Posted on October 15, 2008

Canada’s Arab Immigrant Vote

Ahmed Habib, Al-Jazeera, October 14, 2008

On October 14, Stephen Harper, the incumbent prime minister from the Conservative Party, will be seeking to gain more seats in parliament from among the 300 ridings, or administrative districts, which are up for grabs.

But this year, the immigrant vote is likely to play a crucial role, as some one million newcomers have entered Canada over the past five years.

Historically, ethnic communities in Canada have supported the Liberal party which many see as pro-immigration and favouring a multicultural society.

But issues such as gay marriage and abortion have driven a wedge between immigrant communities, which largely hold traditional values, and the popular Liberals.

The immigrant vote

The left-leaning New Democratic (NDP) and Green parties are also gaining greater support from immigrants, particularly those who are young.

Faria Kamal, a campaign co-ordinator with No One Is Illegal, a national organisation that advocates for immigrant and refugee rights, warns of the tokenism that parties employ during every election season.

Experts warn of even a greater threat to immigrant communities subjected to ethnic-based campaigning.

Sabah Al Nasseri, a political science professor at York University in Toronto, said institutional fragmenting and fracturing of society according to different communities strengthens the position of the white ruling class in Canada.

A recent immigrant himself, he said: “By splitting our communities, we are weakened in the sense that we cannot create a general political project with other immigrants.”

In the case of the Arab community in Canada, there are also internal political schisms, which run along the lines of divisions in the Arab world.

Al Nasseri, who is of Iraqi origin, sees these divisions as jeopardising community efforts to confront Canada’s problematic role in the Middle East.

He urges Arab Canadian voters to remember that, “the same forces that are determining domestic policies here are engineering foreign policy in the Arab world”.

Community organisations such as the Canadian Arab Federation (Caf) are advising Arab Canadians to take their interests into account rather than blindly follow party allegiances.

Caf recently released a questionnaire to all the political parties as a means of gauging their stance on issues affecting the Arab community.

They asked questions on a varety of issues, such as security measures introduced as part of anti-terrorist legislation.

“These laws were passed hastily without consultation, and have led to an increase in anti-Arab racism and Islamophobic sentiments in this country,” Khaled Mouammar, the president of Caf, says.

A retired Canadian immigration judge originally from Palestine, Mouammar sees racism as the main deterrent to Arab involvement in the elections.

“We cannot lead normal lives. We are attacked by policies of the government here and at the same time we are bombarded by worries of what’s happening in the Arab world,” he says.

Caf has recently come under attack in the media for its stance against Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, a common reoccurrence in Canadian political discourse.

“Many are wary of hiring Arab Canadians, the treatment of Arab and Muslim Canadians as suspects by security agencies is increasing, and many are forced to deal with a legal system that sees them differently,” Muammar told Al Jazeera.

Grassroots mobilisation

Nadia Daar, a 26-year-old graduate student who moved to Canada from Oman in 2000, will be casting her ballot for the first time on October 14.

“In order to strive for a community that promotes just and equitable values, then we need to vote in the elections to compliment the grassroots mobilisations around these issues,” she says.

Daar, who lives in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, will support a party that will take a “clear stance against the apartheid-like practices of the Israeli state, the American occupation of Iraq, and that will withdraw all of Canada’s troops from Afghanistan”.

She also wants to vote for a party that will seek a just and equitable solution to indigenous land claims.

“We are all immigrants here aside from the First Nations community, and as such we need to vote for a party that gives them the rights they deserve,” she says.

Dr Qais Ghanem, a candidate for the Green Party in Ottawa, agrees with many of Daar’s beliefs.

A former human rights activist and doctor, Ghanem says he is leaving a successful medical practice to pursue a career as member of parliament.

He says he has chosen the Green Party because they share many of the principles regarding “social and economic justice, concern around the extreme gaps between the wealthy and the destitute, and fighting racism”.

He believes becoming a candidate can help break stereotypes of Arabs in Canada.

“An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard yet,” he said.

Ghanem, who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa, says his candidacy is a natural extension to his role as an educator.

“You have to educate or else you won’t get what you want. For example, people have to know the real story about Afghanistan.”

