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Commentary by: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC

Over its 132-year history since incorporation as a city, Vancouver has had 39 mayors. All of them have been white men.

Change seems to be coming, however, and suddenly.

Two of the Vancouver’s leading municipal parties will be running mayoral candidates from diverse backgrounds for the upcoming 2018 civic election now only four months away.

Recently, Ken Sim, the second-generation Canadian-born son of Chinese immigrants, won the nomination for the city’s right-of-centre Non-Partisan Association (NPA). This party, which was founded in 1937, has traditionally been aligned with the interests of the city’s business community.

In a surprising result, the entrepreneur and cofounder of Nurse Next Door and Rosemary Rocksalt bagel shops, beat out the establishment candidate John Coupar, the two-time NPA Vancouver park board commissioner who had the support of other establishment figures like former councillor Suzanne Anton and former mayor Philip Owen.

Meanwhile, the currently ruling Vision Vancouver party has confirmed its mayoral candidate will be Squamish Nation hereditary chief Ian Campbell.

Internet entrepreneur Taleeb Noormohamed—who drew comparisons to Calgary’s wonder-mayor Naheed Nenshi—had been bidding for the Vision Vancouver leadership until recently, when a health matter forced him to drop out of the campaign.

On the sidelines, former federal Conservative MP, Wai Young has indicated interest in running as an independent but hasn’t confirmed her candidacy yet. Raymond Louie, the five-time Vision city councillor who would have made a strong candidate for mayor, has also declared he is not running. There is some uncertainty about why he wasn’t recruited by his own Vision party for the mayor’s nomination (or if he pre-emptively declined the possibility).

It seems 2018 may be the year when Vancouver—one of the most left-of-centre cities in North America, Canada’s commercial and cultural gateway to Asia, and the metropolis that was early to embrace Indian yoga and in gratitude paid the world back with lululemon yoga pants—finally elects a nonwhite mayor.

Leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs from smaller diverse communities have increasingly participated in Canadian politics over the past two decades. It has now become the norm to see the country’s diversity represented among its politicians, whether that be in cabinet in Ottawa or the legislative backbenches in Victoria.

But at the municipal level, and particularly in Vancouver, they have struggled to break through, or perhaps a better term is "break out" from their ethnic silos and gain a voice on a broader citywide stage.

So far, however, the run-up to the 2018 election is proving to be an inflection point in this narrative. Hollywood had its #OscarsSoWhite reckoning two years ago, so it seems apt for Hollywood North to also have its own #VancouverSoWhite moment, though one would think progressive Canadians would have beat their American counterparts to this milestone.

While there is an immigrants-coming-of-age story here, there is also a perfect storm of political conditions that have triggered the backroom players and eminences grise behind the major parties to seek out diverse candidates.

For the NPA, Ken Sim’s nomination effectively counters any potential candidacy of Stephen Harper-era conservative Wai Young, who has significant support from within the Chinese community.

Sim’s family roots go back to Hong Kong and he will pull votes from this segment of the Chinese community (he may have less of a connection among Mainland Chinese immigrants). His last-minute entry—or recruitment—into the mayoral race looks to be an efficacious use of inclusiveness by a party that has been out of power for a decade.

For the progressive left-leaning Vision Vancouver, Campbell’s nomination provides a clean break from the past and a chance to rebrand a party that many believe has much to account (or some would say atone) for after the past decade in power.

For political watchers, this greater-than-usual interest in standing for public office from qualified diverse candidates makes this year’s election intriguing.

But for the average citizen all of this may go unnoticed if it all turns out to be business-as-usual and the 40th mayor of Vancouver—like the thirty-nine previously—once again is another white person.

There are still many twists, announcements, and deals to unfold before that forecast becomes clearer. But it is worth a look to see how various local and Canadian laws, policies, and practices of exclusion over the past century-and-a-half have led to this much delayed point, where diverse candidates—in a city where half the population is not white—finally have a real shot at becoming mayor.

In four months time, this election may be remembered as the moment Vancouverites finally said “Yes We Can” instead of the usual “Yes We Can’t”.

Lack of profile exerts a high price

Among the jigsaw pieces that comprise the map of Lower Mainland municipalities, Surrey is the fastest growing city in the region. Ten thousand new people move into Surrey every year.

Barinder Rasode, a former two-term Surrey city councillor, has come the closest among nonwhite candidates in the Lower Mainland to winning a coveted mayor’s seat.

There have been a small number of nonwhite politicians who have won mayoral races in B.C., but all have been outside the Lower Mainland: Jamese Atebe in Mission, Alan Lowe in Victoria, Akbal Mund in Vernon, and Colin Basran in Kelowna.

Naranjan Grewal of Mission was the first nonwhite mayor in all of B.C. when he was elected in 1954. He died under suspicious circumstances three years later.

Despite late entry to the race, Rasode garnered an impressive 21 percent of the votes in the 2014 Surrey municipal election. She has been one of the few individuals to cross over in appeal to the broader community, a feat not easily achieved given the tendency of potential candidates from diverse communities to remain in their comfort zones, or even self-segregate, when encountering barriers of entry to mainstream political organizations.

“When it comes to municipal elections, if a candidate hopes to compete or have any chance at winning, they must have a profile beyond their own community,” explained Rasode, who served on board of directors for Fraser Health and served as a Surrey city councillor from 2008 to 2014. “This is evident in electoral results. Even when minorities run for council seats as part of recognized slates, they tend to be the ones who fall short or to the bottom of the slate.”

Rasode’s observation holds true whether in Surrey or in Vancouver. In the 2014 Vancouver election, only two Vision Vancouver council candidates out of eight on the slate failed to win seats: Niki Sharma and Tony Tang, candidates from South Asian and Chinese backgrounds.

In 2008, the lone Vision councillor out of eight on the slate who failed to win a seat was Kashmir Dhaliwal, the former president of the Khalsa Diwan Society (Ross Street Sikh Temple). Despite being a power broker within one of B.C.’s biggest Sikh temples, and one with a very politically active congregation, Dhaliwal still fell short of being elected—he just lacked a wider profile beyond his South Vancouver neighbourhood.

Fast forward 10 years and back to the upcoming election. This lack of profile is still an Achilles heel for both the NPA nominee Ken Sim and Ian Campbell. Both will be hampered by being relatively unknown to broader sections of Vancouver’s voting public (Sim likely more than Campbell).

Unlike previous diverse candidates, however, who have in the past ran as independents, both Sim and Campbell will have the party machines of the NPA and Vision to help remedy some of this lack of profile.

But there is a caveat emptor here, particularly for Vision. Ian Campbell will first have much work to do in rebuilding a damaged Vision brand before he hopes to reap any of the rewards of membership.

It is clear the 2018 version of Vision does not have the potency it once did circa 2011 or even in 2014. It looks to be sinking ship with neither Mayor Gregor Robertson seeking re-election, nor three of its councillors. One veteran city hall reporter has even suggested the party may want to consider disbanding for a dignified end to its political life.

For these two newcomers, the mission will be to "get their names out there" into a congested daily news cycle. Bonus points if they edge out other candidates.

