There’s no better place to observe a cross-section of immigration than in a Tim Hortons in Brampton East.
Elderly women in shalwar kameezes who have been in the city for four decades order double-doubles in Punjabi from the international students, some of whom only landed in Canada months ago. Impatient construction workers, lawyers and realtors, almost all of whom are South Asian, idle in the drive-thru, some with Hindi slang on their vanity licence plates, on their way to and from work. Some came on student visas, others as permanent residents. Some were sponsored by family members, others were Canadian-born.
With such diversity, it’s easy to understand how meaningless the label of “immigrant voter” has become.
Ever since Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government overhauled immigration policy in the mid 1970s, ushering in waves of newcomers, parties at election time have worked to capture the support of this population. And for more than a decade, they’ve taken particular interest in Brampton East and a collection of other suburban ridings near Toronto that are home to large immigrant populations. They’ve been crucial election battlegrounds, where party leaders have chosen to make major campaign announcements. Snapping up votes in the region – which has swung both Conservative and Liberal in the past – has become key to winning an election.
As Brampton East has grown into the federal riding with the largest proportion of South Asians (66 per cent), the diversity within its boundaries has grown too, along class, religious, ethnic and generational lines. There are vastly differing opinions in the riding among voters of South Asian origin on housing, jobs and – perhaps most divisive of all – immigration. Securing the so-called “immigrant vote” has become an outdated goal.
“We use these really big macro categories to talk about Canadians like ‘immigrants’ or ‘racialized’ or ‘Indigenous’ and we don’t have a lot of nuance in terms of the different priorities or preferences of the people within those,” says Erin Tolley, a political scientist at Carleton University and the Canada Research Chair in Gender, Race and Inclusive Politics. “I think the [federal] parties are a bit hamstrung when it comes to really understanding these nuances between immigrants from different backgrounds [and] immigrant streams.”
Within Jaskaran Dhillon’s household, the political divide when it comes to immigration strategy is stark. Mr. Dhillon, 22, is the Canadian-born son of parents who grew up in North India and lived in Bermuda before coming to Canada in 1997. He lives with his parents and his grandparents in a house in Brampton East, in a subdivision largely populated by Indians who immigrated in the nineties and aughts. He says he’s had “low-level debates” with family and community members about a hot-button issue throughout the riding: whether or not the high rates of immigration should be curtailed.
Since the Liberals under Justin Trudeau’s leadership came to power in the fall of 2015, winning back every Brampton riding from the Conservatives, Canada has accepted more than 330,000 permanent residents from India – and Brampton has absorbed a disproportionate number of them. Policy makers have promoted high immigration targets as the solution to Canada’s declining birth rate and labour shortage and those newcomers have come here to work in warehouses, restaurants and to drive trucks. This year, the target is landing 401,000 permanent residents, a goal immigration minister Marco Mendicino told the Globe in July his government would “make good on.” But some Indo-Canadians who came in previous waves of immigration, like Mr. Dhillon’s family, ask if this influx of immigrants – including those from India, the top source country – has been too fast.
“Immigrants when they come here kind of want to shut the door behind them,” Mr. Dhillon said of his parents’ generation. When they speak of themselves as the last great generation of immigrants, the ones who properly integrated into Canadian society, he believes they are seeking “validation from white people.”
Coming to Canada from India on a student visa is widely regarded as one of the easiest paths to permanent residency, and in the decade between the 2008-09 school year and 2018-19, the population of international students in Canada more than tripled, with India serving as the top source country for the past few years.
But Binder Singh, who immigrated to Canada in 1975 as a child, says allowing more younger arrivals on student visas or temporary work permits has brought out tensions in Brampton East. International students in particular are frequently the subject of conversation in local WhatsApp and Facebook discussion groups – blamed for the surge in COVID-19 cases in the second and third waves of the pandemic; for adding pressure to the wildly overheated housing market; even for the city’s famously high auto insurance rates.
Mr. Singh draws a distinction between immigrants who arrived in the city during his time and those who have settled in the country over the past few years. Mr. Singh says he believes there is far less integration happening now.
