Canada Liberals Flail As Grip on Ethnic Vote Slips

TORONTO—As Canada heads into its second election in two years, the vital ethnic vote seems to be slipping from the grasp of the governing Liberals, who have had a hammer-lock on immigrant support for generations.

“The ethnic vote has been always very important in all the elections,” said Angelo Persichilli, political editor of Canada’s only Italian-language daily, Corriere Canadese.

“The difference this time is that the ethnic vote should not be taken for granted by the Liberals.”

The Liberals earned the allegiance of immigrant groups as successive governments going back to the turn of the 20th century offered lenient immigration policies for millions of people, and support from immigrants helped make the party one of the most successful in the Western world.

This loyalty was strengthened further when charismatic former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau brought in an official policy of multiculturalism in the 1970s, and ethnic votes kept the Liberals on the political map when Conservative Brian Mulroney swept them from power in 1984.

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The Conservatives, often seen as the “white bread” party of the suburbs and oil-rich Alberta, are focusing on ethnic voters in this campaign, and party leader Stephen Harper unveiled his immigration platform last week in Toronto, the most ethnically diverse city in Canada.

An estimated 15 out of the 45 parliamentary seats in the Greater Toronto Area have a large ethnic population. In some, the ethnic vote is in the majority. There are 308 seats in the House of Commons up for grabs in the Jan. 23 election.

“It’s very important for us,” Harper said of his aggressive push for the ethnic vote as he touted his efforts to make his party more culturally diverse. “I believe we can win an ever growing share of immigrant and new Canadian votes.”

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VICTORIA—Federal Liberal leader Paul Martin used his latest B.C. campaign swing to announce that a Liberal government would phase out the $975 permanent residence fee charged to new immigrants, which he imposed in 1995 as a deficit-fighting finance minister.

Within hours of Martin’s announcement at a downtown Victoria hotel, Conservative leader Stephen Harper made almost the same promise, as the two leading parties remained neck and neck in national support going into the Jan. 23 federal election.

Martin vowed to eliminate the fee over the next three years. Harper said a Conservative government would reduce the fee by half immediately, “and then continue to reduce it over our mandate as the fiscal situation allows.”

Harper stopped short of saying the fee would be eliminated, stressing instead the need for a new agency to assess immigrants’ professional credentials, allowing them to work in Canada more quickly.

Doctors and other foreign-trained professionals have sometimes had to wait years while provincial and professional regulators decided whether they should be licensed to work in Canada.

Joe Volpe, the Liberal immigration minister in the last government, said his party has already addressed the foreign credential problem. Last spring the Liberal government devoted $300 million to establish the Internationally Trained Workers Initiative to help immigrants use their training to work.

The immigrant population in Vancouver and other Canadian cities is growing, and is considered crucial with the Liberal and Conservative parties nearly tied in recent polls.

Tracking polls conducted by SES Research and CPAC television up to Tuesday had the Conservatives pulling ahead with 36 per cent of decided voters supporting them.

The Liberals were a close second with 33 per cent support, followed by the NDP with 15 per cent, the Bloc Quebecois with 13 and the Green Party with four per cent.

“This is a nation of immigrants,” Martin told a hotel ballroom packed with supporters. “Canada’s immigration history is rich and diverse, and the nearly 15 million people from around the world who have emigrated to our country have shaped the values and ideals of Canadian citizenship.”

Immigrants have traditionally favoured the Liberals in federal elections, but recent accusations of corruption and the adoption of same-sex marriage have cost the governing party support among some immigrant groups.

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