This, however, is much more easily said than done.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline was meant to deliver oil to offshore tankers for lighting up cities abroad. In actuality, the pipeline has pumped media exposure to antagonistic local politicians and lit up their approval rating numbers.

The fight against Kinder Morgan—the news story of the year in Vancouver—has been a gift to the other anti-pipeline mayoral candidates like NDP member of Parliament Kennedy Stewart, and SFU professor of public practice Shauna Sylvester. It would have also helped popular Green party city councilor Adriane Carr but she has recently decided not to run for mayor. Still, if Vancouver doesn’t elect its first  nonwhite mayor, it may be due to voters electing Sylvester as their first woman mayor, no less a milestone-in-waiting. 

Depending on how the Kinder Morgan narrative unfolds, the pipelines and oil tankers debate could end up overshadowing other hot-button issues, possibly even housing affordability. This would be a boon particularly for Stewart, who was recently arrested in March for contempt after he marched to British Columbia’s frontline and deliberately breached the five-meter exclusion zone buffering "The Fence" that safeguards the Kinder Morgan’s tanker farm on Burnaby Mountain.

His act of civil disobedience against a heavy-handed Trudeau government bulldozing ahead with now their pipeline project has transformed the staid NDP politician into a sort of Gandhi-of-Burnaby.

No doubt this act will add some swagger to Stewart’s campaign. When it counted, he could be counted, standing among those lined up against the carbon-spewing machinery of Big Oil. Stewart’s chances of winning will increase further if the muscle of B.C.’s local NDP machine gets behind him.

Given the vocal opposition to the pipeline by the Squamish Nation, and Vision Vancouver, Ian Campbell also stands to gain on this issue. But he will need to find a way to "out-activist" Stewart, who has gotten to the front of the line on this issue.

Getting arrested and having a record, however, isn’t always a viable strategy for most candidates to gain the profile necessary to win a municipal election—or to stay if office, given they usually have day jobs and other real-life entanglements. Besides, historically speaking, getting arrested for most people, and notably for people of colour, has never been an ideal path to career advancement. Ultimately, diversifying Vancouver city politics is not the same thing as integrating an Alabama lunch counter.

But the real obstacle for diverse candidates seeking to gain name recognition runs deeper than being able to generate viral hashtags, or skillfully jockeying for media airtime.

It is a more permanent and seemingly intractable structural barrier at the heart of Vancouver’s municipal electoral system.

No wards led to more exclusion from power

A ward system divides a city into neighbourhoods with each electing one councillor.

Virtually all major Canadian cities have implemented a ward system to ensure individual neighbourhoods are represented at the council level by an individual who has ties to or lives in that neighbourhood.

These cities include Calgary, Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, Hamilton, Halifax, and so forth. I think you get the point.

Vancouver, however, is the largest Canadian city that uses an at-large system. It is based on a "to-the-victors-the-spoils" approach to city politics.

Vancouver city council is comprised of the 10 candidates who receive the most votes from across all the neighbourhoods of the city. It is a system that has some benefits as it requires candidates to see the bigger picture and know all of the issues in the city, but it is a system that has also been criticized as been exclusionary, even racist, for blocking out candidates of diverse backgrounds.

There have been a number of cases in the United States where at-large systems were found by the courts to be discriminatory toward minority black and Hispanic populations.

Unlike the at-large system, wards allow more localized neighbourhood candidates a channel to access the bigger citywide stage.

Vancouver is a city that is simultaneously diverse but ethnically siloed—it is a place where people from different backgrounds peacefully co-exist but don’t necessarily coalesce. A ward system makes the difference between a candidate from a diverse background getting heard or getting crowded out. It ameliorates the "lack of profile" issue for diverse candidates.

In 2004, the city held a referendum asking Vancouver voters about moving to a wards system. The No side rejected the proposition by a small majority of 54 percent.

Given the momentum currently building for British Columbia to adopt a proportional-representation electoral system, it seems likely that a referendum on ward system would receive more support today than it did 14 years ago.

RJ Aquino, who has previously run for council in 2011 for COPE and in 2014 for the then-nascent OneCity party, believes a ward system would have altered the outcomes of his previous campaigns.

Aquino, who was born in the Philippines and has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years, serves on the board of Collingwood Neighbourhood House. He is active in various initiatives in his part of Vancouver.

In 2014, Aquino was among the top vote-getters in Collingwood-Renfrew, Vancouver-Kensington, and the Fraser Street and King Edward area, all neighbourhoods with a significant population of Filipinos, the fastest growing ethnic group in B.C.

According to the recent census, there are 94,000 Filipinos living in the Metro Vancouver region, yet there has never been anyone of Filipino descent on Vancouver council, or the Vancouver park board.

“For people from diverse communities, we really have to work that much harder to get our name out there,” said Aquino, who is seeking a OneCity nomination for council this year. “Every time I encounter new people, there is always that extra step of explaining my background, how I fit into Vancouver, and how my values connect with the city’s values.”

But there has always been that extra distance to make up for diverse candidates. For this current generation, this means a "lack of profile" problem. Two generations ago, it was a matter of lacking the requisite language skills.

But going back even further, it was a matter of being barred from participating in the political process altogether.

Institutional racism plays a role

Amid Vancouver’s picturesque surroundings and its generally polite daily exchanges between its multicultural residents of all backgrounds, it is easy to forget the city was once the gateway to enforcing the country’s "white Canada" policy that deterred non-European immigration until the mid 20th century.

This policy was best articulated by former Canadian prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whose face has been featured on Canada’s five-dollar bill.

In a parliamentary debate on Asian immigration in October 1914, he said: “The people of Canada want to have a white country, and certain of our fellow subjects who are not of the white race want to come to Canada and be admitted to all the rights of Canadian citizenship . . . These men have been taught by a certain school of politics that they are equals of British subjects; unfortunately they are brought face to face with the hard facts when it’s too late.”

It was this racist vision for the country that led to the Canadian government refusing permission to the Komagata Maru to dock in 1914 when the infamous Japanese tramp steamer arrived in Burrard Inlet with 376 would-be immigrants from India. The Vancouver Sun reported on the incident with toxic headlines like “Hindu invaders now in the city harbour on Komagata Maru”.

During that time other publications, like the Vancouver World, routinely railed against Chinese and Japanese residents with their poison pens and the World openly bragged that it was the “the one daily paper in Vancouver which has consistently set its face against the Orientals”.

While this "white Canada" policy blocked non-European immigrants from entering Canada for much of the 20th century, those who were already living here were not granted the full rights of citizenship.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Asian Canadians from Indian and Chinese backgrounds were permitted to vote and participate in the political process.

Meanwhile, in terms of its treatment of the Indigenous population, when the Canadian government wasn’t tearing Indigenous children away from their families and sending them to odious residential schools, it was also maintaining the ban on status Indigenous people from voting in elections, finally repealed only in 1960.

While that may seem like a long time ago for some too quick to dismiss the institutionalized racism of Canada’s past, consider this: some of the community elders who may be advising Squamish Nation hereditary Chief Ian Campbell on his mayoral bid were in their own lifetime once prohibited from voting in civic elections.

