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Kanga Sadhu and Joginder Pooni chat about politics in a gazebo in Brampton, Ont., April 12, 2011. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)
Kanga Sadhu and Joginder Pooni chat about politics in a gazebo in Brampton, Ont., April 12, 2011. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)

Ridings to Watch

In Brampton, a suburban boom city grows on fertile electoral ground Add to ...

Eight years ago, the riding of Brampton-Springdale didn’t even exist. Today, it’s among the biggest in the country and one of the most fiercely contested seats in this election.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper made a point of launching his campaign in Brampton and has already returned twice, part of an exceptional effort to target not only Brampton-Springdale, but Brampton West, which the Liberals won by just 231 votes in 2008, and neighbouring Bramalea-Gore-Malton.

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Together they make up the kind of suburban boom city that for the past two decades has attracted much of Canada’s population growth. Brampton was once a bastion of old Anglo Ontario, where the Protestant Orange parade was the year’s big occasion. Today, the flying of orange flags signals the arrival of the Sikh Khalsa Day celebration. Just under half the city’s residents are immigrants, and one in three is from South Asia.

These groups represent some of the most coveted demographics in this campaign. Both parties have tailored their policies and political strategies to appeal to new Canadians and their families. The Conservatives in particular, led by Mr. Harper’s lieutenant, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, have invested heavily in their ability to wrest these seats from the Liberals. The Liberals, who have seen their comfortable margins in the region dwindle, are endeavouring to hold on.

But stand still for a minute in Brampton and the ground will shift. The pace of growth here is relentless. The city, 45 minutes outside Toronto, added an astounding 100,000 residents between 2001 and 2006 as immigrants began to bypass the core of big cities for life in edge communities like this one.

Every evening around sunset, 30 or 40 Indo-Canadian seniors gather in Brampton’s Blackforest Park to chew over the day’s news, men on one side of the road, women on the other. These are some of the voters who’ve been the subject of relentless courting by the Conservative Party.

Major Singh, 67, was a Liberal for most of his 30 years in Canada. He has voted for the incumbent, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla, in previous elections but won’t support her this time. He doubts she can win again. Mr. Singh senses there’s been enough of a shift among Indo-Canadians to put Ms. Dhalla’s Conservative opponent, Parm Gill, over the top.

Ms. Dhalla, unusually for an opposition MP, has become almost a household name in Canada thanks to her high profile in the media. But her victories have narrowed in every election. The margin now stands at less than 2 per cent, down from 20 per cent in 2004. She has been hurt by a national trend that has seen immigrants turn away from the Liberal Party, as well as by her own bad press.

The Springdale area in the riding’s east, where much of the Indo-Canadian community lives, has been the site of intense campaigning. Both the Conservative and Liberal organizations accuse the other of slashing and uprooting signs. This is the district where Ms. Dhalla must seize a healthy lead if she is to win the riding again.

In the last Parliament, Ms. Dhalla proposed that seniors who had been in Canada for just three years should be eligible for old age supplement payments. It’s the kind of policy that might appeal to Mr. Singh and the rest of the group, but it doesn’t. They dismiss it with shaking heads, all of them surprisingly familiar with the private member’s bill.

“It’s not good policy,” Joginder Pooni said.

Parshotam Goyal, a retired teacher, asks how Ms. Dhalla can be re-elected when her attendance record in the House of Commons is so poor. She missed nearly half the votes in Parliament from 2008 to 2010, though he wrongly believes the figure is 70 per cent. He’s voting Conservative, he said.

At a convenience store near Heart Lake on the other side of the riding, customers are divided on whether to support Ms. Dhalla or Mr. Gill.

Maryta Jeffreys, a retired saleswoman, moved to Brampton 28 years ago for the rural surroundings. She laughs at the memory, saying there are times now when she can’t recognize her own city. She said there has been a lot of mud slung in Ms. Dhalla’s direction and some of it has stuck. A series of stories about Ms. Dhalla’s nanny troubles have hurt her standing, Ms. Jeffreys said, as did an incident in India when boys who snatched her purse were beaten by local police. But as a long-time Liberal, those incidents won’t change Ms. Jeffreys’ vote.

“It’s Ruby all the way for me. I like her style. I like that she’s an Indian woman, I like that she’s got pizzazz,” Ms. Jeffreys said.

Raj Kumar, the convenience store’s owner, listens and nods. Originally from Sri Lanka, Mr. Kumar breaks down the political tendencies of his customers. The local South Asian population is very politically active, he explains, much more so than any other demographic group. They dominate political discourse in the city, he said. They were long considered bedrock Liberal supporters, but those sands have shifted recently. Mr. Kumar was himself a Liberal voter, but he’s now leaning Conservative.

“Customers in this neighbourhood like the Conservatives because the Conservatives are doing well right now,” Mr. Kumar said. “The local MP they don’t like. Ruby Dhalla, the nanny thing is still in their minds. As with any politician, a small matter can be a big mistake.”

Ms. Dhalla is working hard to be re-elected. She wears a pedometer clipped to her waistband that has already registered more than 100,000 steps in this campaign. On a blustery day this week she raced from door to door in her lucky, and well-worn, red sneakers.

Prospera Panisales, originally from the Philippines, gladly accepted the pamphlet Ms. Dhalla offered and pledged her support on election day. She’s unmoved by the allegations of mistreatment levelled by a live-in-caregiver employed by Ms. Dhalla’s family. No one can be sure what happened in that case, she said, and she appreciates that Ms. Dhalla tries to meet every voter personally.

A native of Winnipeg, Ms. Dhalla was parachuted into the riding in 2004 by then prime minister Paul Martin. She said she’s fighting for health care and seniors in this campaign, but has dealt with relentless attacks from her opponent. Mr. Kenney, the Conservative minister assigned to reach out to immigrant voters, has visited the riding dozens of times in the past four years trying to eat away at her support.

Ms. Dhalla said the Conservatives will be punished at the polls for deciding to cut the number of parents and grandparents who can be sponsored for immigration and for labelling Brampton-Springdale a “very ethnic” riding in a leaked strategy document.

“The words ‘very ethnic’ are very insulting not only to myself but to many members of our constituency. We are proud Canadians and we need to stop marginalizing communities,” Ms. Dhalla said.

Both Ms. Dhalla and her opponent Mr. Gill are Indo-Canadian, as is the NDP candidate Manjit Grewal, a taxi driver and activist.

Mr. Gill’s career has been in the family furniture business, but he has been a full-time Conservative candidate since losing to Ms. Dhalla in 2008. He has been accused of running a parallel system to help constituents with immigration concerns, but he brushes that accusation aside, saying he merely wanted to be helpful. People came to him because they couldn’t find Ms. Dhalla, he said.

“I do what I can to guide people. Any assistance I can offer them, I do the best I can,” Mr. Gill said.

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