It’s a phenomenon that Victoria Esses, an immigration policy researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, has observed in many immigrant communities.
“The more established immigrants come to see themselves as prototypical Canadians,” Prof. Esses said. “These new guys who are coming in, they’re just reminding [the earlier immigrants] that they’re not that far away from them.”
Some of the established immigrants are hostile to any campaigning that might seem as though it’s targeting immigrants or even specifically their own ethnic community “if they think that immigrants aren’t being treated as well as Canadians,” she said. “So they want to dissociate [from the new immigrants].”
Catering to voters who would like to see the flow of immigration slowed could come at the cost of alienating others if it’s construed as racist or xenophobic. Prof. Esses points to the 2015 election, when Conservatives ran a campaign based on so-called “Canadian values” and proposed a tip line to report on “barbaric cultural practices.” Pundits point to this as one of the reasons why Conservatives lost every one of their 11 seats in Brampton and Mississauga that year.
In a paper published this year in the American Review of Canadian Studies, Western University political scientist Zack Taylor argued that the country’s reliance on international immigration for population growth has made it difficult for political parties “to ignore the electoral heft of ethno-cultural communities, which ... are concentrated in the Greater Toronto region.”
Since the 1960s, Canadians who are foreign-born have been more likely than those who are Canadian-born to vote for the Liberal Party, but that allegiance began to erode in 2008, after major efforts by the Conservative Party to appeal to racialized immigrant voters.
Jason Kenney, the current Alberta premier who was then minister for citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism in Mr. Harper’s cabinet, was largely credited with helping the Conservatives win every seat in Brampton in 2011 by logging countless hours at gurdwaras, temples and community gatherings in the city, as well as giving interviews to media outlets run by South Asian immigrants.
The party had a strong appeal to the more established immigrants who had climbed their way into the middle class and felt they were paying more in taxes than they were benefiting.
Then came Justin Trudeau in 2015, a fresh new leader for Liberals whose charisma and platform appealed to a large swath of voters. Knowing how key the city was, Mr. Trudeau held his biggest rally of the campaign in Brampton – 5,000 people at the Powerade Centre – and with the Canada Child Benefit and a middle-income tax cut, won back the same middle-class, family-oriented voters the Conservatives had pulled in in 2011.
Mr. Singh said the importance of the individual candidates in Brampton East and surrounding ridings has greatly declined over the past few elections, and the focus is almost entirely on the party leader and platform.
In the 2021 election, the race in Brampton East is between Liberal incumbent Maninder Sidhu; Conservative Naval Bajaj (who ran an unsuccessful campaign in 2015); and the NDP’s Gail Bannister-Clarke. There are more campaign signs up for NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh – who represented this area as an Ontario MPP from 2011 to 2017 – than there are for Ms. Bannister-Clarke. On Wednesday night, in the final stretch of his campaign, Mr. Singh made a stop in Brampton.
Darshan Maharaja, a local political blogger who grew up in the Indian state of Gujarat then lived in Dubai before moving to Brampton in 2004, said many Punjabi Sikhs in Brampton see Mr. Singh (and his brother, who represents Brampton East in the provincial legislature) as one of “their own.”
“Jagmeet is their boy; he became the leader of the party so it’s vital pride for them,” Mr. Maharaja said.
Housing is another critical issue for many residents of Brampton East. When the subdivision of Castlemore was built in the 1990s, there were nothing but fields around it. Homes were still cheap in 2005, when Mr. Dhillon’s parents bought a house in the neighbourhood, but now he and his Canadian-born peers are contemplating leaving Brampton because it’s become so unaffordable.
From 2001 to 2016, the latest year for which data are available, the population in Brampton grew by 82 per cent, compared with 17 per cent for Canada as a whole, and that influx of people has driven up home prices dramatically. In July, the average price for a house or condominium in Brampton was just more than $1-million, the same as in Toronto.
The Liberals, Conservatives and NDP have all promised to increase the supply of housing in Canada through more construction, but also to help young people enter the market. In Brampton, the growing – but often invisible – population of renters wonders how those levers will do anything to improve their situation.