It doesn’t take much digging to unearth the artifacts of Vancouver’s racist history. According to local journalist Francis Bula, the covenant on NPA nominee Ken Sim’s house in the Arbutus neighbourhood on the West Side of the city prohibits someone of Chinese descent from owning the property. Many houses in the city’s elite neighbourhoods still have similar racist clauses in their covenants though they are no longer enforced.

It is understandable for Vancouverites to want to move on, or to forget, Canada’s own Jim Crow-like era. But it has not been as easy for those disenfranchised communities. Even after these race-based antivoting acts were repealed, it would take decades before nonwhite Canadians began putting their names forward to participate in politics.

It would take 25 years after the repeal of Canada racist voting legislation until the first resident of South Asian descent would win a seat on Vancouver council. Since V.S. Pendakur’s lone two-year term ended in 1974, no other person of South Asian descent has been on Vancouver council.

For the Chinese community, the wait was even longer. It would take 35 years before the first resident of Chinese descent, Bill Yee, won a council seat in 1982.

Three decades on, seeing diverse candidates come forward for elections has become normalized. But that doesn’t mean they still don’t encounter the racial slurs and broadsides of yesterday.

In 2016, when Niki Sharma, the former park board commissioner and Vision candidate for council, ran for the Vancity board of directors, someone trolling her Facebook page posted: “We don’t want packys (sic) in politics you people are taking over our country”.

Rather than deleting the comment, Sharma responded to it. Readers shared and commented on her post hundreds of times.

“I was going to delete your comment. As my hand went over to the delete button, something stopped me,” she wrote in the middle of that sleepless night. “As much as we both might want to, you and I cannot delete each other.”

Where diverse Canadians have been under-represented on municipal councils, it has been the reverse for white Canadians. Generation upon generation of white politicians have benefited from an under-acknowledged privilege of being allowed to vote, stand for elections, and get ahead thanks to a wielding a disproportionate voice in the political sphere.

This has created its own adverse consequences, such as encouraging ethnic pandering where white politician seem to show up at temples, and mosques every so often, often in ethnic garb, to hit up vote banks or follow the instructions of cooked up "Multicultural Strategic Outreach Plans".

It also led to cringing moments of white paternalism. This white-on-nonwhite crime was most recently witnessed in 2015 when the current Vancouver mayor thought he had a "teachable moment" and tried to educate a prominent local Chinese-Canadian professional about what is and isn’t racist.

Andy Yan, then an urban planner with Bing Thom Architects, produced a study that looked at the names of buyers of homes on Vancouver’s tony west side. He found that buyers with non-Anglicized Chinese names were purchasing the majority of the homes in that neighbourhood.

Gregor Robertson publicly dismissed Yan’s work as racist, failing to see the irony of his criticism of Yan, given his great-grandfather was forced to pay the actually-racist Chinese Head Tax that was designed to keep Chinese immigrants out of B.C. As a social scientist, Yan was just looking at the data and sharing his observations, which were in plain sight.

The irony of the mayor’s response, however, was not lost on Brandon Yan, who is currently seeking to run for city council on the OneCity slate. He countered the mayor’s misguided comments in a line that should be quoted in a Dear White People racism primer, “Let’s leave it to the rich white dudes to decide what’s racist, right?”

This kind of paternalism is a natural outcome of a long history of exclusion. Out a total of 1,080 council and mayor’s seats across 102 administrations, 98 percent have been occupied by white politicians—like Andy Yan, I ran my own name analysis, through of all the city councillors and mayors over Vancouver’s history.

And of the seats occupied by councillors from diverse backgrounds: half have been won only in the past two decades since 2000.

When 98 percent of "leaders" in Vancouver’s brief history have been white but the population has steadily diversified to point of being 50 percent nonwhite, there is bound to be a disconnect between city hall’s perception and the reality on the ground.

Diversity: an optical illusion?

Because of their low turnout rates, municipal elections are notoriously difficult to poll. This is a point that Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, stressed repeatedly in our recent conversation.

“Compared to provincial and federal elections, turnout rates for municipal elections are around 30 percent. The X-factor is turnout, and it’s more exaggerated in city elections,” explained Kurl, who heads the public opinion polling organization.

In the 2017 by-election when Hector Bremner from the NPA was elected to city council, only 11 percent of voters turned out to vote.

“Just look at the recent example in Calgary. The polling for that election was not close to the final results. The polls had (Naheed) Nenshi running neck-in-neck. In the end, Nenshi won extremely comfortably for his 3rd term.”

In the 2014 council election, Vision candidate Niki Sharma placed 17th out of 49 candidates, receiving close to 50,000 votes. She fell short of winning by only 8,000 votes.

From her perspective, every percentage increase in turnout has the potential to reverse a loss into a victory, “In an election with low voter turnout, it doesn’t take many people deciding not to vote for you to be the difference between getting elected and not getting elected.”

The NPA may be hoping Ken Sim can trigger this X-factor in his favour and lure more voters from the Chinese community to participate. It could be all the difference he needs to win the coveted mayor’s gavel.

But as in the case of Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, the three-term Muslim mayor at the head of one of the more conservative cities in the country, the success of an ethnic candidate is not determined by the strength of his support from within his ethnic base, but rather from beyond it.

Nenshi, the only nonwhite mayor of a major Canadian city, has become a celebrity politician in Calgary, and across Alberta, because of his competence and ability to engage with the electorate.

But this does raise a question about diversity and politics—is there a causal link between Naheed Nenshi’s skills as a politician and his ethnicity?

Consider this hypothetical: if Nenshi had been a white Protestant instead of a brown Muslim, and still produced the same outcomes for Calgarians, then wouldn’t "celebrating diversity" only be emphasizing difference and fostering identity politics? In other words, shouldn’t Canadians focus their "celebration" solely on the actual achievements of their leaders instead of also on their "diversity"?

RJ Aquino, the aspiring city council candidate for OneCity, addressed this criticism often levelled from the right through a personal anecdote.

“In 2011, when I first ran for office, I started getting local university students from my community contacting me because they recognized my last name as Filipino. These were students who otherwise weren’t paying attention or engaged in civic politics, but when they learned I was from the same background, they looked me up and inquired about me.”

“Because I looked like them and because I was in the public eye, it showed to younger generations that it was possible to do this, that we can be represented.”

Where there is under-representation—whether in terms of race, gender, or sexual orientation—it does not invite wider participation from all citizens, ultimately at the expense of our democratic institutions.

This segues to the other potential benefit of diversity: that diverse candidates bring unique experiences and insights, which may in turn lead to solutions and policies otherwise overlooked.

This claim is also open to some scrutiny given second- and third-generation Canadians—regardless of background—end up sharing common experiences. Or in other words, eventually all Canadians, if you live here long enough, end up being different but in the same way.

A diversity of faces may make for good optics—as in the current Trudeau’s cabinet—but may still be little more than an optical illusion when it comes to actual diversity of ideas.

To be fair, it is a reasonable conclusion that looking "different" does not necessarily translate into thinking differently.

