In the summer of 2011 I was working in my Ottawa office one Saturday afternoon, as is typical of a political staffer, when the phone rang. It was a friend from Washington D.C. who worked in the American conservative movement; he was calling to congratulate me on my new job as Jason Kenney’s press secretary. The Harper Conservative “strong, stable, national majority government” was only a few weeks old, and my friend was also trying to get the scoop on how the Conservatives had managed to pull off their big electoral victory.
“We’re big fans of Jason Kenney and the work he’s done with conservative outreach,” my friend said. He was looking for someone to help recount the successes of the Canadian Conservative experience and share it was an American audience. “American conservatives can really learn a lot from Harper and Kenney.”
That was the first of many phone calls from journalists, activists, and conservative staffers from around the world looking to understand the outreach strategy of the Conservatives. The party’s success drew attention from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, every corner of the U.S., and just about every other Western liberal democracy. Everyone wanted to learn more about the Canadian brand of conservatism that had capped three successive electoral victories with the big 2011 majority.
The story of the Conservative Party of Canada’s success is actually fairly straightforward; Stephen Harper and his team won the election because they built a broad coalition and appealed to both native-born and new Canadians alike.
To understand their success one has to look no further than Canada’s largest city, Toronto. The casual observer of Canadian political culture could be forgiven for assuming Toronto is a bastion of limousine liberals and social justice warriors. Its flagship newspaper is the Toronto Star, known in conservative circles as the ‘Red Star,’ and its left-wing intelligentsia includes prominent politicians such as Olivia Chow, Bob Rae, and Kathleen Wynne, and activists and journalists like Naomi Klein, Avi Lewis, and Linda McQuig.
Yet in the 2011 election the Conservative party won ridings in every corner of Toronto proper, not to mention the vast GTA. suburbs of Thornhill, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, plus all the ridings west of Mississauga, everything east of Pickering, and all the seats north of Markham. In total, the CPC captured 24 of the 25 seats in the 905 – the area code used in the suburbs and as shorthand to describe the region. The 905 is one of the most multicultural regions in one of the most multicultural countries in the world, and polls suggest that the Conservatives captured 42 percent of the ethnic vote across the country in 2011 election, representing significant gains over previous years.
Tory-onto, On-Tory-o. Upper Canada was painted Tory Blue. Harper’s decisive victory in Canada’s largest metropolis was a microcosm of his party’s electoral success across the country. At a time when centre-right parties all over the world were losing votes in urban regions, the Harper Conservatives managed to buck the trend.
How did they do it? The party primarily appealed to the economic sensibilities of middle class voters – championing lower taxes and cutting red tape, promoting entrepreneurship and skills training, and encouraging savings and more economic freedom. They also won favour by promoting family values, religious freedom, safe communities, and delivering policies that empower individuals and parents over unions and bureaucrats.
These types of policies appealed to the values held by traditionally conservative Canadians across the country. They also just happened to be the same values held by many new Canadians living in Toronto and other big Canadian cities. After all, many newcomers fled big, overreaching, and sometimes oppressive government in their home countries in pursuit of Canadian freedoms and opportunities.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. Many in the US make the same argument: that Hispanic and Chinese immigrants possess values that align with the Republican Party, and yet, those two groups overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Having similar values isn’t enough. Conservatives need a method and a strategy to demonstrate the shared values and make sure immigrants feel welcome in their party.
Canada’s Conservative shift
In their much-lauded book The Big Shift, pollster Darrell Bricker and Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson recount the 2011 election and argue that Canada has changed profoundly over the past few decades. The elites in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto who dominated Canada’s political culture for more than century – referred to in the Big Shift as the “Laurentian consensus” – had lost touch with the values and feelings of the rest of the country. These Laurentian elites see Canada as a frail and collectivist society, a Canada that frankly no longer exists.
Economic and political power has shifted westwards, away from the Laurentian elites and towards boomtowns like Saskatoon, Calgary, and Fort McMurray, which attracted opportunity-seeking migrants from across the country and around the world. To these energetic, ambitious “strivers”, the old 20th century Canadian welfare state was a relic of an era whose time had passed.
They have been relentlessly courted in Conservative messaging as people “who work hard to get ahead” and “look after their families” and “play by the rules” and succeed “because of what they do, not who they know or where they came from.” It’s a message that resonates particularly with new immigrants. And each decade Canada welcomes enough immigrants to create a new Toronto-sized city. In fact, if all the Canadians of South Asian descent gathered together, they would form the third largest city in the country.
Canada is increasingly a country of the suburban middle class; folks who care more about low taxes and economic opportunities than solving every real or imagined social problem through ever-bigger government. This long-established Western Canadian sentiment struck a chord in Toronto’s suburbs, where large numbers of new Canadians have settled down in search of affordable communities and good job prospects.
The Harper Conservatives were not responsible for this shift; they were merely the first to recognize and then capitalize on it, capturing the imagination – and then the votes – of millions of new Canadians.
