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Why politicians are targeting the ethnic vote Add to ...

It’s one of Canada’s enduring myths: Every generation, a new wave of immigrants arrives. They start out poor, living in Canada’s Little Italies, Little Portugals, Little Everythings. Eventually, when they become more affluent, they move up and out to the suburbs, becoming integrated into ethnically diverse communities.

In recent years, however, this “up and out” myth has been called into question.

Statistics Canada researcher Michael Haan has studied home purchases of Toronto’s 12 largest ethnic communities. He found some groups, like Filipinos, followed the up and out pattern, moving further away from members of their own community when they bought homes. Italians, on the other hand, bought homes close to others sharing their ethnic heritage, as did Chinese Canadians. As Haan explains, “unlike the arrivals of yesteryear, today’s immigrants are no longer universally impoverished.” Canada has many highly educated and successful immigrants. Together, they can form neighbourhoods that have all the benefits of an ethnic community -- family nearby, neighbours who speak the same language, and so on -- as well as the strong schools and other facilities that define a “good neighbourhood.”

Haan is very careful to make no political or policy inferences from his research.

Yet it has serious political implications. In Canada, a geographically dispersed group is often a politically impotent one. In the last federal election, the Green party, with 900,000 votes spread across the country, won no seats. The Bloc Quebecois, with 1.4 million votes concentrated in just one province, won 49 seats.

The growth of ethnic communities is one reason why Canada’s political parties are starting to court immigrant voters. If a group of one million voters is evenly spread out across the country, there will be just a few thousand members of that group in each riding. In any one race, there will be too few to matter.

But a group of one million voters divided between just a few ridings works out to tens or hundreds of thousands of voters in each constituency. That number of voters has the potential to swing the outcome of each one of those contests.

As a leaked Conservative strategy document put it: “There are lots of ethnic voters. There will be quite a few more soon.” And, most of all, “They live where we need to win.”

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University

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