But—and this is the crucial point—this flattening of Canadian diversity over time doesn’t mean that people from different backgrounds don’t empathize differently.

Let’s bring it back to the Vancouver context.

Should either Ian Campbell or Ken Sim become mayor, it is reasonable to conclude neither may have novel approaches to age-old issues facing the city. And as complete outsiders, particularly for Sim, they will likely struggle to learn the in-and-outs of city hall management and governance conventions.

But that does not mean they wouldn’t bring much-needed new empathy on age-old issues that, if nothing else, prevent these issues from being ignored.

Some examples to illustrate.

The past decade have been halcyon years for developers who have made more profits than ever while recasting Vancouver into an Eden of gleaming glass towers. Out of the billions flowing through Vancouver’s real estate market, a tiny infintesimal fraction could have been diverted to provide a lasting and sustainable solution to the city’s chronic problem of homelessness.

Yet 10 years after Vision took power having promised to end homelessness, the issue remains as chronic as ever.

It is a fitting metaphor for what Vancouver has become when one encounters its homeless residents trying to sleep in the cold-concrete nooks and doorways of its half-empty, but ecofriendly LEED skyscrapers.

It seems unlikely Campbell, someone from an indigenous background, would only pay lip service to this homelessness issue given that 40 percent of homeless people in the city are from an indigenous background, a staggering 20 times greater than their actual percentage of the overall population.

And perhaps it will require a Vancouver mayor from an Indigenous background like Ian Campbell to advance the reconciliation agenda and create new community initiatives that go beyond declarations of recognizing Vancouver as the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

In the case of Ken Sim, he is a second-generation Canadian who witnessed firsthand the struggles of his immigrant parents. He took menial jobs, worked as a janitor during high school, and like other second-generation Canadians found a way to sacrifice and forge ahead.

Would Sim not be more empathetic to Vancouver’s affordability issues than the current mayor, even if he is representing the right-of-centre NPA?

I worked as a janitor during high school and I had immigrant parents who struggled like others in a similar position.  Back then it seemed inconceivable that those sweeping up the offices could one day be the ones sweeping into them. 

For me, the candidacies and civic participation of Ken Sim, Ian Campbell, RJ Aquino, Brandon Yan, and a growing number of other diverse candidates in this coming 2018 election has piqued my interest in civic politics more than ever.

These candidates represent the other half of Vancouver that rarely gets to be heard in our city affairs, and the half that historically has been discouraged and once even banned from participating.

It may turn out that 2018 is still not the year a nonwhite candidate becomes mayor of Vancouver, but it seems 2018 will be the year that finally shows it is possible.

And that is an inflection point when truly "diversity becomes our strength", not just for half our city residents but for us all.


Jagdeesh Mann is the executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. Based in Vancouver, he is also an active contributor to a number of publications and a member of the NCM Collective.

Published in Commentary

By: Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver, BC

Nearly 70 years since South Asians won the right to vote in Canada, Jagmeet Singh has become the first non-white leader of one of the country’s major political parties.

Media coverage of Singh’s historic victory has ranged from admiration of the new leader’s alpha-male swagger to questions of whether he will hinder his party’s appeal at the Quebec polls. While most stories have understandably commented on the visible symbols of his Sikh faith, a few have taken an oddly suspicious tone of whether keeping a turban and beard is a gateway to misplaced loyalties — in Singh’s case that being in supporting Sikh separatists.

Ironically, the one media outlet that seemed to fumble over itself to roll out this unwelcome mat was none other than Canada’s public broadcaster, the traditionally left-leaning CBC.
In an aggressive Fox-style interview on Power & Politics, veteran journalist Terry Milewski interviewed Singh for his first appearance on the station since winning the NDP leadership. He tossed Singh a few softball questions about his leadership plans before cutting incongruently into a question that rhetorically implied a connection between Singh and the Air India bombing from three decades ago: Does Singh condemn Sikhs who venerate Talwinder Parmar, the man considered to be the architect of the bombing of Flight 182 in 1985?

The broadside seemed to take Singh by surprise. He deflected while the CBC host kept doggedly pressing him. Eventually the awkwardly un-Canadian exchange ended in a stalemate. The post-mortem discussion on social media, however, questioned the fairness of this line of inquiry.

Milewski’s cross-examination was loaded, first of all, with the assumption that Singh, a Sikh born in Canada on the cusp of the millennial generation, should be studied in the history of Talwinder Parmar, and the intricacies of an Indian separatist movement from 30 years ago. This would be on par with assuming that Tom Mulcair, the previous NDP leader, should know the history of Sinn Fein just because his father was an Irish Catholic immigrant.

But even if Singh knows his history of 1980s Sikh separatism, was he being asked to denounce the personal views of other Sikhs who venerate Parmar because Singh himself is a baptized Sikh?
Or was he being asked because there are such followers in his political base?

Either way, these questions lead to a troubling double standard when compared to CBC’s treatment of other politicians, such as the Conservative Party’s new leader Andrew Scheer. In an interview earlier this year, Scheer was asked about his views on same-sex marriage and abortion, but at no point was the devout Catholic asked to openly condemn his fellow Catholic congregants who view same-sex marriage as an abomination.

Meanwhile, other Canadian politicians with a significant following in the Sikh community have also been spared Milewski’s rough treatment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has never been asked to condemn the portion of his Sikh base who view men like Parmar as martyrs. In the 2015 election, Trudeau benefited mightily from the Sikh vote, delivered to him by organizers from the World Sikh Organization — a group that once advocated for the creation of an independent Sikh homeland, on the heels of the Air India bombing. The WSO has also delivered for past Liberal leaders, including Jean Chretien.

Media hypocrisy, however, reaches its apex each spring in Surrey, when dozens of federal, provincial and municipal politicians, along with senior representative from the armed forces, RCMP, major banks and other federal bodies congregate at the Khalsa Day Parade on 128th Street. The event, which drew 300,000 attendees this past year, is hosted by Dasmesh Darbar, the largest Sikh temple in B.C. At this temple, a kind of Sikh version of the Yasukuni Shrine, Parmar and other Sikh separatists are lionized through posters and photo memorials.

In the years since the Air India bombing, mainstream media has leaned heavily on a false, and self-perpetuated, binary of “moderates” versus “fundamentalists” when reporting on news with a Sikh angle. This was partly the consequence of non-diverse newsrooms in the 1980s and 1990s struggling to decipher the inner-workings of a complex community with which many were unfamiliar.

So media outlets created go-to contacts, such as temple presidents and politicians, who became the default spokespeople for an entire range of issues, regardless of their familiarity on these topics. These individuals, in turn, used their privileged positions to perpetuate this divide in which “moderates” became seen as forward-looking secularists who, typically, didn’t wear turbans, while fundamentalists were orthodox in religious practice and ardent supporters of an Sikh homeland independent of India.

In the three decades since Air India, two generations of Sikhs have grown out of the shadow of the separatist turmoil. These youth tend to speak English and French better than they do Punjabi and they are politically active through social justice causes.

