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The ethnic vote: the dirtiest little secret in politics?

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She's running way behind in the polls, is mired in debt and deficit and facing a provincial election in just 10  weeks time. Could things get any worse for BC Premier Christy Clark?

Apparently, they can. Last week, the opposition NDP, frontrunners in the pre-election polls, released exerpts of an internal memo from B.C.'s Liberal government that outlined its strategy to woo ethnic voters in the upcoming election. The 17-page document, prepared by Clark's chief of staff, described ways of earning "quick wins" among ethnic voters by unleashing a wave of apologies for historic wrongs and creating a team of partisans to flood open-line radio shows catering to ethnic audiences with pro-Liberal callers. 

Ethnic-gate, as it's been dubbed, prompted a tidal wave of protest, both from within and without the party. Not surprisingly, the NDP were morally offended by the cynical strategy, and that government resources would be used to facilitate it. More surprising was the fact that a group of 89 Liberals who claimed to be of "ethnic background" met last weekend and voted to ask Clark to step down as premier.

Perhaps I've spent too much time breathing the same air as political operatives, but I had trouble figuring out where the scandal part comes in here. I spent the weekend reading everything I could on ethnic-gate, and found some interesting other facts of the story. It serves, I hope, as a bit of a reality check.

B.C. media seized upon ethnic-gate story mid way through last week, but it really peaked over the weekend when  the widely quoted dissident leader, Vikram Bajwa, claimed that similar anti-Clark meetings had taken place in five Sikh temples across the lower mainland. Headlines screamed out that BC's Indo community was "deeply divided" over ethnic-gate. One newspaper proclaimed that Clark's re-election chances were "dashed" as a result of the scandal.

Unfortunately, it took two daily news cycles for some fact checking. Several prominent Sikh leaders denied any involvement in the dissident motion, and disputed the existence of any other meetings. And then, there was issue of the Bollywood film awards.

Last year, Clark announced that B.C. was bidding to host the 2013 International Indian Film Award (IIFA) ceremony in Vancouver. The oldest and most prestigious Bollywood film awards, the IIFA held its 2011 ceremony in Toronto to great accolades. Clark, perhaps as part of her woo-the-ethnic-vote strategy, put on a full court press to get the event in Vancouver. Unfortunately, the IIFA did not accept Vancouver's bid. Clark responded by striking a deal to host the less prestigious Time of India (TOI) film awards.

For reasons not entirely clear, the dissidents seeking Clark's ouster also passed a resolution asking that B.C. withdraw all support for the TOI film awards. Was anger about not getting the IIFA an underlying issue at the heart of the dissident anger? Is there some sectarian battle involving the rival film awards playing out in BC? To date, it has not been a well-explored angle, but in the rough-and-tumble world of Indo-politics, it's possible this was a seminal event. The dissidents certainly connected the two issues in their announcement.

So, that leaves us once again with the question of exactly what is it that the B.C. Liberals have done to justify all this grief. Accusing a governing party of working tirelessly to build support among ethnic voters as a way winning an election is like accusing a vegetarian of being anti-meat. Harnessing the ethnic vote, for better or worse, has been a staple of Canadian politics for as long as non-white people have been allowed to vote. 

Where then do you draw the line between government policy and electoral strategy, or between responsiveness and pandering? To be honest, no one really knows. When Premier Greg Selinger brings greetings to a Sikh festival, is that government work or partisan, pre-election work? If Mayor Sam Katz dons an ethnic tunic while attending a Folklorama pavilion, is that a mayoral or an electoral strategy? The only thing we know for sure is that it's very difficult to get re-elected to anything if you do not put in face-time at ethnic and religious holidays and festivals.

And you can can be sure that when a government makes a decision to apologize to an ethnic community for a historic wrong, there is a calculation of the political benefits and blowback. Just about every ethnic community advocate knows as well that the period right before an election is the best time to find traction on a pet issue. It's simply unfair to ask politicians to be unconcerned about who may or may not vote for them when they issue policy.

Consider that federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is widely viewed as a political genius for helping the Conservative party build a huge base of support in ethnic communities. He travels widely, and frequently, to meet face-to-face with ethnic voters. He listens to their concerns. Occasionally, he is able to affect policy important to some of those communities. And he encourages them to vote for his party.

Honestly, where does Kenney's duties as immigration minister end, and where does his partisan, support-building duties begin? His frequent trips across the country to meet with ethnic groups are no doubt charged to his ministerial expense account. And if there is a little partisan organizing served on the side, well, that's okay too. It's a practice that's as old as federal politics in this country.

Kenney is, in reality, serving both a government and a partisan purpose with these trips. Now, the fact that everyone is doing it does not necessarily make it right. However, given the nature of the work, and the demands that ethnic communities make on politicians, it's very hard to say that it's wrong.

At some level, it is the work of a governing party to get re-elected. Not at any cost, to be sure. But governments spend a lot of taxpayer money convincing people their programs and policies are worthy of electoral support. Anyone remember the tens of millions of dollars spent by Ottawa advertising Canada's Economic Action Plan, the nifty label given to our recession stimulus program? That was taxpayer money, promoting a policy that is destined to be a central feature of a Tory re-election campaign in advertisements that had dubious value as public service announcements.

In B.C., Clark's principle crime may well be allowing the raw effluent of that internal document out into the open. There is nothing particularly offensive about the language; premiers and their parties govern, but they also spend a lot of time and effort worrying about how to ensure they continue governing after the next election. That means political staff, as their title suggests, are working on government policy and partisan strategy in constant lockstep. Again, that doesn't necessarily make it right. But given it's wide practice, one must proceed carefully before deciding how wrong it is.

Clark is a lame duck, and ethnic-gate was just the latest coal to be added to a fire that has been roasting her party for some years. Her party had very little chance of re-election before this latest scandal, and she has little chance following it.

However, the details of that memo and - perhaps more importantly - our reaction to it speak volumes about politics. Or how little we know about its inner workings.


PS - For a hilarious look at the politics of wooing ethnic or minority voters, please take a look at Stephen Colbert's interview last week with Democratic Party operative Jeremy Byrd on his campaign to woo Hispanic and African American voters in Texas. It's in the second segment.






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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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