Conservatives ethnically classify voters

There seems to be something funny about this year's election. It is not that the NDP is running ads using a comedian as the voice over. It is not that the Conservatives have pulled an ad in Punjabi after realizing that the title South Asian is not actually the language in which it was done. This does however point to an issue the secondary campaign run in racialized communities.

Canadian multiculturalism, in English Canada at least, has often created a beast called the "ethnic vote." It is from this long history of essentialized culture that the Conservative "very ethnic riding" concept arose. This is not new. The explicit admittance of the categorization may be, but the strategy of asking people to wear "ethnic costumes" and be little props is not a new one. We must remember in Canada when we say a diverse neighbourhood it is quite often just a synonym for a lot of people who aren't so white live there.

The Conservatives and the Liberals are both trying candidates who have histories of distinct and overtly racist tendencies. Andre Forbes for the Liberals shows the Liberal view of Quebec. It is as if they see rural Quebec and say, "Look we found just the racist you people would like." Clearly any claims to multicultural values, if such exist, are simply instrumental. For the Conservatives, Rob Anders is still running as perhaps the only person in the country who still thinks Nelson Mandela should be on Robben Island

The explicitness of the campaign strategy by the Conservatives to attract two communities in particular is noteworthy. Specifically attracting the Chinese and the, we'll call them, South Asian community, is distinct in its specificity. The Conservative strategy has seen Harper target trips to areas which are dominated demographically by these two groups with other groups used for props to hide their specific strategy to white Canadians. This lets those of us who are white continue to think that the parties are all nice and diverse. It may be hard for white Canadians to celebrate a party which appears all white, but the current appearance to the contrary is very much just an appearance.

To some extent, the Conservative strategy is a smart one for them. Considering their continued support of Mubarak in Egypt when even the U.S. was saying they'd like to see him go should have lost them significant votes, if any votes were still up for grabs after their position on Mahar Arar. Harper's old position on Iraq is the same as Ignatieff's, so for Canadians who don't believe in bombing brown people, there is no old guard option. Note that the Conservatives have Chris Alexander, their man in Afghanistan as Afghans were blown up, running for the Conservatives as a star candidate. The Conservative policy on Mexican and Roma refugee claimants also likely rules out more, to use another euphemism, New Canadians from supporting them.

Under their strategy the Conservatives released four ads for their target ethnic audience the aforementioned South Asian and Chinese communities. They initially released three non-English ads targeted at ethnic voters one in Punjabi (labelled South Asian) one in Mandarin and one in Cantonese. The party has removed the ad in Punjabi perhaps after they realized that South Asian is not a language or that the Punjab is in India an English speaking country. There remains one ad still up in English targeted at the South Asian community.

This ad featuring Conservative MP Nina Grewal with a voiceover about how the Conservatives understand the Indo-Canadian community. The Conservatives have, the ad argues, recognized the Indo-Canadian role in building Canada. This same Conservative party in the past has recognized that heritage by ironically and cruelly congratulating First Nations' groups on Indian independence. This somewhat patronizing effort is not central to the secondary campaign. It is the centrality of family and values in the later part of the ad that speaks to the thrust of this second strategy.

In North America family, tradition and values mean something. Family values is the strategy of the hard right which places traditions ahead of rights and justice. The Conservatives are saying to the ethnic communities "we will reinforce your patriarchy." The Conservatives are banking on the family values nod. They are relying on their opposition in the past to womens' and gay rights to garner support in communities they see as homophobic and misogynist enough to support them. These are issues they aren't alluding to in English why then in these communities. They must assume that bigotry is something they can rely on in South Asian and Chinese communities. One could even go as so far to claim that assuming such characteristics of a community is, in itself, a racist act.

It is not the same as the Conservative strategy for those of us who fall into the ethnic category labelled white. We get the economy and crime. In the English language debate Harper mentioned values only once to state that New Canadians are small "c" conservative and he wished to see them join him. The values piece then must pretty much only be for, their words here not mine, ethnic consumption.

In the debate Harper did mention non-white Canadians -- of course, his thoughts went to immigrants. Harper talked about immigrants, arguing we need to "make sure they can contribute all they can." This framing is one that sees the immigrant, the New Canadian, the ethnic, as an economic unit. Though the ads speak of values when pressed on his vision, his is not one where Canada is built collectively, people play their roles and contribute to the existing vision. When Harper was done he let the onslaught from the other parties as a result of his immigration policies roll in.

In the debate, the Liberals offered no opposition to this economic narrative, though Ignatieff mentioned family reunification, it was still about making immigrants "proud citizens." The patronizing attitude continued in the debate as Ignatieff played the "we are helping women in Afghanistan card" and the "we are rebuilding Haiti card." Unsurprisingly, Ignatieff plays with a deck that doesn't contain the "we are responsible for removing Haiti's democratically elected government leaving them much more vulnerable to the earthquake" card. When given the chance to take about multiculturalism all he could muster is the importance of language.

When one tackles the issues facing immigrant and second generation language skills are only part of the issue. A lack of language skills is not reason that the Caribbean and other Black communities in Toronto are over-policed. Language is not the reason that numerous second generation Canadians from racialized groups are attending university at lower rates despite having grown up here speaking the language often better than white Canadians. Ignatieff said he wanted to make "proud citizens" but he still sees only language when the issue is race.

The issue of who decides is heavily raced in this election. The Liberals are still doing the old multicultural strategy of letting people have their culture, negating the effects race continues to play in excluding people. The Conservatives are ethnically classifying the public into the white category that decides, an ethnic category for those wealthy, homophobic and misogynist enough to buy into their vision and a third labelled "for photo-op only." The challenge for many of us in this election is to ensure that substantive inclusion and not just imagery defines the result.

Leif Maitland is a somewhat ethnic Canadian whose vote will not count as a result of Canada's current first-past-the-post electoral system.

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