Singh is part of this new educated generation which continues to advocate — arguably with more passion and idealism than their parents — for redress on behalf of the 10,000-plus Sikhs systematically murdered by government supported pogroms in Delhi in 1984. Singh, and other young Canadian Sikhs, however, are equally as impassioned by other Canadian-based causes such as attaining meaningful reconciliation for this country’s Aboriginal communities and protecting the environment.

This complexity, however, becomes lost in translation for reporters like Milewski because they still insist on viewing the Sikh community through the tenuous lens of Air India and the separatist struggle that long ago withered on the vine. The community has changed but their narrative framework for reporting has not evolved.

Consequently, Singh’s social activism and even his belief in self-determination becomes recklessly conflated as support for a man accused of terrorism three decades ago. And it happens on national television, as it did on Power & Politics where CBC got caught judging a book by its cover as Milewski shamelessly tried to pin down Singh as a Sikh “fundamentalist.” 

If there was any extremism in Canada that day, it was in the manner by which CBC treated the new leader of the NDP.

Singh won his party leadership and the support of the party grassroots because he is a person who embodies the modern nuances of multicultural Canada. Until CBC figures out how to articulate that, Canada’s public broadcaster will continue to foster uncomfortable exchanges that do little to bring together Canadians of all backgrounds.


Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional and journalist based in Vancouver. Mann is also a member of the NCM Collective and regular contributor for New Canadian Media. This piece was republished under arrangement with the South Asian Post.

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 12 October 2017 08:03

Jagmeet Singh and the Media's Race Problem

Commentary by: Paul Adams in Ottawa

Jagmeet Singh does not yet have a seat in the House of Commons. So when the new NDP leader comes to visit, he’ll have to sit up in the Leader of the Opposition’s Gallery and gaze down on the body he wishes someday to join. 

If all the MPs are there that day, Singh may notice that there are already five turbaned Sikh men with seats. In 2015, 47 so-called “visible minority” MPs were elected along with 10 Indigenous people, very nearly mirroring their relative shares of the Canadian population.

If Singh then swings his eyes to the north end of the Commons chamber to the gallery above the Speaker’s Chair — to the Press Gallery, that is — he may notice something different. So far as I am aware, there has never been a turbaned man working as a reporter for a major news organization, so he won’t see any of those.

No one keeps racial statistics on the Press Gallery the way they do for the House of Commons, but when I looked through the membership list the other day, I was able to identify only one visible minority reporter working for one of the big legacy media outlets – a reporter at CTV. None at the Globe, none at the Star, none at CBC-TV. And no Indigenous people either.

This may overstate the case a little bit. Since I was a reporter on the Hill in the 1990s, there has been an influx of young reporters of colour. They tend to be concentrated in online and specialist publications such as HuffPost Canada, the Hill Times, the Aboriginal Peoples’ Television Network (APTN) and some ethnic and foreign news outlets. The so-called Mainstream Media — not so much.

The House of Commons is today much more representative of the face of modern Canada than is the Press Gallery. Most of us can name a few visible minority and Indigenous politicians. Try coming up with more than one or two political journalists of colour.

When Singh was chosen as NDP leader, there were two streams of news coverage, both echoing (in a small way) the reaction to Barack Obama’s breakthrough in 2008. The first was a self-congratulatory celebration of the nation’s inclusivity. The second involved an obsessive concern with the man’s race and ethnicity.

One interview that got a lot of attention was Terry Milewski’s welcome-to-Ottawa interview with Singh on CBC’s Power and Politics. Milewski has never suffered fools gladly and operates on the premise that all politicians are fools until proven otherwise. (Stephen Harper was never able to establish this to Milewski’s satisfaction, so far as I could see.)

Apparently Singh, or his office, had — with stunning naiveté — asked to see the questions in advance. Milewski delightedly tweeted out that fact before Singh backed down. Advantage: Milewski.

A lot of the reaction to Milewski’s interview turned around a “gotcha” section at the end of the interview in which Milewski doggedly asked Singh to denounce posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar, which appear in some Sikh-Canadian institutions. Parmar was a Sikh nationalist who was — it has been well-established — the mastermind behind the Air India bombing in which 329 people were killed, most of them Canadian, many of them of Indian extraction.

Except for Milewski’s first question — which was about how Singh would manage without a Commons seat — every single query directly or indirectly invoked race, religion or ethnicity.

For many viewers not steeped in the issue, it must have been a baffling exchange. But few reporters in Canada have covered the Air India bombing and its aftermath more thoroughly than Milewski — and Jagmeet Singh has been deeply engaged in Sikh politics. It may have been a ‘gotcha’ question, but it got Singh, who dodged and weaved but would not be caught denouncing Canada’s worst-ever mass murderer.

Singh is really going to have to do better than this if he wants to lead a national party with any success.

What concerned me about the Milewski interview was not this exchange, but what came before it. Except for the first question — which was about how Singh would manage without a Commons seat — every single query directly or indirectly invoked race, religion or ethnicity.

There were questions about refugees, religious symbols, Singh’s “acceptability” in Quebec — all coming before the Parmar exchange. Nothing on Singh’s interesting views on addressing precarious work among the young. Nothing on his controversial views on decriminalizing possession of drugs like cocaine and heroin. No “open-ended” questions that would allow Singh to lay out his own agenda.

Earlier that same day, another CBC journalist had posted a tweet that appeared to confuse Singh with another turbaned Sikh — federal economic development minister Navdeep Bains. If I were among the one-in-five people living in Canada who are visible minority, I might be tempted to wonder whether journalists who see a politician of colour see anything but the colour.

When we look south of the border — or across the Atlantic — it’s easy for Canadians to think of racism as a foreign problem. And I agree that we seem (for the moment) unusually blessed.

But take a look at some of the just-released data from Canadian Press’s important “Populism Project” – a survey from EKOS research. According to EKOS’ massive survey, 37 per cent of Canadians think too many immigrants are visible minority. Among respondents who are themselves visible minority, 43 per cent said they had “personally seen or experienced a clear incident of racism” over the past month. Remarkably, 26 per cent of other Canadians said the same.

While a plurality of Canadians don’t think there been much change in the level of racism in Canada, 33 per cent think racism is becoming more common, compared with 20 per cent who think it is becoming less common.

I am not suggesting for a moment that Sikh politicians should only be interviewed by Sikh journalists, or that Indigenous politicians (like the Manitoba NDP’s new leader Wab Kinew) should only be interviewed by Indigenous journalists. It’s a fundamental tenet of journalism that good reporters strive to understand the world around them, and strive particularly hard to understand those most different from them.

But a more diverse press corps would have two effects: one for journalists, the other for consumers of journalism.

For journalists, having people of various backgrounds in the newsrooms means being exposed to different sensibilities and story ideas in editorial meetings, over coffee, and in the thousands of chats that occur among colleagues in newsrooms every day as they try to figure out their angles. They also get to know individuals different from themselves in their full complexity — without reducing them to their most visible characteristics.