Most of the rental stock for newcomers is made up of apartments carved out of single-family homes – the cheapest options in an overheated market. International students and young workers often crowd into basement units. Fire inspectors have found as many as 20 occupants in a single dwelling, some sleeping on mattresses laid out on kitchen floors.
When Harjot Sarwara first arrived in Canada two years ago on a student visa from Punjab, he lived in Montreal with his wife and their daughter. He was completing a program at a career college, but the French-language barrier made it difficult for his wife to get steady work. So when it came time for Mr. Sarwara to begin his co-op, he and his wife set their sights on the city where so many people from back home had settled: Brampton. But finding a home for their family of three that wasn’t shared accommodation in a basement proved difficult.
“Every time when we ask anybody to rent a house or show a house, they asked what your status is. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a student.’ They said, ‘No, we will not be giving a home to a student,’” he recounted.
“Due to some of the people from my community who do bad things or they don’t have a good relation with the owner, the whole community is blamed and people like me suffer,” he said.
After two months, Mr. Sarwara was able to find a three-bedroom rental for $2,350 a month. When he and his family moved in, construction was already well under way to convert the basement into a separate apartment.
In the 2019 election, the NDP improved on its previous showing and finished second behind the Liberals in Brampton East, its rise tied to Mr. Singh’s star power and a growing consciousness around worker rights among more recent arrivals and the children of established immigrants.
L6P, a neighbourhood in Brampton East that The Globe and Mail has written extensively about since the spring (the name refers to postal codes in the area), recorded the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections in Ontario during the second and third waves of the pandemic, much of that driven by its work force. The same essential workers who were staffing poorly ventilated warehouses and taking crowded transit to work were bringing COVID-19 home in record numbers. Some delayed seeking proper treatment or getting vaccinated because they couldn’t take time off to do so, or were unsure if they qualified, given their immigration status.
Kiran Gill, the daughter of Indian immigrants and a resident of L6P, saw first-hand the desperation of those workers, many of whom were newcomers from India.
During a job at a temp agency that staffs warehouses, Ms. Gill encountered individuals on student visas from India who spoke only Hindi or Punjabi – their English was barely functional – and some boldly asked if they could book hours beyond the 20 they were legally able to work each week, offering to receive their pay under the table.
Working at the agency helped Ms. Gill see how little opportunity there was for even the highly trained professionals who came to Canada with dreams of prosperity.
“I would see people with work permits and [permanent residents] who had great experience from other countries and couldn’t find work so they’d have to go through agencies to at least get warehousing work to make ends meet,” she said.
COVID-related job losses in the city were substantial, with 20 per cent of residents claiming the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit in 2020.
Ms. Gill said the government has to build systems that ensure these workers don’t struggle and add further strains on housing and health care.
Sparsh Sharma, a digital marketer who owns a townhouse in L6P and came to Canada as a permanent resident in 2017, says he often plays down where he lives out of concern for the stigma and stereotypes associated with Brampton and linked to the large population of newcomers. With a labour market made up mostly of low-wage, essential-services jobs, Brampton needs better employment opportunities that will attract and retain individuals like him, he says, who have professional degrees, international work experience and high scores on language proficiency exams.
At the same time, he says the students and those on temporary work permits “are the ones doing the heavy lifting” and are the biggest source of labour in the city. “We enjoy this sort of lifestyle [of greater prosperity ] because they are working behind the scenes for us.”
On Tuesday evening, in the final stretch of campaigning, the Liberal campaign bus pulled up to the Speranza Banquet Hall in Brampton East, where Mr. Trudeau and former prime minister Jean Chrétien spoke. Mr. Sidhu, the incumbent seeking re-election, warmed up the crowd of more than 400 supporters, most of them South Asian.
Though he’s been an MP for two years, Mr. Sidhu spoke little of his record, instead focusing his introduction on his identity – an attempt to connect with as many in the crowd as possible.
He referenced his parents’ backgrounds as Indian immigrants who arrived in the early eighties, toiled at warehouses for 18 hours a day to create a better life for him and his brother.
“This is not just my story, this is the story of so many in this room,” he said.
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