The Political Power of Multiculturalism

The election of Jagmeet Singh as the new leader for the federal New Democratic Party is a game changer for the Canadian political landscape. Singh is a 38-year-old lawyer whose feet are firmly planted in Canada’s multicultural community.

He’s a bearded, turban-wearing Sikh who wears a kirpan and speaks English, French and Punjabi fluently. New Democrats have astutely read the Canadian political tea leaves and concluded that the multicultural community of Canada has become a force to be reckoned with at the ballot box.

The journey for courting the votes of Canada’s multicultural community started with Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the Liberal Party. In 1971, Justin’s dad stood up in the House of Commons and announced Canada’s multicultural policy. This was a convincing signal to the multicultural community to park their votes with the Liberal Party.

Subsequently, the election of Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his multicultural wife Mila changed the direction of the multicultural vote. Mulroney’s determination to give the Canadian multicultural community a voice in public policy found expression in his appointments to federal agencies, commissions and boards.

Furthermore, Mulroney’s stellar accomplishment was to elevate Canada’s multicultural policy to a higher level by introducing a Multiculturalism Act. This was the highest form of parliamentary legislation and a first on the international landscape.

The political message that Mulroney succeeded in conveying was that Canada had become a multicultural country in fact and in law. Suffice to say that Mulroney through his actions became a popular Canadian leader for the multicultural community and a magnet for multicultural votes.

Fredericton had a personal family relationship with the Mulroneys. A long-time Fredericton resident and a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick was Mila Mulroney’s godfather. The late Sava Bosnitch was a community leader, a passionate advocate for the multicultural community and a tireless defender of the community’s human rights.

More recently, Jason Kenney, a federal minister of immigration in Steven Harper’s Conservative government, recognized the political clout of the multicultural community and attempted to attract a larger share of the multicultural votes for the Conservatives.

But all of this is history. At the present time, the face of contemporary Canada has changed significantly. Immigration streams from Asia, Africa and South America have accelerated the diversity of the Canadian population mosaic. In addition, recent refugee movements from the Middle East and Asia have deepened the cultural and religious diversity of the Canada we live in.

Contemporary Canadians don’t have the same hangups as their parents regarding cultural diversity. They have grown up with that diversity in their schools, played hockey and baseball with them, and had boyfriends and girlfriends from the multicultural community.

The election of Singh as the new leader of the New Democrats sends a powerful signal of inclusion to the multicultural community. Indeed, inclusivity and the full and equal participation of the multicultural community in building a better Canada have become foundational axioms on the political landscape.

There’s an inherent message to the other political parties in what the New Democrats have achieved. The simple message is that platitudes and hollow promises aren’t going to cut it anymore. In this age of internetization and electronic connectivity, actions speak louder than words.

It would seem to me that the winning strategy for political parties leading up to the next federal election in 2019 is to recognize the political importance of the multicultural community and consequently develop a game plan that’s visionary and strategic. Political parties need to pick up their game in terms of connecting in a purposeful manner with the multicultural community.
All of this reminds me of the difference between playing backgammon and chess. In backgammon, you roll the dice and hope for the best. With chess, you pick your moves strategically with an eye on the prize.

At the end of the day, our political parties should embrace the eloquence of Robert F. Kennedy: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were, and ask, ‘Why not?'”

Constantine Passaris is a professor of economics at the University of New Brunswick and a national research affiliate of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy at the University of Lethbridge.