In the late 1980s, I did a story related to HIV/AIDS for the CBC. I had lived in New York at the height of the crisis a few years earlier and thought I was reasonably well informed. But after my story aired, a young producer — who was gay — came and spoke to me about some of the language I had used. He made me a better journalist by helping me see some things I had overlooked.

We are all limited to some degree by our backgrounds. Journalism is a lifelong process of educating ourselves away from those limitations. 

For news consumers, diverse newsrooms are both a substantive and a symbolic indication that the news business is serious about exploring our world, which includes people like ourselves and people who are quite different. It’s not just about comforting visible minorities through representation. It’s also about the rest of us not just seeing them, but trying to understand them.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. This piece was republished under arrangement with iPolitics

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver

Anyone who has travelled to subcontinent knows it is not always such a salubrious destination. Incredible India, as the country sells itself in tourism brochures, can be incredibly chaotic, unwieldy, hot, dusty, venal, bovinely, and polluted – and then you accidently end up drinking the water. 

Given his weakened state since returning to Canada, Canada's Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, has no doubt picked up a severe political bellyache from his recent week-long trip to the country.
In what should have been a soft PR exercise, Sajjan’s first trip to India as Canada’s Defense Minister, has gone from being an electoral victory lap in his birth country to a slog on Ottawa’s apology circuit.

The trip has brought into question his integrity as a leader, diminished his venerated standing before military personnel, and even dulled his image within the Sikh community. 

During a speech at the Delhi based Observer Research Foundation security think-tank, Sajjan veered off script and deliberately inserted a line about being ‘the architect’ of Operation Medusa, a large-scale Canadian offensive in Afghanistan in 2006. It was a false statement: in Kandahar, where Sajjan served three tours while a reservist, he was as a mid-level officer providing intelligence to his commanders. 
At his first sitting in the House of Commons on Monday, the minister, looked weary from repeating contrition for the battlefield boast, but failed to provide an explanation for it.

"I'm not here to make excuses," he said to the press gallery. "I'm here to acknowledge my mistake, apologize for it, learn from it and continue to serve."

Not since the cameras showed up at Premier Glen Clark’s house, had a BC politician seemed in such desperate need for a foxhole.

It's not unusual for Canadian immigrants to flash their success when they return to their homeland – Sajjan also made a visit to his birth village in the Punjab on this trip. These blingy displays however tend to be exhibited through heavy gold sets and brand name clothing, and not, as in the Minister case, through false claims of military prowess.

Had it been Sajjan’s only embellishment of his operational role, this errant speech could have been written off as typical politician’s self-aggrandizement. However, he also stated this alternative fact in an interview in 2015.

While this controversy has hogged the spotlight back in Canadian media this week, it was not the only trouble spot arising from his first visit back to India in 14 years.
The Minister’s tour, particularly of Punjab, was notably bumpy as the Chief Minister of the state, Captain Amarinder Singh and his cabinet, refused to meet with Sajjan. 

Singh alleged that the minister and his father, Kundan Sajjan, a former executive of the World Sikh Organisation (WSO), are both Khalistan sympathisers. At the height of the Punjab conflict in the 1980’s, the WSO espoused the formation of an independent Sikh state. 

The allegation against the minister is baseless and seems motivated by Singh’s bitterness at the Trudeau government. The Canadian government did not permit Singh to campaign last year among Canada’s one million-plus South Asians, forcing Singh to cancel the Canadian leg of his North American tour.

The Punjab Chief Minister’s rebuff, however, did little to help Sajjan’s mandate of advancing Canada-India relations, or of re-energising stalled Canada-India free trade talks which were first launched in 2010.

However, Sajjan’s most agonising moments during the week-long trip may have been in his circumspect responses to questions about the Ontario NDP provincial government recently passing legislation recognising the 1984 Delhi killings of Sikhs as an act of genocide. By some counts, as many as 30,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindu mobs in a four-day murderous frenzy.

In 2011, Surrey-Newton MP Sukh Dhaliwal was the first federal MP to petition for the recognition of the 1984 killings as an act of genocide, receiving support then from the current Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains. Dhaliwal was denied a visa to India in 2011, retribution for him spearheading this motion.

The failure of the Indian government to prosecute the government officials who organised the mobs has been a source of much pain for Sikhs worldwide for the past three decades. Sajjan however distanced himself from the motion.

In a stumbling response, he highlighted it was brought forward by a private member of the Ontario legislature (Harinder Malhi), insinuating the motion was politically motivated during an election year in the province. He further added that this was not his position as a member of the federal Liberal government. 

Sikhs who were hopeful Canada’s most recognisable cabinet member would help resolve this long outstanding social justice issue were clearly disappointed in these answers. Left in the wake of Sajjan’s India trip are gnawing questions about how much of his cultivated image as Canada’s ‘badass’ minister, and a comic book hero for justice, is truth and how much is hyperbole.

Afterall, why would he distance himself from a social cause as glaring as the Delhi killings? And why would a veteran break the military code about boasting and take credit for the sacrifices of other soldiers? 

After nearly 18 months in office, it seems all we have learned about the first term MP from Vancouver South is that it’s hard to gauge exactly where the soldier ends the politician begins. 


Jagdeesh Mann is executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. This article has been republished under arrangement with the Post. 

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 10 November 2016 10:19

Obhrai Challenges Leitch at Conservative Debate

by BJ Siekierski in Saskatoon

Conservative MP Kellie Leitch proclaimed her “common interests” with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the party’s first leadership debate Wednesday night, as several of her opponents pushed back against her immigration policy.

“I have common interests with Mr. Trump, screening being one of them,” Leitch said several times, picking up where she left off in a fundraising email Tuesday night that told supporters Trump’s anti-elite message was one she was hoping to bring forward with her own campaign.

A Mainstreet Research telephone poll conducted on November 5 and 6 showed Leitch to be the preferred candidate in the race, with 19 per cent support among Conservative supporters — ahead of Andrew Scheer with 14 and Michael Chong with 12.

Leitch aggressively pushed her wedge issue — screening immigrants for their grasp of “Canadian values” — to draw a sharp contrast with her rivals.

“I will protect our Canadian values,” she told the audience, estimated to be around 500. “I am the only candidate who will require face-to-face interviews of new immigrants and screen for Canadian values.”

As he did earlier Wednesday, Chong pushed back.

“Stephen Harper’s government let in three million immigrants and refugees during the 10 years they were in power. Every single one of those immigrants and refugees was screened for security purposes, terrorism, war crimes, crime against humanity, and for health and economic reasons,” Chong said.

“He would not have let in one of those persons if they had not been properly screened.”

Chong also spoke passionately of his mixed-race children, calling them the “new face of Canada.”

It was Deepak Ohbrai, however — a Tanzania-born Indian-Canadian immigrant and an MP since 1997 — who took Leitch on most directly about her fondness for Trump’s approach to politics.

After saying he didn’t “give two hoots” about a woman wearing a niqab — a controversial subject in the last federal election — he momentarily started trending on Twitter.

“Donald Trump’s divisive policy on immigration and social policies have no room in the Canada that I believe in. Unfortunately one of my colleagues admires Donald Trump, but let me tell you as parliamentary secretary for international human rights, I will not stand for any erosion of any human rights of anybody whether in U.S. or in Canada,” he said.

