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Canada's Conservative Party Is a Cautionary Tale for the Republican Party

Here's how to win over immigrants and minorities—and then lose them


The Republican Party has paltry support among non-white and immigrant voters, a general-election problem for which two solutions are most commonly proposed: explicitly support immigration reform, or bring in even more white voters. Canada’s Conservative Party shows that there’s a third way. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the CPC has increased its support among immigrants and racial minorities, making the party competitive in communities where the rival Liberal Party used to dominate. How the CPC first accomplished this, and then may have squandered it during this election cycle, should serve as a valuable lesson to the GOP. 

Beginning in 2006, Harper tightly controlled his party and clamped down on xenophobic members who expressed cultural disdain of immigrants. At the same time, led by Minister of Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, the party courted support by emphasizing areas where the party and immigrants align, such as lower taxes and social conservatism. Many Republican reformers have upheld the CPC success as a model to follow. “As center-right parties grapple with the problem of how to appeal to ethnic minorities without compromising their principles, they can look to the Canadian Conservative Party for a solution,” Tim Mak reported in FrumForum in 2010. “Without patronage, Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney has executed a minority outreach plan that, for the first time, has started a genuine conversation with immigrant voters—a conversation that has increasingly ended with these voters considering a Conservative vote for the first time.”

But ahead of Monday’s national election, the Harper government has endangered its success in minority outreach by openly running a xenophobic campaign, making a special effort to stir up anxiety about Muslim immigrants. Along with the separatist Bloc Quebecois, the CPC has made an issue of the niqab, the face-covering clothing worn by some Muslim women. Going against court rulings on religious freedom, Harper has insisted that women take off the niqab during citizenship oaths. His party has also floated the idea that the niqab not be allowed in the civil service. On the issue of Syrian refugees, Harper has played up fears that some might be terrorists and used his powers as PM to admit Christian refugees while blocking Muslim ones. Finally, Harper promised to create a “barbaric cultural practices hotline” where Canadians could inform on neighbors adhering to supposedly uncivilized cultural traditions.

During one of the debates held by party leaders, Harper used the phrase “old stock” Canadian, which was widely seen as a dog whistle singling his alignment with the values of white Canadians whose families have been in Canada for many decades. Yet, while Harper is undeniably running a divisive and polarizing campaign, it would be a mistake to think that the divisions he’s creating are simply along white/non-white lines: Many immigrants of color and their Canadian-born children share the wider xenophobia directed against Muslims. According to polling done by University of Toronto political scientist Peter Loewen, foreign-born Canadians are actually more likely to vote Conservative than the native born. 

As Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders noted in a column last week, there’s evidence that Harper’s anti-Muslim xenophobia hasn’t hurt him with non-Muslim immigrant groups, where he continues to poll well.

Mr. Harper has probably lost the Muslim vote, but that’s only 3 per cent of Canadians. He and his ethnic-outreach agent, Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney, are evidently making a calculated bid to make gains among Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Christian diasporas by playing on their atavistic fears of their Muslim neighbours.

This is a dangerous game…

Building a diverse and inclusive conservative movement ought to have been a historic accomplishment. But by using intolerance to fuel sectarian mistrust, Mr. Harper is damaging that legacy. 

Harper is playing a very effective game of divide-and-conquer with immigrant groups, and he’s doubling down on social conservatism aimed specifically at them. In ads running in ethnic community newspapers aimed at Chinese and Punjabi voters, the CPC has argued that Liberal leader Justin Trudeau “supports the sale of marijuana to children, the expansion of safe injection sites and the establishment of neighbourhood brothels.” Punjabi community leaders have complained that these deceptive ads are aimed at them, saying the ads show that the CPC holds them in low regard and doesn’t think they have access to reliable news sources. 

The CPC’s outreach to immigrant voters has also led to an alliance with Rob Ford, the troubled and controversial former Toronto mayor who gained international renown after being caught on video smoking crack. Ford, known for his opposition to gay rights, remains a popular figure among socially conservative voters, including some immigrants, but a toxic figure to many voters because of his well-documented history of drug abuse, buffoonery, and racism. Ford pointedly snubbed Toronto’s annual Pride parade, which mayors both before and after him attended. Harper himself avoids Pride parades, which all the other major party figures attend. During one of his crack-fueled stupors, Ford referred to Trudeau as a “fag.” Despite this, Harper and his government have recruited Ford to campaign for them.  

In truth, both Harper and Ford show the limits of conservative outreach to immigrant groups and people of color. While it’s true that the two politicians have been more successful in minority outreach than the Republican Party has been, this outreach has been built on fostering other lines of social division, whether against Muslim-Canadians or LGBT communities. Getting some immigrants and non-whites to vote for you by choosing a new scapegoat hardly seems like a promising basis for politics.

The immediate danger for Harper is of falling between two stools. Some polls show that the politics of xenophobia has turned off immigrants living in large urban centers like Vancouver, while the white nationalist right is unhappy with him for his minority outreach and have labelled him a "cuckservative”—as signs all over downtown Toronto show:

The longer term danger for the CPC is that the Canadian-born children of immigrants tend to be much less socially conservative, which means the basis for the outreach could have a one-generation shelf-life. In fact, the success of this Islamophobia-plus-homophobia strategy might even expire on Monday: The latest polls show the Conservative Party falling behind the Liberals.