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Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign rally in Saint-Agapit, Que. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks during a campaign rally in Saint-Agapit, Que. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Conservatives stick to plan of courting immigrants Add to ...

He has been accused of running a tightly scripted bubble campaign that restricts journalists to five questions a day. But when Stephen Harper made his second swing through the Toronto area Wednesday, he allowed two sit-down television interviews: one with the Chinese-Canadian broadcaster Fairchild TV, the other with Omni Italian news.

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Mr. Harper's decision to focus so narrowly on ethnic media outlets is further evidence the Conservatives believe the immigrant vote is crucial to their dream of majority government.

While Mr. Harper was in Markham to announce he'd guarantee loans for foreign-trained professionals to upgrade their skills, his point man on ethnic outreach, Jason Kenney, was making the same announcement in Vancouver for the benefit of local cameras.

The Harper-Kenney appeal to ethnic communities, unprecedented in their party's history, highlights a fascinating clash with Michael Ignatieff's Liberals. Since becoming leader, Mr. Ignatieff has avoided traditional ethnic politics, saying repeatedly that "a Canadian is a Canadian." He has also criticized the Conservatives for identifying certain target ridings as "very ethnic" in a leaked strategy document.

The trend at the ballot box suggests it's the Conservative approach that's working. The Canadian Election Study found that a once-huge Liberal lead among immigrants narrowed to six percentage points in 2008. If it narrows further, there are a dozen close ridings with significant immigrant populations poised to hand Mr. Harper his majority.

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, who like Mr. Kenney has emerged as his party's spokesman on immigrant issues, said the campaign tactics crystallize the decision facing Canadian voters. The Conservatives treat immigrant groups in a way that is transactional and divisive, he said, while the Liberals conceive of immigrant issues as the issues of all Canadians, whether it be jobs, education or public transit.

"The politics of division are an effective way of getting votes," Mr. Trudeau said. "It just doesn't work when you're trying to build a society that's strong not in spite of its differences but because of those differences."

Mr. Ignatieff from his early days as leader was opposed to targeting ethnic voters, once a mainstay of Liberal election strategy.

In a speech in 2009 Mr. Ignatieff said: "We politicians must have the discipline not to pander to ethnic and cultural communities. ... By indulging in a multiculturalism of political wedges, a multiculturalism of pandering and voter targeting and electoral math, we can only shred the soul of true Canadian multiculturalism - the equal respect and equal citizenship that's written into our Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

But while Mr. Ignatieff stuck to that principle, Mr. Kenney worked around the clock to make political inroads. During the campaign, Mr. Kenney, whose seat is in Calgary, has hopped between Vancouver and Toronto, lending his high profile to candidates trying to unseat Liberal incumbents, much as he has done during his years as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

In Vancouver South Wednesday, a riding Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh won by 22 votes in 2008, Mr. Kenney said three of his party's Vancouver candidates, all visible minorities, are recent converts attracted by Conservative immigration policies, proof their outreach is working.

"What we have been hearing for several years is a sense amongst many new Canadians that the Liberals took their support for granted for far too long, and treated many new Canadians or cultural communities like passive vote bags," Mr. Kenney said.

Mr. Dosanjh shrugged off Mr. Kenney's presence in his riding. He said the Liberal approach to new Canadians has evolved in recent years, a change epitomized by Mr. Ignatieff, particularly his writing on ethnic nationalism.



How these approaches resonate with voters could ultimately decide the election.

Prem Jatha, a retired security guard, said he is an anomaly in his Vancouver South community because he supports Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and would like to give him a few more years to govern. He said he admired the Conservative handling of the economy, immigration and national defence, and appreciated the federal support for the 2010 Olympics.

"Most of our Indians are in the Liberal Party, but me, personally, I have support for this man Harper. It makes me an exception," Mr. Jatha said.

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