All twelve official candidates took the stage in Saskatoon in an attempt to appeal to Conservative members. The long list of candidates include former Tory MPs Chris Alexander and Andrew Saxton, physician Daniel Lindsay, and current Conservative MPs Maxime Bernier, Leitch, Deepak Obhrai, Erin O’Toole, Lisa Raitt, Andrew Scheer, Brad Trost and Steven Blaney.

Chong touted his economic policy, repeatedly noting that it has been endorsed by four economists. The plan includes income tax cuts and a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which the other candidates all opposed.

Blaney suggested that Chong’s economic ideas are “Liberal.”

“No wonder that the Pembina Institute endorsed your scheme, Michael,” he said. “They endorsed in 2008, in a very kind of same move — the green shift Liberal. That was what it is. They pretended it was revenue-neutral. Well, a tax is a tax is a tax.”

Blaney also attacked Bernier for opposing supply management.

“I like free trade but I love my Canadian milk,” he said. “How can a libertarian oppose a great system that costs zero dollars to taxpayers, (and) offers Canadians quality foods and products at an affordable price.

“Maxime, your plan … it is a disaster blinded by ideology. Why do you finance your campaign on the back of hard working families from our riding who feed our country? Intellectual short cuts.”

Andrew Scheer, who has more caucus support than any of the other candidates, occupied the middle ground, appearing at ease attacking Trudeau’s policies.

He got the best laugh of the night by making fun of himself.

“I will not be taking my shirt off as often as Justin Trudeau does. He may have a yoga body. I have a dad body.”

Raitt, who entered the race just last week, took a folksy approach, referring often to her Cape Breton roots and her experience in Harper’s cabinet.

Erin O’Toole, who served as a Sea King pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, referred to his military experience and told Conservatives that he has a style that allows him to connect with people across the country.

Chris Alexander highlighted the economy in his comments, suggesting that the party struggled in the last election because it lacked “a strong agenda for the new economy.”

Trost said he was the only candidate who encompasses all aspects of the Conservative movement, but failed to mention social Conservative issues, choosing instead to say he doesn’t believe that climate change is caused by humans.

“When I become prime minister, the war on gas and oil and coal is over,” he said.

- With files from Janice Dickson, Stephen Maher, and Kelsey Johnson. Published under arrangement with ipolitics.ca

Published in Politics
Thursday, 11 August 2016 21:23

African Journalists and Politics

Commentary
By Gibril Koroma, Vancouver, Canada.
Somebody recently asked me whether it's okay for a journalist to become a politician and I told them there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; a journalist, a palm wine tapper, a nurse, a doctor, a lawyer, an Okada man or woman and so on can and should become politicians whenever they like as long as they can read and write and understand English which is our official language (a shame because Krio would have been a better official (...)

- Salone News

The Patriotic Vangaurd

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By BENJIE OLIVEROS Since the beginning of his campaign for the presidency, Rodrigo Duterte has been accused of disregarding due process, especially with his endorsement of extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals by the so-called Davao death squad. His campaign promise of ending criminality and the drug menace within the first six months into his presidency 

The Philippine Reporter

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Published in The Philippines

Commentary by Rinaldo Walcott in Toronto

There is widespread consensus that social media has impacted legacy media in a significant way. And, legacy media is fighting back in ways that undermine responsible journalism.

One way the impact has been felt by legacy media (also called "traditional"/"mainstream" media) is that almost everyone can get their opinion out on social media in a way that circumvents news organizations. The proliferation of multiple and different points of views now on offer in both social media and legacy media appear on first instinct to be a good and necessary societal change.

There are more voices and positions to be heard and read.

But, as social media has impacted the public sphere, a growing and dangerous trend has emerged that requires careful thought.

The two sides conundrum

Recently, on a segment of The Current a CBC Radio 1 show, I suggested that the prevalence of ‘two sides to each story’ in media reports needs to be rethought. More specifically, I suggested that the ‘two sides’ method of reporting has become a significant problem while writing about racism, xenophobia, fascism and the far right.

I see it as a problem for telling the story because this kind of reporting legitimates a politics that need not be legitimated.

Extreme views

In western liberal representative democracies, there is consensus that the far right is an illegitimate political position and formation. The consensus supposes that racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant views, Islamophobia and so on are positions of the far right that must – and rightly so – should be repudiated.

The idea of repudiation is lodged in the history and notion that giving credence to such ideas can and could plunge us back into the sort of abyss marked so powerfully by the Jewish Holocaust in western societies.

And yet, in contemporary media culture, the far right is increasingly presented to us as the ‘other side’ of the argument; as the legitimate other side.

Balancing the story

Why is this a problem?

In my view, to present the far right as the legitimate other side of an argument does two important things: Firstly, it suggests that the far right’s arguments on racism, xenophobia and anti-immigration are legitimate views and arguments that the larger society must grapple with.

Secondly, it suggests that a balanced story is being presented to media consumers.

Indeed, nothing can be further from the truth.

And, furthermore, there are ways to present the arguments of the far right without giving them a platform to further cement their dangerous arguments and potentially recruit others to its anti-human political project 

Urgent response

Indeed, one might argue that this kind of ‘two sides’ reporting has aided in the emergence of Marie Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the U.K. and Donald Trump in the U.S. All of them are politicians whose views would have been clearly and unequivocally rejected and got no airing in the post-World War II era.

In our historical moment, the re-emergence of a much more public far right requires a necessary and urgent response: a response that does not equivocate in unmasking its hate-filled rhetoric, politics and political formation.

The question is, how do we do this?

I propose that we do this by not giving them a media platform. The way in which we do it is to first present the counter argument. The media has been fairly good at offering the counter argument. So, I will not quibble there too long. Let me instead turn to where the media is failing us.

Shut them down

It appears that the media seems to believe that it must produce far right personalities and voices as the balance to the story. I want to suggest that this is not the right approach.

Those who study the far right and who can speak clearly to their appeal, resurgence, and political formation should constitute the other side of the conversation.

What this means is that debating the far right should be a no-go in our media landscape.

Therefore, those who can help us make sense of the far right’s more public re-emergence in the age of social media should constitute the opposite side of the coin.

Now, some will say we need to hear from them directly, to not censor them, to unmask their hate-filled agenda. Not giving them the public airwaves is not censorship at all.

So, my answer is a blunt, No.

Rinaldo Walcott is Associate Professor and the Director of the Woman and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.

Read also: Does Facebook Owe Its Users a Public Editor?

Published in Politics
Friday, 15 July 2016 11:53

Conservatives and the 'Values' Thing

Commentary by Michael Adams

Even as most of us are glued to coverage of America’s rancorous presidential election campaign, some Canadians — notably committed Conservatives and New Democrats — now face the task of choosing leaders whose ideas and personal identities will rally current supporters, and even attract some new ones.

Few would disagree with the observation that last fall’s election was about values and leadership. And it will be values and leadership that determine who will lead the two parties currently in the midst of leadership contests — and who will lead the country when the Liberals conclude their current mandate.

