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Conservative MP and Minister Jason Kenney speaks to media Wednesday in the campaign office of Vancouver South Conservative candidate Wai Young. (Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail)
Conservative MP and Minister Jason Kenney speaks to media Wednesday in the campaign office of Vancouver South Conservative candidate Wai Young. (Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail/Brett Beadle for The Globe and Mail)

How courting the immigrant vote paid off for the Tories Add to ...

Fifteen cups of tea. That's how the election was won.

In one day during the 2011 election campaign, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney attended 15 different chai parties hosted by Indo-Canadian voters in Brampton West, Ont. That's just a snapshot of his epic cross-Canada campaigning, but it's indicative of the stamina and persistence of the Conservative point man for ethnic communities.

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He and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have transformed their party from one that was perceived as hostile to new Canadians to one that is now home to a great many immigrant voters and Members of Parliament.

The Conservative majority was won primarily in the suburban ridings of the 905 area code and in the City of Toronto. Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives.

The transformation of the Conservative party began in 2006 when Mr. Kenney embarked on a cross-country listening tour, engaging ethnic community leaders who previously felt repelled by the party. He asked what government could do for them. Then he initiated a series of symbolic gestures designed to build relationships, such as the apology for the Chinese Head Tax and cutting the immigrant landing fee.

A Conservative source said there was a deliberate strategy to deliver on the issues that mattered to these communities, but not instantly. That way they could create a constituency of "askers," motivated leaders who could be converted to supporters.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, Mr. Kenney brought the issues of new Canadians to the cabinet table, making them central to party thinking. And he had the ear of the Prime Minister, who, as one witness recalled, devoured a report Mr. Kenney produced on which Conservative MPs were actively buying into the idea of engaging with new Canadians.

"I can say without breaking too much caucus confidentiality that he's constantly exhorting our caucus to be involved in this project," Mr. Kenney said. "It is not some sort of sidebar project to him. It's central to the future of our party."

Finally, the Conservative platform for the 2011 election was designed, with its targeted tax breaks, to appeal to the young, suburban, new Canadian families the party needed to win a majority government.

"People tend to forget that the main appeal isn't on … community-specific issues. It's based on the core platform," Mr. Kenney said. "If you look at the ads we ran in Mandarin, Punjabi and Cantonese, it's exactly that. Vote your values."

He said the party's internal polling showed two-thirds of Cantonese-speaking voters backed the Conservatives, which contributed to breakthroughs in ridings in Scarborough and Vancouver.

Years of reaching out to Jewish voters through support for Israel also appears to have paid off. In ridings where Jewish voters make up 10 per cent or more of the electorate, the Conservative vote rose two to seven times more than it did nationally. The Conservatives won three of those five seats.

The party also swept all four ridings in Brampton, which have large South Asian populations.

Liberal incumbent Navdeep Bains, who was defeated in Mississauga-Brampton South, attributed his defeat and other party losses in the region more to the surge of the NDP than to Mr. Kenney's outreach. So did his Liberal colleague Jim Karygiannis, who held onto his riding in Scarborough-Agincourt. Neither was prepared to attribute the Conservative success to Mr. Kenney.

"There was an NDP surge and some of the Liberal votes went NDP. We got squeezed," Mr. Bains said.

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