There are three things political observers from other countries find surprising about Stephen Harper's party.
The first is that the Conservatives became a preferred party of immigrants and of many racial and religious minorities. In the 2011 federal election, the Tories attracted 42 per cent of the vote from foreign-born Canadians, higher than their 37-per-cent share among native-born Canadians. The Tories' share of the racial-minority vote rose from 9 per cent in 2000 to a substantial 31 per cent in 2011. This shift was the result of tight control of the party's more intolerant fringe and hard campaign work in immigrant ridings. It provoked centre-right parties in Britain, Germany and elsewhere to study and imitate the Harper approach to diversity.
The second is that after accomplishing this, Mr. Harper's party has run a 2015 campaign built on ethnic and religious distrust, fear and divisiveness. By turning a non-existent issue – involving a miniscule subgroup, women who wear the niqab – into a major campaign issue, and by tying immigration and terrorism policies together rhetorically, the Conservatives have stoked anti-immigrant sentiments and religious intolerance.
That leads to the third surprise: This does not appear to have cost the Conservatives support among immigrants and members of most minorities.
I checked this with Peter Loewen, a specialist in public-opinion analytics at the University of Toronto's department of political science. He is one of the operators of localparliament.ca, an online portal that tracks the voting intentions of 11,442 eligible and likely voters across Canada. While the survey's big-picture forecasts are subject to the distortions and biases of online polling (and use algorithms to correct for these), it shines at providing a uniquely large-sample, daily breakdown of intention by immigration status.
It shows that, as of Wednesday, non-immigrant Canadians have a predicted likelihood of voting Conservative of 27 per cent, while foreign-born Canadians have a likelihood of 34 per cent – a statistically significant 7-point difference recorded well after the Tories' tilt toward ugly ethno-politics.
More significantly, Dr. Loewen told me, "there is no evidence that immigrants are becoming less likely to vote Tory as the campaign goes on. In fact, if anything, the opposite appears true."
By turning sharply toward anti-immigrant messaging, the Conservatives didn't lose, and might even have gained, support among immigrants. What gives?
It shows that the politics of intolerance, as well as the more benign social and economic appeals to small-c conservatism, are at least as likely to appeal to minority immigrants as they are to "white" Canadians. On one level, realizing this represents a sort of political maturity – better to have conservative parties fighting for minority votes than the situation in the United States or France, where the right-wing parties still rely on the monolithic intolerance of the white majority.
David Cameron, Britain's Tory Prime Minister, ran a re-election campaign this year larded with tough messages about detaining and sending back immigrants; he not only won a majority but also doubled his party's support among ethnic minorities, attracting a million visible-minority Britons.
On a more extreme level, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford's xenophobic and often outright racist rhetoric made him the preferred candidate for lower-income immigrant voters; his faction still controls the city's most minority- and immigrant-heavy wards.
Mr. Harper has probably lost the Muslim vote, but that's only 3 per cent of Canadians. He and his ethnic-outreach agent, Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, are evidently making a calculated bid to make gains among Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian diasporas by playing on their atavistic fears of their Muslim neighbours.
This is a dangerous game.
Research has shown that Canadians do not bring the ethno-political divisions of their home countries with them: Indo-Canadian Muslims prefer to live among Indo-Canadian Hindus and Sikhs rather than Muslims from other backgrounds, for example. Intermarriage rates are high.
But diversity does not mean that everyone trusts everyone else. My Trinidadian neighbours have sour things to say about Jamaicans, and the Malaysian guy up the street says unprintable things about the local Eritreans. The schisms of the Indian subcontinent – Hindu, Sikh and Muslim; Sinhalese and Tamil; Sunni and Shia; Deobandi and Barelvi – are woven into many family histories. The schisms of the Middle East are woven into others. But in Canada's system of democratic pluralism, those private divisions are kept in the background, subsumed under a larger values of mutual respect, cooperation and equal treatment. Playing on these histories for electoral gain goes against Canada's basic values.
Building a diverse and inclusive conservative movement ought to have been a historic accomplishment. But by using intolerance to fuel sectarian mistrust, Mr. Harper is damaging that legacy.