The Politics of Courting a Community

CBC’s radio program The Current recently examined the politics of courting the so-called ethnic vote in the context of Canada’s current federal elections. The conservative ad embedded above, which opens with historical photos of the Komagata Maru and MP Nina Grewal saying “things haven’t always been fair for us, but the conservatives have always recognized our history…” is one of several ads–liberal and conservative–targeting ethnic voters. Political parties court ethnic communities presumably because they want their support. But things can go sour in this courtship if people feel disrespected. Take for example, last week’s “ethnic costumes” request coming from the campaign of Toronto conservative candidate Ted Opitz, seeking to create a multicultural photo-op at a rally in support of him and the Prime Minister.


“Do you have any cultural groups that would like to participate by having someone at the event in an ethnic costume? We are seeking one or two people from your community,” the email signed by Zeljko ‘Zed’ Zidaric said.

“The opportunity is to have up to 20 people in national folklore costumes which represent their ethnic backgrounds,” the email said.

People who didn’t like the idea of being ethnic props responded with a counter-rally.

A Facebook page formed after the email was leaked calls the email “patronizing and offensive” and invited people to participate in a counter-rally outside the Etobicoke event.

“Whether you’re Chinese, Arab, Portuguese, Italian, South Asian, Irish, Vulcan, Klingon, Zombie, or Ewok. Let’s show the Conservatives that ‘ethnic voters’ are not props for photo-ops,” the Facebook page says. (CBC News)

One advocacy group composed a bit of musical satire in response. Their take on Michael Jackson’s “Beat it” aims its lyrics at the kind of politician who would reduce important issues relevant to a community down to song and dance and food: “We have to show them that we’re more than a vote/We have our views and voice, our rights are not a joke/They call us when they need us/To join their campaign bus…” first brought it to my attention.

They are taking aim at politicians who get their photos taken eating various ethnic fare… baklava, guava, okra, spring rolls or samosas, cassava or rice.

Avvy Go came up with the idea for the song Go Ethnic Go — and the video that goes with it — as a way of expressing her concerns about being labeled and targeted as an “ethnic” voter. The song and video were released last week by an advocacy group called The Colour of Poverty. (The Current)

20 thoughts on “The Politics of Courting a Community

  1. As a Canadian, I’m happy you guys in the US have taken note of our election, but this “ethnic target vote” issue has reached epic proportions. I’m from Brampton, with a very large South Asian community. While I know the South Asian and other immigrant communities in the US are a bit more scattered geographically speaking, Brampton has a large immigrant population (Italians/Portuguese/Jamaican communities included). I was really mad when current PM Harper got Akshay Kumar, Bollywood hero #1, to campaign for him here. While Bollywood stars frequent the Toronto area to promote their new movies or attend the Toronto International Film Festival (the IIFA awards are here this summer too), they’ve never campaigned in Canadian elections. I mean, that just guaranteed I would not vote for Harper’s Conservative party. Does this sort of thing happen at all in the US to this degree?

    • This kind of pandering for an ethnic vote definitely happens in US elections, but in the US there are two main ethnics with voting power: Hispanics and Blacks. And they are pandered to. Hispanics are especially pandered to, especially in Southern and Western states. Politicians will go on Hispanic channels and speak in broken Spanish about how much they love the latinos. This was especially the case during the 2004 Bush re-election bid when his bro with his spanish wife did the rounds to get the Hispanic vote.

      Cubans in Florida are pandered to as well with musicians and famous Cuban artists.

      In the US Asians make up a mere 3% of the population, and most are East Asians. If and when Asians become a major political force, I am sure we’ll get our share of pandering to.

      I love Canada, especially Toronto and Vancouver. Very friendly people, especially the desi immigrants. I get a nice vibe there every time I visit.

  2. to be fair the conservative party is running one (that i know of) ‘ethnic’ as candidate (prospect of a Tamil voting bloc):

    unfortunately he MC’d the last Maveerar Naal (celebrate heroic suicide bombers and child-soldier recruiters day) extravaganza in Toronto so take that factoid as you will.

  3. Does this sort of thing happen at all in the US to this degree?

    thank god no! (that i know of) god bless america :-)

    • of course these things don’t happen in the states. seems that major candidates tend to be too busy trying wash off representing too much of their ethnic identities and convincing americans they hope to shape a “color blind” society. these commercials are like marketing barbies for little girls…..oooo desi candidate! i want one in brown! …these kinds of commercial are worse than the mudslinging ones.