In the old days, partisan divides in Canada were said to be about the three Rs: religion (Catholic/Protestant), race (French/English) and region (West/Centre/East). Economic interests that fell outside those categories, like union membership, also mattered.

Today, most of these past drivers of party affiliation are either irrelevant or sporadic in their influence. Contemporary political divides have more to do with personal values than traditional group identities or our positions relative to Marx’s means of production.

To understand the social values of Canadians, Environics has conducted annual surveys of people aged 15 and up since 1983. Earlier this year we surveyed over 4,000 Canadians, tracking 74 social values that illuminate our motivations and mindsets as they relate to our roles as citizens, consumers, workers, family members and spiritual beings.

Affinity for multiculturalism

The data shed interesting light on supporters of Canadian political parties. Although over the years we have come to expect certain patterns to recur in partisans’ values, this year we were amazed at just how closely the values of Liberal and Conservative party supporters lined up with the positions and sensibilities their parties expressed during the fall election campaign.

Liberal supporters score high on values associated with diversity: multiculturalism, flexible definitions of the family and ‘social learning’ (the idea that we’re enriched by contact with people different from ourselves).

These values are accompanied by a strong sense of national pride. In many societies, strong patriotism goes hand in hand with xenophobia: I love my country, and don’t want Others to ruin it. For Canadian Liberals, the combination is quite the opposite: I love my country because different kinds of people can coexist peacefully here. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals embody these values strongly.

But Liberals’ affinity with their party’s current image goes deeper. Liberal voters also scored high on nearly all the values associated with personal style, novelty and originality. Although there is nothing novel about the Liberal party itself, a big part of its leader’s appeal was a sense of generational change and youthful flair. The images of Justin Trudeau sporting colourful socks with a sober suit, doing yoga stunts and posing for selfies might seem superficial to his critics, but these playful, spontaneous gestures resonate with Liberal voters who say they strive for such moments of fun and authentic self-expression in their own lives.

The Conservatives, currently being represented ably by interim leader Rona Ambrose, are the party most likely to dislodge the Liberals at the end of their current mandate (if any party does). Their challenge is to find a leader who embodies Conservative values as effortlessly as Trudeau seems to embody Liberal ones.

Conservatives cannot alienate the foreign-born population that represents more than a fifth of Canadians ... nor can they alienate the portions of their base who would be drawn to, if not a Canadian Trump, then perhaps a Canadian Cameron or Sarkozy.

The task is not altogether straightforward. Conservatives must find a way to hit the ‘refresh’ button, presenting a new face and approach — without alienating voters who (arguably by definition) have little appetite for change.

Traditional family values

Consider the example of the ‘Traditional Family’ value, which boils down to a belief that a ‘real’ family is a married mom and dad with kids. ‘Traditional Family’ is the single strongest value among those who voted Conservative in the last election. That doesn’t mean that it’s their top priority as a group — but it is the one that distinguishes them most sharply from the national average.

That said, while the other parties remain much more accepting of same-sex marriage overall, Conservatives on average have moved more than anyone else toward acceptance of same-sex marriage over the past decade. This helps to explain the party’s official acceptance of such marriages at its recent convention.

A second tricky value for Conservatives to navigate will be ‘Cultural Assimilation’ — the second strongest Conservative value. This value is the opposite of multiculturalism and registers a belief that it is the duty of immigrants to adopt Canadian customs and values, leaving behind the customs and values of their countries of origin.

One of the great achievements of the Harper government was its success in attracting immigrant voters. Their strong disavowal of anti-immigrant messages yielded rewards at the ballot box. When Harper’s team changed course — most notoriously through Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander’s so-called ‘Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline’ — they suffered.

The hotline episode gives a hint of the Conservatives’ dilemma on this file. They cannot alienate the foreign-born population that represents more than a fifth of Canadians — including many voters favourably disposed to both fiscally and socially conservative ideas. Nor can they alienate the portions of their base who are driving the high scores on Cultural Assimilation and who would be drawn to, if not a Canadian Trump, then perhaps a Canadian Cameron or Sarkozy.

Conservatives tend to stand out in their support for traditional social structures: religion, father-led families and hierarchical organizational models. Conservative MPs’ recent efforts to block the introduction of gender-neutral language into the national anthem was a smart way to channel supporters’ sentiments, combining a belief in both traditional patriarchal authority and a desire to simply leave existing rituals well enough alone. For them, the fact that something is traditional — regardless of the content of the tradition — holds value in itself.

Conservatives tend to stand out in their support for traditional social structures: religion, father-led families and hierarchical organizational models.

Conservatives also stand out in their fear of violence; they are more uneasy than average about the threat of violence in the world, including in their own neighbourhoods at night. Conservatives also believe disproportionately in virtues like duty and a work ethic: They believe people must shoulder their responsibilities with stoicism, not indulge themselves.

After a decade of his leadership, most Canadians and many Conservatives were ready to turn the page on Stephen Harper. But whatever false notes he hit, the former PM did a good job of embodying Conservative ideas and, importantly, conservative sensibilities.

He didn’t pretend to be fun. He worked hard and, except for a rare turn at the piano, met public life with dutiful seriousness. He did nothing if not lead an orderly, hierarchical team governed by extreme loyalty and deference. He admired all manner of traditional institutions and symbols, from the military to the monarchy.

Key differences

The fact that the core values that most differentiate Liberals and Conservatives revolve around orientation to the family and social diversity is both fascinating and meaningful. We are not talking here about the usual fodder for our day-to-day policy debates: medicare, infrastructure, carbon pricing, equalization payments. Instead, values data reveal divergent orientations towards our most fundamental institution — the family — and towards the accommodation of diversity as expressed in culture and sexual orientation.

In the data’s portrait of Liberals, who have been the primary custodians of the progressive values of the country over the past 50 years (often nudged along by the NDP), you see a continuing openness to social change: support for the equality of women and those of various sexual orientations and gender identities, and acceptance — even embrace — of immigration and ethno-cultural diversity.

As the Conservative party selects its next leader, it will need to find someone who can speak to the Canadians who drive their party’s high scores on Traditional Family and Cultural Assimilation without alienating the young, urban, highly educated voters whose social and political clout can only be expected to grow. And as for tone — for the time being Canadians (unlike our American and European cousins) seem to be insisting on civility and cooperation.

Perhaps the next Conservative leader will tackle the next election by fighting sunshine with sunshine — and by finding a way to celebrate Canada Day as enthusiastically as Remembrance Day.

Michael Adams is founder and president of the Environics Institute for Survey Research.

Published under arrangement with iPolitics.ca

Published in Politics

A study led by SFU Masters of Public Policy (MPP) student Halena Seiferling found that the biggest barrier for women entering politics at the municipal level is persistent sexism and gendered comments.

“Though many people may assume that municipal politics is more welcoming to women, this study shows that problems persist even at the municipal level,” says Seiferling. “My research advocates for municipalities to have equal numbers of men and women on their advisory committees and boards in order to begin to combat this problem.”

Indo-Canadian Voice

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Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

Featured Quote

The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit

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