The dirty secret of Canadian politics was out in the open this week as the Liberal candidate in the Burnaby South by-election was forced out after getting caught playing the ethnicity card.
“If we can increase the voting rate, as the only Chinese candidate in this riding, if I can garner 16,000 votes, I will easily win,” Karen Wang reportedly wrote in her mother tongue on WeChat, a Chinese social-messaging platform. “My opponent in this by-election is the NDP candidate Singh of Indian descent.”
It is unlikely Ms. Wang’s comments were intended for anyone beyond her target audience of Chinese-Canadian voters. They make up around 40 per cent of the electorate in Burnaby South, which is just one of several ridings in Canada dominated by a single visible minority.
According to research by immigration expert Andrew Griffith, there are 41 ridings in the country where visible minorities or racialized Canadians form a majority of the population. In another 17 ridings, racialized Canadians account for at least 40 per cent of residents.
Given their numbers – there are more than enough such ridings to swing an election – it would be naive to think that Canada’s main political parties could resist an opportunity to win votes by playing ethnic politics. Ms. Wang committed the ultimate no-no by appearing to play one ethnicity off another. But, she is not the first to openly say what is often only implied.
The irony is that Jagmeet Singh, whose odds of winning the Feb. 25 vote in Burnaby South have been vastly enhanced by Ms. Wang’s faux pas, has appeared perfectly willing to play ethnic politics when it suits him. Indeed, in the 2017 race for the New Democratic Party leadership, Mr. Singh built his Sikh heritage into his brand, earning him significant fundraising support from Sikhs in Ontario.
For most Canadians, elections might be about the big-ticket items of health care, education, taxes, environmental policy, or any number of other issues that transcend one’s own tribe. But in dozens of ridings dominated by new Canadians, elections are an opportunity to get a foot in the door of the political establishment by sending one of their own to the legislature.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. Since Confederation, Canadians of different languages, ethnicities and religions have tended to form voting blocs to protect their interests at the ballot box. Where this all goes awry is when the direct targeting of ethnic minorities encourages the latter to remain in their enclaves, instead of putting aside their cultural allegiances to join Canada’s broader body politic.
If the 1.8 million Canadian residents who said they were of Chinese ethnicity in the 2016 census, or the 1.4 million who identified as East Indians, were equally distributed across the country’s 338 ridings, political parties might not go to such lengths to pander to individual ethnic groups. But because of their concentration in specific ridings, they are an irresistible target for politicians.
A politician need not be a member of the visible minority to get its bloc’s votes. He or she just needs to say the right things, often in whispered tones or in a foreign language to avoid being heard or understood by anyone else.
The only recourse for those who fear the corrosive effects of such ethnic politics lies in exposing the hypocrisy of it all. Politicians who speak out of both sides of their mouths stoke tensions, wittingly or not, by appearing to take sides on issues that divide members of a particular ethnic diaspora within Canada – sometimes bitterly. Mr. Singh’s ambiguous position on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab is just one example of this. But he is hardly alone.
The Conservatives thought they had a fighting chance at taking Burnaby South based on strong opposition among Chinese-Canadians to the legalization of marijuana. But the entry into the race by a prominent social conservative under the banner of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party threatens to erode the Tory base of support in the riding. The race is now Mr. Singh’s to lose.
That may very well suit the Liberal Party, which was quick to drop Ms. Wang and declare her comments “not aligned” with its values. Mr. Singh’s victory in Burnaby South would all but ensure that he leads the NDP into the Oct. 19 election. And many Liberals consider him their best asset.
So, we should be grateful to Ms. Wang. She showed us how Canadian politics really works.