Canada, with immigrants from over 200 countries, is a country of diasporas. New Canadians settle, integrate and become citizens. But becoming Canadian does not mean that new Canadians forget or lose interest in their country of origin. It is no surprise that diaspora politics, and the interests of ethnic communities, are very much part of Canadian politics.
There are however limits. The Government, in Discover Canada, states:
Some Canadians immigrate from places where they have experienced warfare or conflict. Such experiences do not justify bringing to Canada violent, extreme or hateful prejudices. In becoming Canadian, newcomers are expected to embrace democratic principles such as the rule of law.
But apart from extreme cases, governments tend to respond, as is normal in a democracy, to community interests.
But how does the Government respond to these and other legitimate political pressures? Where do ideology and values manifest themselves? When does it apply a “principles-based policy” and when not? When does it work with allies on diaspora issues and when does it go alone? How do governments deal with conflicting interests between different communities?
Starting with the basics, community size matters. Larger communities have more influence. Chinese, South Asian and Ukrainian Canadian communities are large, Filipino Canadians are growing in number.
Concentrated communities such as Chinese and South Asian Canadians in B.C., Ukrainian Canadians in Western Canada, Haitian Canadians in Quebec can influence election results in more ridings than dispersed and diverse communities such as Arab Canadians.
Communities that have been longer in Canada, with an activist tradition, tend to be more effective in advocacy than newer communities. Ukrainian Canadians are particularly effective given their longstanding presence in Canada dating from the settling of the West.
The more a community can speak with a single voice, the more impact it can have. While there is diversity of views within all communities, the main organizations representing Ukrainian Canadians and Canadian Jews provide a focus that makes it easier for governments and political parties to respond.
These factors apply to all political parties, who largely go where the votes are, and where “shopping for votes” means more and more targeting of potential voters. However, this is not uniform. While there is all party support in cases of humanitarian crises (e.g., Haiti earthquake, Philippines typhoon), political positions may differ on other international situations.
In the case of Ukraine, the community is strong, concentrated, long-standing and unified. Canada has no politically significant Russian Canadian community and comparatively limited economic and other interests with Russia. There was little conflict between the government’s worldview, its deeply felt distrust of former communist totalitarianism, and the views of the Ukrainian Canadian community. Opposition parties shared this general approach, although the government’s language was stronger. Our G7 partners are largely aligned, the US is forceful, the government benefits politically by being in-step with our allies, and any risks particular to Canada are limited.
Other larger communities are different. While Chinese Canadians are concentrated in suburban areas outside Vancouver and Toronto, organizations tend to focus more on domestic issues than on China. The much smaller Tibetan Canadian community understandably focuses on Chinese treatment of Tibetans. Indo-Canadians, while concentrated in the same areas as Chinese Canadians, are more diverse in terms of faith and tend to be less unified in their advocacy. The shadow of past Sikh extremism such as the Air India bombing is looked upon as an imported conflict that has little to do with Canada.
Conflict situations such as in the Middle East present challenges for political parties. While the Canadian Jewish community is comparatively small, it is concentrated in a number of ridings, and is influential with the main organizations presenting a relatively unified position. Palestinian and Arab Canadians are diffuse and diverse, less concentrated, relatively new, with no strong national organizations. But apart from politics, beliefs play a role. The Government has shifted Canadian Mid-East policy to align more with Israel and the current Israeli government, increasingly out of step with the US and Europe. The recent trip by Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a delegation of some 200 Canadian Jews is the most recent example. While all Canadian political parties strongly support Israel, their support is balanced by more recognition of Arab and Palestinian concerns.
Iran is largely viewed through a similar framework. Iran may be an increasing source of immigrants but overall numbers are still small with some concentration in North Vancouver and North York. The community is relatively new and unorganized. The decision to shut down diplomatic relations was relatively easy. The government’s blindness to the significance of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election, right after hosting an innovative online conversation with Iranians and Iranian Canadians, revealed the weakness and divisions within the community. The harsh rhetoric against US and European efforts to negotiate a nuclear agreement with Iran, echoing the Israeli government position, are a further reflection of the government’s overall alignment with Israel.
Other examples of conflicting interests include Sri Lanka (Tamils and Sinhalese), Ukrainian and Jewish sensitivities over war crimes and the Holocaust, and divisions among different Muslim sects and countries of origin.
The Conservative government is well-attuned to diaspora issues given extensive outreach by Minister for Multiculturalism (and Economic and Social Development) Jason Kenney. Like all governments, it has its preferred target groups, on both political and ideological grounds. What makes it different is it “principles-based” approach to a number of issues, even at the risk of alienating some Canadians and our allies. Israel/Palestine and Iran are the best examples.
The excessive partisanship of the government, reflected across many files, is also reflected in diaspora politics. The overall good handling of Ukraine was undermined by simplistic comments regarding opposition leaders and not including all-party delegations in visits to that country.
Ironically, as the government aims to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship, suggesting a more exclusive attachment to Canada, its active engagement in diaspora politics reinforces a more fluid concept of identity and citizenship, one more in tune with the complex identities many Canadians have.
Diaspora politics are a legitimate part of the Canadian landscape. While some may perceive it as “pandering,” diaspora politics reflect a valid response to the concerns of citizens. The challenge for all political parties is to balance the interests of individual communities – both with other groups and Canada’s broader interests and values.
Too strong a focus on “shopping for votes” risks undermining this balance.
Andrew Griffith is the author of Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism and many other works. He is a former Director-General of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Citizenship and Multiculturalism branch. He regularly comments on citizenship, multiculturalism and related issues, in this blog and the media.