Not any more

Conservative immigrants boost Tory fortunes

In Canada on October 4, 2010 at 09:14

On a cold Sunday in late 2005, in church, Helen Poon’s life collided with Canada’s new political reality.

A year earlier, Ms. Poon had moved from Hong Kong to Markham, a heavily immigrant suburban city on the edge of Toronto. At her Cantonese-language Protestant church she was surprised to find politics being preached from the pulpit.

More related to this story

Poll

Helping immigrants “fit in” is:

39% 306 votes

Their responsibility

2% 18 votes

The government’s responsibility

59% 470 votes

Both

“The pastor asked the congregation to support the Conservatives because they’re opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion,” she recalls. “They said same-sex marriage is not God’s law.”

A tectonic shift is reshaping Canada’s political landscape. A new immigrant-friendly Conservative message and a new, more conservative immigrant are finding each other, shaking the once-ironclad bond between new Canadians and the Liberal Party. Whether the Conservatives can continue to exploit this shift, or the Liberals can arrest it, will determine the fate of the two political parties in this decade.

On a deeper level, the effectiveness of these wedge issues raises the possibility that immigration, and the importation of more traditional homeland values, is shifting Canadian attitudes.

Markham was one of three federal ridings in Greater Toronto with large numbers of immigrant voters that switched from the Liberals to the Conservatives in the 2008 election. In that election the Conservatives scored new wins in six ridings with visible minority populations of 20 per cent or higher. (Visible minority statistics tend to reflect the attitudes of more recent immigrants, since most immigrants now come from outside Europe, and only 16 per cent of visible minority adults were born in Canada.) In other key ridings in both the Toronto and Vancouver areas, the Conservatives have the Liberals running scared.

A survey of visible minorities and immigrants done by the Canadian Election Study shows both groups tend to be more conservative than the rest of Canada on bedrock Canadian issues. Both groups, for example, are more likely to say it should be possible to pay for medical treatment and that getting an abortion should be more difficult. Visible minorities, a category that’s 84 per cent immigrant, are more likely to support private hospitals, lower taxes and paying parents individually rather than funding daycare.

Thirteen-year old Cowin Poon, with his mother, Helen Poon at his side, works at his tie while preparing to go to Air Cadets

But it’s not all tilting to the right. On most other issues in the survey, such as cutting welfare spending, opposing the death penalty, having troops in Afghanistan or spending more on defence, both immigrants and visible minority groups are to the left of the Canadian population.

Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University, said it’s important to remember attitudes are constantly shifting on both sides. Immigrants are changed by the ideas they encounter in Canada, and to a lesser extent Canada is changed by the attitudes of its immigrants.

“When newcomers come to Canada they bring with them homeland values and traditions, but Canada is not a blank slate. We have a whole bunch of ways – from school to television to the law – that send signals of what the values of this society are,” Prof. Siemiatycki said.

How those issues are ultimately weighed at the ballot box will have profound implications for Canada. Will we eventually re-visit same-sex marriage and abortion? Will we shrink the welfare state? Immigrant and visible minority voters may hold the key.

The Canadian Election Study reveals that, in 2008, immigrants were almost as likely to vote Conservative (33 per cent of them did) as Liberal (38 per cent). That’s a drop of 17 percentage points in Liberal support between the 2000 and 2008 elections.

Although overall support for the Conservatives among immigrants remained steady over the last decade at around one voter in three, among more recent immigrants – those who are likely to be visible minorities – a switch is clearly under way.

Between 2000 and 2008 support for the Liberals among “viz mins” plummeted from 83 per cent to 49 per cent, while Conservative support climbed from 16 to 26 per cent.

Liberal Party supporters wait for the arrival of then Prime Minister and Liberal Leader Paul Martin before the start of a campaign rally in Surrey, B.C. in May, 2004

The immigrant vote will only grow more important with each election, as Canada imports the equivalent of the city of Toronto every 10 years. New legislation proposed by the Conservatives would add 30 seats to the House of Commons and all the new ridings will be in urban areas and most will have large immigrant populations.

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