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A one-time Grit, influential organizer Harvinder Singh Dhaliwal will campign for the Tories against Liberal MP and fellow Sikh Ruby Dhalla. (Peter Power)
A one-time Grit, influential organizer Harvinder Singh Dhaliwal will campign for the Tories against Liberal MP and fellow Sikh Ruby Dhalla. (Peter Power)

Politics

The battle for Brampton Add to ...

In a Brampton living room last weekend, Sunny Gill helped seal the conversion of a young Sikh truck driver who claims he can move 300 votes from the Liberals to the Conservatives.

The truck driver was just the latest domino to fall favourably for Mr. Gill, the local Conservative South Asian outreach co-ordinator. It was a satisfying moment.

"When you come here, any immigrant thinks the Liberals are demi-gods. But when you establish yourself, you look at their policies," said Mr. Gill.

"If we're able to split the ethnic vote, we're going to slaughter the Liberals."

It wasn't long ago that voting Conservative was considered a cardinal sin in some ethnic communities. But polls now show that immigrants, the unshakeable bedrock of Liberal support, are forsaking Pierre Trudeau's party - the party of multiculturalism, of expanded immigration, of the Charter - for Stephen Harper.

A profound political shift is taking hold, one that could give the Conservatives a crucial foothold in the Greater Toronto Area.

Significantly, Brampton offers a window on Canada's future. Sikhs settled here from the late 1960s, finding work in the transport industries. About one in five Brampton residents is Sikh, as are three of the four MPs: Liberals Ruby Dhalla, Nav Bains and Gurbax Malhi.

The city is growing so rapidly, thanks to immigration, that new subdivisions seem to pop up overnight. The landscape is cluttered with snaking crescents of Kwikbilt, pink-roofed houses. Nearly 60 per cent of the 430,000 residents belong to a visible minority, and about half are born outside Canada. The arrivals come mainly from South Asia, and, unlike earlier waves, they're moving directly to the suburbs and exurbs, once considered hotbeds of conservatism.

This is the tempting, frosted edge of the increasingly ethnic, Liberal-voting doughnut-ring of ridings that surround Canada's biggest cities. If the Conservatives can move even 10 per cent of the immigrant vote it could put them in striking distance of a majority.

An Ekos poll last week showed the Conservatives, for the first time, leading among voters born outside Canada.

"It's fair to say they're having unprecedented success," said Ekos president Frank Graves. "The Liberals historically have owned that demographic."

Even senior Liberals confirm the game has changed. For a combination of reasons, from demographic shifts to the party's inattention and perceived arrogance, they can no longer count on the blanket support of immigrant communities.

"Our party, quite frankly, has been taking them for granted for quite some time," said one senior Ontario Liberal. "We're seeing very effective penetration by the Conservatives, especially at the federal level."

At the Sikh Sangat Gurdwara, one of the half-dozen temples in the area, the Punjabi newspaper boxes are lined up 10 across. Political interest is phenomenally high, and it extends beyond the news pages. Sikhs delivered dozens of delegates to Jean Chrétien in his 1990 leadership bid, and to Stéphane Dion via Gerard Kennedy in the last leadership campaign. Need a room filled with 500 supporters? Sikhs can do it. Need to raise $100,000 in a day? Sikhs have done it.

As one Indo-Canadian Liberal put it, "The Sikh organizations are by far one of the most impressive political muscle tools in Canada. That's their calling card."

Harvinder Singh Dhaliwal, the temple's secretary, said that, by and large, most of the 10,000 or so local Sikhs served by his Gurdwara consider themselves Liberals. But that's beginning to change. He says many Sikhs feel taken for granted, treated as though they were in the Liberals' pockets. As he speaks, a few of the dozen other men sitting in his office nod agreement.

"The last three or four years there's been a growing willingness to support the Conservatives," he said. "The Conservatives are bending over backwards to accommodate us."

Same-sex marriage was the first wedge in the relationship. It was difficult for many Sikhs to accept because their religion forbids it, Mr. Dhaliwal said. He's also strongly opposed to Ruby Dhalla, the MP for Brampton-Springdale.

First, he said, she parachuted into the riding without having to win a nomination in 2004. The riding executive endorsed the NDP in retaliation. Second, she voted in favour of same-sex marriage. Third, she recently attended an event sponsored by a tiny, and, in his view, heretical Sikh sect.

Although he still considers himself a Liberal, Mr. Dhaliwal will campaign for Ms. Dhalla's Tory opponent, even if that risks a Harper majority.

"If I'm a true Liberal, I want to get rid of Ruby Dhalla," he said.

Ms. Dhalla is a lightning rod for criticism, particularly in the wake of allegations, which she denies, that her family mistreated live-in caregivers.

"The people are sick and tired of the smear campaign that's been going on and the dirty politics that's being played," Ms. Dhalla said. She points out she's already won two campaigns since voting for same-sex marriage, and says her focus now is on representing her constituents.

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