Conservatives and Immigrant Voters: an unconventional love story


Courting the immigrant vote has become a raison-dêtre of the Conservatives. - Photo by Geoffrey Kehrig, Flickr

James Huáng has lived in Canada for six years. Since becoming a citizen two years ago, he voted federally for the first time in the last general election. He voted Conservative.

“They share my values,” says Huáng, speaking not far from the Vancouver South Riding Office on Victoria Drive. “They support the family.”

He suggests that the Conservatives’ tough-on-crime approach, their support for what he feels are traditional family values and their commitment to fiscal responsibility are the reasons why, for Huáng, supporting the Conservatives was a no-brainer. “The others (NDP and Liberals) are all crooks,” he says.

Huáng’s tale is a typical example of a larger story that’s been popping up in the media ever since Immigration Minister Jason Kenney took over that portfolio five years ago: new immigrants are starting to vote Conservative. Conventional wisdom dictates that Kenney’s intense courting of the immigrant community paid off in votes in the 2011 federal election, and might have even won Stephen Harper his much sought after majority. When you delve into the numbers, however, it’s not immediately clear whether or not that’s actually true.

Election numbers

Jason Kenney

Jason Kenney - Photo by GG Liu, Flickr

The Conservatives picked up 23 new seats in 2011, giving them majority status. Twenty-two of them were in Ontario, with 19 coming from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Out of the seats gained, several of them were in ridings with substantial immigrant communities. They also gained Vancouver-South, a riding with a 60 per cent immigrant population, bringing the Conservatives their first Vancouver win in over two decades. However, it needs to be said that the New Democratic Party also made gains in multicultural communities, picking up 67 seats in Quebec alone, with 14 of those being in cosmopolitan Montreal. Though only time will tell if the NDP’s near-sweep in the electoral wild card known as Quebec can be repeated, a case can be argued that the NDP under the late Jack Layton made as many inroads into Canada’s immigrant communities as Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. But it’s the Conservatives who have gotten the media attention, both because of their pre-election tactics, and because of the legislation they’ve introduced since.

New Conservative strategy

Call it “Samosa Politics.” That’s the term that Harjap Grewal uses to explain what is behind the Conservative’s recent success in the multicultural community. Grewal is a spokesperson for No One Is Illegal, a grassroots political action group that supports immigrant and migrant rights. “They [the Conservatives] go to the immigrant community, they eat samosas, they pay all this lip service, but the policies don’t change,” explains Grewal. “They can march in the Chinese New Year parades, they can say a few words in Mandarin or Cantonese, but they’re only doing it to appease voters. It’s very successful, and it’s very tactical.”

Just how successful the tactic has been can be debated, but some say that the Conservatives have adopted it as a core electoral strategy. Since 2007, Kenney has appeared at hundreds of multicultural events across Canada, specifically targeting various ethnic groups sympathetic to the Conservative message.

Immigrants and Conservatives: A perfect fit?

To some that targeting makes perfect sense, especially for a party looking to make inroads in communities they weren’t part of before. That’s the view held by Russ Campbell, a prominent conservative writer who lives in Burlington, Ontario. He says that the recent push by the Conservatives is just part of a larger, broader strategy to get into communities that aren’t traditionally considered strongholds of conservatism.

Campbell also sees the recent cooperation between the Conservatives and some members of the immigrant community as a good fit, and thinks that religious faith has something to do with it. “If you’re talking about the recent past, the immigrants tend to be more religious, especially those that come from South East Asia,” Campbell elaborates. “In general, conservative people tend to be more religious.”

This is part one of a two-part article. In our next issue, Tim Reinert interviews NDP Immigration Critic Don Davies, and explores specific legislation proposed since the Conservative majority was won.