But Ghanem quickly ran into a media storm when he successfully convinced the Green Party to revise their foreign policy and recognise the rights of the Palestinians.

Some in the media demanded his immediate expulsion from the party for what they described as Israel-bashing and anti-semitic statements.

Elizabeth May, the leader of the Greens in Canada, however, stood by her candidate, and showed “tremendous courage”, he says.

The Canadian dream

Al Ghabra is running as a Liberal party candidate

Ghanem’s experiences appear to provide evidence to support Caf’s claims that there exists racism against Arabs in the elections.

However, Omar Al Ghabra, a Liberal member of parliament originally from Syria who is seeking re-election in the immigrant-concentrated suburbs of Toronto, disagrees.

He says Canada is an accessible and equitable country and points to his ability to run for parliament as a reflection of “the values and opportunities that Canada provides.”

“I never expected starting off as a student working the graveyard shift in a doughnut shop that one day I would be a Member of Parliament,” Al Ghabra, who is a former president of Caf, told Al Jazeera.

“People do not vote because of their ethnicity or religious affiliation . . . they are more sophisticated and intelligent than that.”

He insists that people vote for him because of his “values, stances and work.”

Despite Al Ghabra’s beliefs, political parties use their stance on immigration and social values as a means of gaining more community block votes.

Campaign ads, sometimes in different languages, can be seen and heard across ethnic minority-based media outlets.

Even the Conservative party has put forward a list of candidates from Arab backgrounds; nevertheless, many Arab-Canadians criticise Harper for his unwavering support of Israel and the American occupation of Iraq.

Elie Salibi, a candidate with the Conservative party in Ottawa would not respond to any requests for an interview.

Attempts to find other Arab-Canadian candidates with Stephen Harper’s party were thwarted by the Conservative party media team, which said that they “don’t racially profile their candidates”.

First veiled candidate

For Samira Laouni, a candidate with the NDP in Bourassa, Quebec, her story seems to expose the many problems facing immigrants as they try to break through debilitating stereotypes.

As a Muslim-Canadian, originally from Morocco, Laouni wears the hijab; as a result, she has been the focus of many debates on radio stations in the French-speaking province Quebec.

On a Montreal talk show, Laouni, termed “Quebec’s first veiled federal candidate” by the mainstream media, was recently told by the radio station that if she was raped during the interview, under Islamic Shar’ia law, she would need two witnesses to prove the assault.

In turn, this incident has triggered a campaign, spearheaded by organisations like Caf to hold the radio station responsible for these comments under Canadian broadcast regulations.

Despite these events, Laouni insists that such voices are a “minority” in Canada and that “no-one in the world should be allowed to attack a woman because of her hijab”.

Zahia Al Masri, also a candidate with the NDP in Quebec, agrees with her fellow party member in that these elections must be used as an opportunity to fight harmful stereotypes.

Al Masri, a single mother of Palestinian origin, says that efforts must be made to fight obstacles within the Arab community itself.

“For me, most of the resistance I’ve faced has come internally around my involvement in politics as a woman,” she says.

She says these elections test Canada’s claims of tolerance and equity; she insists that: “We can’t say we have a multicultural system, and then leave it on its own to work.”

Canada’s social fabric

Regardless of who wins in the 40th Canadian elections, and what minorities end up being represented, systemic issues of racism against immigrants and indigenous communities will continue to test the social fabric of Canada.

Recently, Canada was criticised by the UN for its treatment of First Nations communities, and many community organisers have warned of an increasingly undemocratic atmosphere under Harper and the Conservatives.

Elections in Canada are also in a struggle to gain more relevance amongst its own citizens.

According to Elections Canada statistics, voter turnout in Canada has been decreasing steadily since 1988; this is especially true amongst immigrant communities.

Mina Mahdi, an Arab Canadian, who has lived in Toronto for several years, will be looking more closely at how the American elections unfold.

“As an Iraqi, what happens in the American elections will have more of an impact on what I’m most concerned about, the occupation,” she says.

However, Mahdi will be voting for the first time in the upcoming Canadian elections.

She said: “I will be voting to make sure Stephen Harper is out.”