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Election 2011 and the Rise of Ethnoburbia

Election results in Toronto in 2008 (top) and 2011 (bottom)
Red is Liberal, blue is Conservative, orange is NDP

Canada held its 41st federal election on Monday and the results have unleashed a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. After two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives have now won a majority. The left-wing NDP, a marginal party for much of its existence (it ran fifth for most of the 1990s), is now the Official Opposition.

Much attention is being paid to the massive surge of support for the NDP, especially in Quebec, where two decades of dominance by the Bloc fell victim to the “Orange Crush.” But Quebec is prone to political mood swings, and even as an NDP supporter, I’m sceptical that they will be able to maintain their current level of support until the next election. What I find especially remarkable about this election is the near-collapse of the Liberal Party — and the political rise of the ethnoburbs.

Take a look at electoral map of Greater Toronto. Red has given way to blue in virtually all of its fast-growing, immigrant-dominated, ethnically-diverse suburban areas. Losing these ridings is what pushed the Liberals to the edge of oblivion. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” notes the Globe and Mail.

In other words, the Canadian election was fought and won in ethnoburbia, the suburban immigrant enclaves first identified in 1997 by the geographer Wei Li. Ethnoburbs are socially and culturally self-contained, but unlike the urban ethnic enclaves of decades past, they are also prosperous and extensively connected to transnational networks. Their affluence and influence have given them enormous political leverage.

It’s an interesting twist on the old “ethnic vote,” a concept brought up in every Canadian election but never truly understood by the media. The idea that there is such a thing as an ethnic vote is highly problematic, not least because it assumes that “ethnic” people vote as a bloc and that they have radically different concerns than other Canadians, neither of which is true. But it’s important to note that each community, ethnic or not, acts as a sort of echo chamber defined by language and social connections. What really won the election for the Conservatives was not its big-picture message of a “strong, stable majority Conservative government,” which its leader, Stephen Harper, repeated ad nauseum at every single campaign stop; it was the party’s relentless focus on specific social and demographic groups, a strategy that worked well in immigrant suburbs.

The first weapon in the Conservatives’ arsenal was its platform of targeted policies, including boutique tax cuts aimed at specific portions of the electorate, a strategy that was sharply criticized by economists but which obviously paid off at the ballot box.

The second was their media strategy. In English and French, Harper came across as cold, impatient and autocratic. He took only five questions from reporters each day of the campaign. His public appearances were so rigidly-controlled that attendees had to pre-register in order to be vetted. (In one case, a young woman was expelled from a rally because Harper’s campaign workers had found a photo of her posing with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff on her Facebook page.) But many Canadians don’t get their news from the CBC or the Globe and Mail — what’s more influential are media in their native language. Harper gave unfettered access to many of these minority-language outlets, a tactic emulated by Conservative candidates like Wai Young, in Vancouver South, who “pointedly ignored the English-language media,” especially after reporters began to ask questions about her endorsement by a Sikh extremist. (The fact that Sikh religious politics would become an issue in a Canadian election is an indication of just how much ethnoburbia has changed the political picture.)

Naturally, the Liberals dispute any notion that the Conservatives campaign was especially effective in luring voters from cultural communities. Navdeep Bains, the incumbent Liberal MP for the heavily South Asian riding of Mississauga-Brampton South, said his loss to Conservative candidate Eve Adams was due to vote splitting by the NDP. That could certainly be true in his riding, where the combined Liberal/NDP support was 53 percent, or in Brampton-Gore-Malton, where the Conservatives just barely squeaked by in a three-way split. But in other ridings, like Brampton-Springdale — where Conservative candidate Parm Gill was rumoured to have special influence over the immigration minister, which helped many South Asian people in the riding get visas for their overseas families — the Conservatives won handily.

I don’t want to overstate the political influence of ethnoburbs, especially since not all ethnic and immigrant communities vote equally. Voter turnout among Chinese-Canadians is historically very low, whereas South Asians have a very high rate of turnout, a fact reflected in the fact that Toronto’s predominantly South Asian suburbs, like Brampton, were fierce electoral battlegrounds while relatively less attention was paid to Chinese suburbs like Markham.

Still, it’s clear that Canada’s suburbs now hold the balance of power in any federal election, and as suburban immigrant communities become more established and more influential, it could become increasingly common for parties to turn to minority-language media and the kinds of sharply-targeted policies used by the Conservatives in this election.

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow DeWolf on Twitter.)

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