By either grand design or ferocious grassroots organization, Toronto’s suburbs are shaping up to be a Mandarin-speaking powerhouse for the federal Liberal Party.
Four ridings around the GTA have Chinese-Canadians candidates, and in sharp contrast to the Conservatives’ top-down ethnic strategy of wooing voters through messaging that appeals to a specific minority, the Mandarin community is fielding its own candidates. In Don Valley North’s nomination contest, scientist Geng Tan upset presumed front-runner Rana Sarkar, a veteran party member and friend of Gerald Butts, Leader Justin Trudeau’s top adviser. Mr. Geng accomplished this by appealing almost solely to a monolithic base of Mandarin-speakers in Mandarin only.
On one hand, this trend represents the essence of the multicultural experiment. Arnold Chan, elected in Scarborough-Agincourt last month, is the GTA’s first Liberal Chinese MP. On the other hand, pursuing a single group for support, as Mr. Geng appears to have done, may alienate other minorities. It strikes critics as anti-pluralistic.
A pivotal figure in this wider political development is Michael Chan, an influential Ontario cabinet minister and fundraiser who stepped outside his daily sphere during June’s provincial election to bolster his community’s voice in the federal party. Mr. Chan’s involvement, along with the number of Chinese-Canadian candidates, indicates the growing demographic power of the Mandarin vote, whose participation has long been seen as dormant. The Conservatives and New Democrats have vowed to conduct open nominations as well – meaning the party leadership does not protect its preferred candidates – clearing the way for other ethnic groups to launch similar campaigns.
In the case of Mr. Geng’s campaign, his website was mostly in Mandarin and was changed to English only after a conversation with The Globe and Mail last week. His membership list, which The Globe reviewed, was composed exclusively of Chinese names.
While his rivals also complained about the uniformity of his list, Mr. Geng said his campaign embraced a wide group of ethnicities. He pointed to the endorsement of former MPP David Caplan, who is Jewish. A chemist who works at Ontario Power Generation, Mr. Geng said he deals with every constituency in the riding and is simply bringing a new group into the political fold. “My message is, ‘Don’t try to isolate yourselves, but come out and participate,’” he said.
Others feel that this is a detrimental version of identity politics. “What they have done is un-Canadian,” said Yiannis Stamatakos, a Sarkar supporter who said he has worked on 50 nomination campaigns. While it’s not uncommon for a political party to nominate say, a Jew, Sikh or Arab in a riding where that group has big numbers, he added, usually those minorities round up a list whose membership consists of two-thirds or three-quarters of his or her own background, not 100 per cent.
For Michael Chan, the political push comes on top of his day job as provincial minister of immigration, citizenship and trade. When asked how he had time to do both, he said he takes on a more passive role in advising candidates. “People knock on my door and seek my views and experience,” he said. “Other than share my opinions, I don’t go out and find members or anything like that.”
But as he also told The Globe, he was busy in provincial and federal contests. “This year has been fascinating in terms of elections,” he said, listing off the federal ridings he’s been involved with: Richmond Hill, Markham-Unionville, Scarborough-Agincourt, Don Valley North.
Conflicting narratives, however, have emerged about Mr. Chan’s role in the contest for Don Valley North. Mr. Chan, or his office, lobbied for the cancellation of the nomination date that would eventually allow Mr. Geng to collect more members and voters, insiders say. A new contest was called for July 26. Cancellation is a very rare event, according to several party officials, one reserved for a natural disaster or fire code issues. In this case, no reason was given.
Mr. Chan said he didn’t remember making any calls. Senior party members, however, say he did put in a request, complaining that the original date imperiled efforts in the Scarborough-Agincourt by-election, where his former chief of staff, Arnold Chan, was running. The campaigners needed to focus on one contest at a time.
Until then, the front-runner was Mr. Sarkar, a Torontonian who was CEO of the Canada-India Business Council. He and his wife, author Reva Seth, were both speakers at the party’s convention in February. Mr. Sarkar, who as party nominee in the Scarborough-Rouge River riding lost in the 2011 election, started his campaign in January, 2014, whereas Mr. Geng began three months later. On May 27, the day the membership meeting was officially cancelled, the Sarkar campaign said it had 1,300 signatures, while Geng had around 150. On July 8, a new nomination meeting was set for nearly three weeks later.
On voting day, July 26, Sarkar backers said the Geng voters showed up in buses, almost all of them past the age of 60 and non-English speakers, a characterization which Mr. Geng says isn’t true: His voters were young and old, he contends.
According to Sarkar supporters, Geng voters wore name tags that were in Mandarin and English, the latter making it easier for organizers to identify the members if they didn’t speak English.
The result stunned many. Mr. Geng won by a 3:1 ratio. “About 95 per cent of the riding executive supported Rana,” said Allan Miranda, who was a member of the executive. “The result was just a shock. Geng just sewed it up.”
Bryon Wilfert, a former Liberal MP for Richmond Hill, said the real problem is the nomination process, in which the best and brightest with the biggest ideas are not always set up to succeed. “It’s how many memberships can I buy or sell,” he said, adding that he had no knowledge of the Don Valley contest. “It’s which boy scout sold the most cookies. Is that the best way to run this?”
With a report from Adam Radwanski