have specific strategies for dealing with cultural media.
But, on Jan. 6, a roundtable between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and ethnic media representatives caused great anguish in the national and local mainstream media, with furious reports being filed about Mr. Harper’s strategy to gain favourable coverage for him and his party.
I was a part of this roundtable in Vancouver, and in the coming paragraphs I will attempt to explain why the brouhaha was so unnecessary.
The reporters in attendance were from the Korean, Filipino, South Asian, Chinese and Iranian media, all large ethnic groups in Metro Vancouver. Questions ranged from trade agreements with India and Korea, the Northern Gateway Pipeline Project, Canada’s immigration policy, changes to the Foreign Temporary Workers Program, human rights issues in Iran and questions surrounding how Canada plans to rein in the mounting debt — all legitimate questions important to the ethnic communities these publications serve.
In regards to some key publications not being invited, all I can say is that I don’t make strategy, I only report.
Mr. Harper started with opening remarks and then spoke briefly about where Canada is headed as it recovers from the global economic downturn, how it plans to make communities and streets safer and what Canada’s long-term immigration policies are.
He thanked the gathered cultural media saying that the communities the cultural media represent are part of the cultural diversity that is a great strength of this country.
“The communities that you broadcast to and report to are an integral part of the Canadian media landscape. The reason we do these things is that we understand that many of what’s called the so-called cultural media is actually some of the larger media in our country,” said the prime minister.
Mr. Harper outlined some of the achievements of his government and called the signing of the Canada-European trade agreement the “biggest single agreement that the country had ever signed and probably the biggest single standalone achievement the government has had ever since it came to office,” although he did admit that despite efforts by the Canadian government a similar deal with India is far from being finalized.
“We are also wanting to finalize the Foreign Investment Promotion Protection Agreement (FIPA). From Canada’s point of view, we think that the deal should and could be signed soon, but it hasn’t. Although we have made progress with India we are obviously not in a position to say when we would conclude that either,” said Mr. Harper. He said it was not a uniquely Canadian issue. “If you look at India, for the last couple of years, India has not been completing agreements with anyone. My sense is that things there are on hold pending the resolution of where India is really headed after the election campaign,” he said.
He said Canada will continue to negotiate and press to sign the FIPA, “but my sense is that the Indian government is not going to conclude these negotiations prior to these elections with us or with anyone else,” said Mr. Harper. “I hope that when we have elections in India, we will then be able to more aggressively and ambitiously draw these things to a conclusion.” Despite eight rounds of negotiations between India and Canada, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is far from being signed.
“Not withstanding the fact that we can go much further, there has been a very large growth in bilateral trade and particular educational investment flows of Indian students to Canada during the life of this government. We have also had some achievement in terms of agreements with India. We have signed the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement which was 40 years in the making, and the Social Security Agreement with India has also been signed.”
Mr. Harper did not comment greatly on the controversial Northern Gateway project, saying he didn’t want to prejudice the decision that he and his colleagues might take about this in the coming months although he categorically emphasized that the pipeline would generate a great number of jobs and would significantly boost the economy.
Responding to questions about Canada’s immigration system, the prime minister said his government has taken huge steps to overhaul the system and reduce wait times dramatically. Talking specifically about the foreign temporary workers especially in the resource sector, he said, “To fulfill needs in the resource sector, I believe we don’t need foreign temporary workers and more permanent foreign workers with a path to Canadian citizenship so that they can become a part of Canadian economy”
One question that seemed to have captured the mainstream media’s imagination was a question from a lifestyle magazine about Mr. Harper’s legacy. Reports on the ethnic media roundtable suggested that the question was frivolous in nature. Similarly, a reporter’s heartfelt gratitude to Prime Minister Harper about his government’s stand on human rights issues in Iran also drew comments from the mainstream media, with suggestions that the reporter was fawning over the prime minister.
Understanding the trauma that some refugees go through in conflict-ridden countries is not an easy task for those who have never experienced such horrific conditions. Sometimes, comments are made in venues where they seem misplaced, but these are no less meaningful or heartfelt.
In closing, I would like to say that ethnic media play important dual roles, both informing their target audiences about local issues and keeping them informed of news and issues from their countries of their birth. Therefore, if political parties engage communities through these roundtables, I think the trend should be encouraged, not discouraged.
PM Roundtable Vancouver
Shruti Prakash-Joshi is the Associate Editor of The Asian Star weekly.