[The Guardian] – A Canadian election campaign that began amid widespread concern over a faltering economy has turned into a national referendum on the rights of immigrants, with the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the prime minister, gaining support for its hardline stance against Muslim women who veil their faces in public.
The so-called “niqab issue”, inspired by the ruling party’s legal campaign to prevent one Pakistani immigrant from veiling her face during the ceremony held to formalise her new citizenship, remains powerfully divisive as Canadians prepare to elect a new government on 19 October.
Although polls show that a substantial majority of Canadians support the government position, opponents have denounced it as a dangerous and even “disgusting” attack on the country’s fragile multicultural harmony.
With the latest polls showing Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party gaining ground on the Tories, all attention now turns to the one large bloc of voters who have yet to signal their intentions: the hundreds of thousands of immigrants concentrated in the 100-mile suburban sprawl surrounding Toronto, the country’s largest city.
From the beginning of the campaign, no party doubted the importance of winning these polyglot districts, where more than four out of every 10 citizens – and in some cases more than half of them – were born outside the country. After decades of frantic growth, there are now more seats available here than there are in most Canadian provinces. And with preferences elsewhere solidifying, it is here that the decisive battle of the national election is taking place.
The irony is that a Canadian election campaign dominated by debates over the rights of immigrants is fast becoming a two-way race that will be decided by immigrants – with no accurate information suggesting which way they will swing.
The question is whether the Conservatives’ effort to mobilise their nativist base in the rest of Canada using deliberate expressions of religious intolerance has tarnished their appeal to the immigrant voters about to decide their fate.
Suburban Toronto voters shocked the nation four years ago by handing the Harper Conservatives all but one of the two-dozen seats then available in the “905”, named for the new telephone code the district’s explosive growth made necessary. Unique among rightwing parties in the west, the Canadian Conservatives targeted immigrants as a voting bloc naturally receptive to a message that blended social conservatism and laissez-faire economics. Immigrant voters responded by turning Harper’s minority government into a majority, overturning a long tradition that automatically allocated their votes to the Liberals.
“There’s no doubt this is a key battleground,” local Liberal candidate Navdeep Bains told the Guardian. “If you want to form a government, you need to win 905.”
Bains’s focused message is that a Liberal government will give working families even more money than the Conservatives, who prefaced the election campaign by mailing $3bn worth of benefit cheques to Canadian families – with by far the largest share of the payout landing in Tory-held suburbs surrounding Toronto and other Canadian cities.
But here as elsewhere in the 2015 campaign, culture and identity intruded to change the script. Bains’s victory became certain this week when the prime minister’s party officially disqualified his Conservative opponent, Jagdish Grewal, who had recently published an editorial in a local Punjabi newspaper in support of “gay conversion therapy”.
But, similar breaks won’t come so easily to other Liberals fishing for suburban votes in these muddied waters. Like Bains, Liberal candidate Rob Oliphant is running to regain a suburban seat he lost in the 2011 Tory sweep. But when a Muslim door opens during his canvasses in Muslim-majority Thorncliffe Park, Oliphant is more likely to be scolded than praised. The reason is a controversial new sex-ed program introduced in Ontario schools by a Liberal provincial government, which has sparked outrage among socially conservative Muslim immigrants.
“I’ve heard this a thousand, two thousand times,” Oliphant sighed when yet another Muslim woman challenged him about sex-ed during a recent canvas. Repeating the fact that the federal party has no control over the provincial government fails to win support.
“We are in Canada because of our kids,” one Muslim woman told him, dismissing the Liberal’s constitutional niceties. “We want the best for them. But we want to keep our culture, we want to keep our beliefs.”
Ignoring the niqab controversy that has obsessed the rest of the country, frustrated community leaders are now urging local Muslim parents to punish the Liberals on 19 October. Here, Muslim protest could well lead to the survival of Conservative incumbent John Carmichael, who beat Oliphant by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2011.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that one year ago the same immigrant voters currently protesting against sex ed voted overwhelmingly in favour of the provincial Liberal government that subsequently introduced the new curriculum.
Ensconced in the corner of an airy doughnut shop on a traffic-choked commercial strip in the booming suburbs east of Toronto, “listening surreptitiously to all the conversations”, Trinidad-born novelist Rabindranath Maharaj is a keen observer who freely admits to being baffled by the attraction of the Conservative party among his fellow immigrants.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” he lamented. “I’m still surprised, even though I have a better understanding of how well the Tories have played the game.”
Maharaj lives in multicultural Ajax, a closely watched bellwether district where the Conservative immigration minister, Chris Alexander, is fighting to retain the seat he won from the Liberals four years ago. But in that effort, Alexander is not shrinking from his reputation as a leading culture warrior, having recently announced a police snitch line where Canadians can report evidence of what he called “barbaric cultural practices”.
Many immigrants appreciate such gestures, Maharaj theorises. “To the immigrants who have arrived from deeply conservative societies, the Tories point to the two other parties as harbingers of social chaos and corruption,” he said. “To immigrants who have come from war-torn areas, the Tories offer the stout embrace of their stern law-and-order policies.”
Their success, the novelist added, was to “repackage the immigrant dream and present themselves as its only guarantor”.
The reality of 905 today, unlike that of almost any other region in the country, is that nobody can predict which way it will swing – only that the result will be fateful, with the newest of Canadian citizens currently situated as the ones to decide whether Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau forms the next federal government.