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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Jamaican counterpart, Portia Simpson Miller. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Jamaican counterpart, Portia Simpson Miller. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

POLITICS

As Jamaican PM visits, Harper speaks of crime and community Add to ...

Stephen Harper is marking a visit of Jamaica’s Prime Minister by reaching out to the diaspora in Canada: He spoke out Monday against linking Toronto gun crime to the city’s Jamaican-Canadian community.

Mr. Harper pulled out all the diplomatic stops in Ottawa to welcome his Jamaican counterpart, Portia Simpson Miller, including a 19-gun salute and a walk down Parliament’s Hall of Honour, before they flew together to Toronto for a reception there.

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But this piece of personal diplomacy with a foreign leader was conducted with one eye to a constituency here – the more than 230,000 Canadians of Jamaican origin, largely concentrated in Toronto.

As two prime ministers marked the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, Mr. Harper saluted the contribution of Jamaican-Canadians – and said they are being falsely blamed for Toronto’s gun crime.

“It has come to my attention that since July, many in this community, Toronto’s Jamaican-Canadian community, feel that they live in the shadow of criminality arising out of incidents like the Danzig Street and Eaton Centre shootings,” Mr. Harper told a packed hall at the Jamaican-Canadian Association, in a multicultural suburban neighbourhood in north Toronto.

“Canadians understand that the only community placed under a shadow by perpetrators of these crimes is the community of criminals.”

“People who came from Jamaica to Canada have come in search of a better life, and to contribute positively to our country, not to live in fear of street gangs and criminals.”

Toronto has been rocked this year by shootings remarkable because of the numbers hit. In June, two people were killed and five injured in a shooting in the downtown Eaton Centre shopping mall; in July, two were killed and 23 wounded in a gun fight at a block party on suburban Danzig Street.

The finger is often pointed – in some cases erroneously – at street gangs that include Jamaican-Canadian members. The community has long grappled with gun crime in its midst, however, and the decades-old stereotype that Jamaican-Canadians are involved in a disproportionate share of shootings.

In Toronto Monday, Mr. Harper insisted that his government’s tough-on-crime agenda has received strong backing from Jamaican-Canadians.

But his message was less about public policy, and more about lauding the contributions of Jamaican-Canadians and ties between the two countries.

After listening to a performance by a Jamaican-Canadian choir and band, Mr. Harper listed off the connections between both countries. He drew the loudest applause of the night when he paid tribute to the late Lincoln Alexander, former lieutenant-governor of Ontario.

Mr. Harper’s Conservatives have credited much of their electoral success in broadening their support among Canada’s ethnic communities, once thought to be locked up by the Liberal Party.

Tory strategists had not previously expected to win over the Jamaican community, but since Mr. Harper’s party made inroads into Toronto ridings in the 2011 election, it believes it has a better chance of winning ridings where many Jamaican-Canadians live.

About 70 per cent of the 230,000 Canadians of Jamaican origin live in metropolitan Toronto, according to 2006 census figures, the most recent available. And it’s a community that retains ties to Jamaica: The 2001 census found that half of Jamaica-Canadians were born in the Caribbean.

That means that Mr. Harper has reason to stress efforts to assist Jamaica: training for the country’s military, for its justice system, and development aid for agriculture. Ms. Simpson Miller lauded his government for being a strong advocate for Carribean nations at the International Monetary Fund, where Canada represents Jamaica.

She thanked Canada for building a strong relationship with her country, opening its arms to the many Jamaicans who have immigrated here over the last 50 years.

“They have given back repeatedly [to Jamaica] in a way that is worthy of our relationship,” Ms. Simpson Miller told the reception. Remittances sent from Jamaican-Canadians to relatives in the island nation are an important source of income.

Where the two prime ministers did disagree, they did so gently. Ms. Simpson Miller has advocated replacing the Queen with an elected president while Mr. Harper has played up royalist symbols in Canada.

“I do not believe in Jamaica you can find anyone that is a greater fan or admirer of the Queen than I am,” she said at a joint press conference in Ottawa with Mr. Harper. “But we came through from slavery to colonialism, from colonialism to adult sufferage, from adult sufferage to our independence. And we feel that the time is really right for us to be able to determine our form of government.”

“But, the Queen will still be with us. We will never leave the Commonwealth. We will always be members of the Commonwealth. We love the Queen, we respect the Queen, and we honour the Queen. Long live the Queen.”

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, smiled as he dodged the issue, saying, “this is strictly a question for Jamaicans.”

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