Voter turn out is traditionally low amongst racialized youth.
It is with this in mind that the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) gathered dozens of youth from the Malvern community to have their voice heard alongside two local political candidates running for MP of Scarborough North.
Liberal candidate Shaun Chen, formerly an area school board trustee, and NDP candidate Rathika Sitsabaiesan, elected MP of Scarborough-Rough River in 2011, were in attendance at the event, held this past week at the Taibu community health centre.
Several young people from the local community were invited to the forum to speak with their peers on getting engaged with the 2015 election.
Hibah Sidat, a 26-year-old, long-time Malvern resident of South Asian descent, who studied political science and worked a government job in the past, was one of them.
Sidat told the crowd that jobs are a major concern for young people in the neighbourhood.
“[The] youth unemployment rate is at an all-time high in Canada, and even worse in Ontario,” said Sidat. “And [it is] further worse in a community like Malvern that is so impoverished and has a uniquely high proportion of children and youth.”
This election will be the first time the Malvern community has been split in half, with residents living west of Neilson Road voting in the Scarborough North riding, and those east of it voting in Scarborough-Rouge Park.
New Canadians make up 61 per cent of the population and four out of five residents are visible minorities.
With over 60 different cultures represented in Malvern, it is considered to be one of the most culturally diverse areas in Canada. New Canadians make up 61 per cent of the population and four out of five residents are visible minorities.
In the past the City of Toronto had designated Malvern a Neighbourhood Improvement Area, based on factors like health, economics, political participation and education; however, in 2014 it was no longer considered to be a ‘priority neighbourhood’, a decision which some residents felt was premature.
Challenges getting to the polls
Voter turnout in the former Scarborough-Rouge River riding, which Malvern was a part of, has been historically low. It ranked second lowest of all Ontario ridings during the 2008 federal election.
“The South Asian population generally is from countries that are originally very heavily involved in politics like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka,” explains Neethan Shan, executive director of CASSA. “We have high turnouts and are very engaged in political rallies, so politics is not a new thing.”
That said, Shan does point out reasons why South Asian residents in Malvern may not be getting to the polls.
“[M]any families have been struggling to make ends meet … They feel like everything is okay with the politics and they don’t have to worry about it.”
“The only issue here is that the electoral system hasn’t engaged in diverse populations,” Shan explains.
“The other reason is that many families have been struggling to make ends meet. They have many priorities at home with respect to jobs, children’s education, etc. They feel like everything is okay with the politics and they don’t have to worry about it.”
Generally, Shan explains, the South Asian community is concerned about job related issues such as employment and foreign credential recognition, as well as immigration policies including refugee settlement, restrictions on family reunification and citizenship.
Shan says another issue within Malvern’s South Asian community is the racial profiling of Muslims, Tamils and Sikhs, an issue members of the neighbourhood’s large African-Caribbean Canadian population have had to grapple with for many years.
The power of ethnic voters
Abal (who did not wish to provide her last name), a volunteer from The Canadian Muslim Vote, a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization aimed at increasing Canadian Muslims’ participation in the democratic process, was in attendance at the event.
She says that according to the organization in the 2011 federal election, 21 ridings in Ontario with significant Muslim populations were won by very narrow margins.
“[Muslims] don’t know enough about the voting system, or they don’t know enough to decide whom to vote for.”
Over half a million Muslims live in Ontario and over 400,000 call the Greater Toronto Area home. There are more than one million Muslims living across Canada, and according to the PEW Forum, by 2030 that number is expected to triple.
Still, Canadian Muslims are among the least politically engaged. Consequently, Muslims have less of a voice within Canada’s democratic institutions.
“[Muslims] don’t know enough about the voting system,” says Abal, citing findings from an online survey her organization conducted, “or they don’t know enough to decide whom to vote for.”
Shan, who arrived in Canada 20 years ago as a refugee from Sri Lanka of Tamil heritage, would like to see a more accessible electoral system to help alleviate the challenges Abal speaks to.
He is calling for investments to be made to reach out to a variety of ethnic and racialized communities across Canada, particularly in different languages.
Shan is a photojournalist and event photographer based in Toronto with more than a decade of experience. From Beijing Olympic Games to The Dalai Lama in Exile, she has covered a wide range of editorial assignments.