      • “seems that major candidates tend to be too busy trying wash off representing too much of their ethnic identities and convincing americans they hope to shape a “color blind” society.”

        Gotta disagree. Yes, the mainstream message is “I am White, or at least White-Washed, like you all and I am Christian, and definitely not a secret Muslim” but on the ground, the kind of pandering that Layla is talking about happens all the time in America, including carefully constructed literature to make it appear as though there are many non-White supporters of GOP. Fact remains, Blacks and Hispanics overwhelmingly vote for democrats. Cubans vote Republican.

        • Just a small correction there but Asian Americans(South, Southeast and Northeast) are nearly 5% of the US population now.

          • thanks for the correction. I just checked the census 2010 and you’re right! that’s quite a jump from 2000. I wonder which Asian made that number leap. I’m guessing South Asian.

  4. Haha I love the Desi woman in the orange sari holding the “Ethnic prop” sign, this is awesome. Btw, anyone know the percentage of Desi’s in Canada? I know in America when politicians target “ethnic” voters it’s a codeword for Black and/or Hispanic, rarely any mention of Asians, Indians, or Mideastern folks. Partly cause we’re such a small demographic and cluster in liberal states to begin with.

    • Canada has about 1 million South Asians. The total population is only 35 million, so they’re a greater percentage of the population (about 3 percent).

  5. That’s 2 minutes of my life that I will never get back. I’ve never had sliced samosas before, by the way.

  6. McCain did the same thing when he was trying to court hispanic voters:

    I am from BC and hated the Grewals – they were the penultimate epitome of courting minority voters with propped up candidates. Nina’s husband Gurmant experienced multiple corruption scandals and was always embarrassing to me whenever he spoke as a Member of Parliament.

    I do think Canada seems to do a consistent job of embracing diversity and teaching kids about multiculturalism from a very young age in school; whereas in the US the M word is still deemed controversial. Love the description of ‘folklore costumes’.

  7. Got this from Wiki, for anyone who may be interested:

    According to the US census, the overall growth rate for Indians from 1990 to 2000 was 105.87 percent. The average growth rate for the whole of USA was only 7.6 percent.

    Indians comprise 16.4 percent of the Asian-American community. They are the third largest in the Asian American population. In 2000, of all the foreign born population in USA, Indians were 1.007 million. From 2000 onwards the growth rate and the per cent rate of Indians amongst all the immigrants has increased by over 100 percent. According to the US Census Bureau, between 1990 and 2000, the Indian population in the US grew 130% — 10 times the national average of 13%.

    So if growth rates like this continue, maybe we will see US politicians pandering to Desi folks in a decade or so, who knows? Although by 2050 Whites will only make up about half the population anyway (or so I keep hearing people repeating) and Hispanics will be nearly 30%

  8. Although by 2050 Whites will only make up about half the population anyway (or so I keep hearing people repeating) and Hispanics will be nearly 30%

    a minor, but not trivial, supplementation is that 50% of the american hispanic/latino community identifies white as their race. so it is non-hispanic whites (most of the rest identify as “other”, and some as black). interestingly, this sociological pattern matches the genetics nearly perfectly:

  9. Pavani, why do you make posts but close comments before anyone can comment? You have closed comments for your Easter post and your Rebecca Black post.

    • I see how it may look like I briefly opened comments and then closed them on those posts due to the “(0, closed)” but actually I just never opened comments. It’s an option for every blogger on every post, and I just wanted to see how it would feel to use it occasionally, if I’d blog more with the option, etc.

  10. It’s important to note that in Canada, South Asians, grouped together, are the largest visible minority in the country.

    Whilst that request for the ‘ethnic costumes’ was indeed unfortunate, it’s no different than the sort of request routinely made to the white Ukrainian community in Western Canada (where the world’s largest number of classical Ukrainian dancers is produced, as an aside).

    Also, it should be noted that the group who produced that video to the tune of ‘beat it’ tends to be filled with left-of-centre/liberal activists, who are largely mirroring the campaign rhetoric of the Liberal party leader, Michael Ignatieff, that ‘a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian’, even as his party seems to be reaching a historic low in support amongst ethnic communities in Canada.

    Some of you may be interested in watching the episode of TVOntario’s (provincial public broadcaster) current affairs programme, the Agenda, called Chasing the Ethnic Vote.