How ‘minority-majority’ ridings are influencing Canada’s election conversation

When Ally Wong recently launched her website, or (Chinese-Canadians Go To Vote), her intent was to mobilize Chinese-speaking voters in her riding of Richmond Centre.

The B.C. municipality is renowned as perhaps the ultimate Canadian “minority-majority” city, with nearly three out of four Richmond residents speaking a language other than English or French at home.

This cultural diversity is the reason why the bedroom suburb is today the Asian food capital of North America, but it also seems to have contributed to making Richmond into the country’s most politically apathetic city. In the 2019 federal election, Wong’s Richmond Centre riding had the lowest voter turnout of all Canada’s ridings.

Wong is trying to do something about this state of affairs. Her site is providing Richmond constituents with Chinese-language information on how to register to vote, as well as platform details about every major party’s take on issues such as immigration, taxes and housing — topics that are typically of concern to all Canadian immigrants.

But as she is engaging with voters, Wong has also uncovered another layer of more community-specific, hot-button topics that are not on the national radar, such as the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, heightened China-Canada tensions, and how the Chinese community is portrayed in English media.

“There is much worry in the Chinese community about the safety of our elders. People feel more action is needed from our politicians,” she said in reference to the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic.

“How the Chinese community is portrayed in (English) media is also important, stories need to be more careful so it doesn’t lead to harm.”

These community-specific issues are often invisible to non-immigrant Canadians. They are certainly not the broad, stump-worthy topics such as housing affordability, climate change, and reconciliation, that one would think could — or should — swing a federal election. But they may turn out to be as impactful as any of the spending promises made in this election that seems more defined by general opposition to it than any burning policy question.

Of Canada’s 338 federal ridings, 41 now have populations in which visible minorities form the majority. While there is some evidence to indicate that South Asian and Filipino voters tend to skew to the left and Chinese voters to the right, partisan allegiances can be thin with 400,000 new immigrants arriving each year, all without any deep connection to a particular party. And given the neck-and-neck polling of this current race, the difference between a minority and majority government may come down to how candidates (along with their parties) in these key “immigrant ridings” position themselves — or posture — on what otherwise may seem to be distant matters, such as the Kashmir question, the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong and farming deregulation in India.

In Surrey—Newton, a riding in which approximately 60 per cent of voters are of South Asian descent, the “home country” issue troubling voters is the bleak future of India’s farmers. In September of last year, the Indian government hurriedly passed a series of agricultural bills that India’s farmers, unconsulted, have since vigorously protested despite vicious police crackdowns.

The Indian government argues the bills are necessary for economic reform. The farmers — the majority of whom are family-based enterprises with small holdings — argue the bills will squeeze them off their ancestral rural lands.

For the past nine months, South Asian Canadians from across the country have held numerous rallies and protests in support of their families and brethren back home. In the riding of Surrey—Newton, its current member of Parliament, Sukh Dhaliwal, tweeted in November of last year that he was “very disturbed by the treatment of Punjabi farmers in India” and that he stood “with the #PunjabFarmers”.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government also issued a statement last fall, supporting the rights of India’s farmers to protest. It was strongly rebuked by India’s government.

Gurmant Grewal, a former Conservative MP who represented the Surrey riding of Fleetwood-Port Kells from 2004 to 2015, believes India’s heavy-handed farming reforms could be a swing issue in these South Asian ridings.

“Here in Surrey, you are seeing candidates prioritize Canada-China tensions and the Indian farmer crisis,” said Grewal in an interview with New Canadian Media, a Canadian news outlet that focuses on immigrant coverage.

Even the Bloc Québécois which has traditionally focused its energies on Quebec’s Francophone base, has attempted this election cycle to reach out to immigrants. The party recently issued a statement condemning human rights violations in Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim populated Himalayan region to which both India and Pakistan lay claim.

In 2019, the Indian government abrogated the state’s constitution, and placed control of the region under central authority. Speaking out on behalf of Kashmiris resonates with Quebec’s Muslim voters.

Immigration patterns have continued to reshape Canada’s demographics and the cultural mix in the country’s political ridings. With each election, the diversity of representation in our House of Commons has kept pace with the overall proportion of immigrants in Canada. The total number of visible minority MPs elected increased from 47 in 2015 (14 per cent) to 51 in 2019 (15.1 per cent).

But there is also greater diversity surfacing in the issues that voters are asking about, including topics that otherwise wouldn’t play in a federal election but now do because they are relevant to the voters living in 12 per cent of Canada’s minority-majority ridings. In recent years we have witnessed how a U.S. election can come down to the concerns of voters in a handful of counties in Pennsylvania, Michigan or Florida. We may come to see in a matter of days how a functioning majority in Canada comes down to winning over Chinese or Sikh voters in places like Richmond Centre, and Surrey—Newton by addressing issues only visible in their communities.

Jagdeesh Mann is a journalist based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter @JagdeeshMann.

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