As far back as the early 1990s, Jason Kenney and Stephen Harper had discussed Canada’s shifting demographics and the need to build a coalition between small “c” conservatives in Western Canada and new Canadians living in the suburbs of Canada’s cities. The mission was twofold. First, they needed to reach out to new Canadians and convince them the Conservatives party does, in fact, represent their values and interests.
Kenney led this outreach effort; he worked tirelessly and across the country to understand, engage, and attract ethnic communities to the Conservative Party, and made important symbolic gestures to demonstrate how conservatives embrace pluralism and diversity.
These efforts first started to pay off in the 2006 election victory. Once in power, Prime Minister Harper began sending out greetings and news releases to highlight different cultural holidays. The new government officially recognized historic wrongs such as the Chinese head tax, and provided compensation for those affected. They were among the first in the world to provide official recognition of the Armenian and Ukrainian genocides, incredibly important gestures to members of those communities. The government also granted honorary Canadian citizenship to human rights champions and freedom fighters in contentious regions such as Burma, Tibet, and South Africa. And they won support among Jewish voters by calling out anti-Semitism in all its guises and unfailingly backing Israel’s right to self-defence.
These actions went a long way in demonstrating that the Conservatives were serious not only about welcoming newcomers into their party, but also shared their convictions about freedom and justice.
The Conservative party spent millions on reaching out and winning over new Canadians and ethnic cultural communities. It advertised heavily in Punjabi and Mandarin language media leading up to the 2011 election, and also translated the message into Polish, Filipino, Cantonese, Hindi, Ukrainian and Vietnamese. Invariably, the objective was to highlight the links between the community’s values and core Canadian and Conservative values.
The second part of the strategy was to change the culture of the Conservative party itself. This included purging the party of racists and outspoken critics of immigration and vetting would-be candidates to ensure they held a pro-immigration vision for Canada. It also involved developing new immigration policy cleansed of any hint that Conservatives viewed newcomers as a threat to Canada or its social assistance programs.
The Harper government had its work cut out for it; immigration reforms were needed to reduce the decade-long backlog of applications and clamp down on a lax process that allowed bogus asylum claimants to stay for years, sometimes decades, as they moved through repeated appeals. There were setbacks, including controversies over the Temporary Foreign Workers program and litigation over limits to some entitlements for non-citizens. But by emphasizing that immigration must serve Canada’s economic objectives above all else – to address labour shortages and fuel economic growth – the sweeping reforms brought in by the Conservatives during the last several years have been widely embraced by both native-born and new Canadians.
The rise of cultural pluralism
Alongside immigration reforms, the Harper government has also subtly but substantially re-shaped “official multiculturalism” as it was championed for decades by Liberal administrations. Unlike the failed multiculturalism of Europe – a hands-off approach that tiptoes around intolerance and tells newcomers they needn’t change a thing; they can bring their own norms and laws to often supersede local customs – Canadian “pluralism” as practiced by the Harper government focuses on integration. The immigration system accordingly favours immigrants who will likely succeed in Canada, in terms of language skills, economic prospects, and compatibility, while also ensuring religious rights and freedoms are protected. In short, immigrants who will say yes to both the Magna Carta and Masala Chai.
A perfect example of the shift from multiculturalism to cultural pluralism is the revised Citizenship Guide for newcomers to Canada. The original guide was an ode to the Laurentian vision of Canada; it included multiple pages on the CBC and the importance of recycling, but never once mentioned Canada’s military. The Harper government, led by former Immigration minister Kenney, revamped the guide to include and celebrate Canadian history – including its military history – and to emphasize traditional community and family values. The guide doesn’t mince words; it unequivocally denounces ethnocultural practices such as female genital mutilation as “barbaric”, and stresses the need to abide by Canadian laws.
Canadian immigration policy under the Conservative government unexpectedly vaulted to the forefront of the current federal election campaign with the publication of a photograph of a dead Syrian boy washed up on a Mediterranean beach. The picture symbolized the tidal wave of refugees from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere that is crashing on Europe’s shores.
Initial reports suggesting the boy was part of a family that had applied for asylum in Canada turned out to be false, but that didn’t stop the opposition parties and some in the media from laying his death at the government’s doorstep. Despite facing enormous pressure to throw open the country’s doors to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, as was done for the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, as of this writing the Conservatives were sticking to their existing plan to take 10,000 over four years. Harper has repeatedly emphasized that a sustained international military effort to quell terrorism and civil war in Syria must be part of the solution to the refugee crisis.
Ironically, before the emotionally-charged picture surfaced, the Conservatives had been working hard to make foreign policy a prominent election issue, but with little success. Their objective had been to highlight the split between the government’s support for a strong military response to various global security challenges including ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the relatively pacifist, non-interventionist positions of the Liberals and New Democrats.
After the picture broke, the Conservatives found themselves cast as warmongers, unsympathetic to the refugees. In the heat of the campaign, no one recalled that in the last session of Parliament, minister Kenney alone expressed concern over the plight of Syrian Kurdish, Yazidi, and Assyrian populations more times than all the opposition leaders combined.
On the same day the opposition politicians were attacking the Conservative government for being insensitive to needs of refugees, Kenney appeared at an event with hundreds of smiling Iraqi families in Toronto – some of the 22,000 Iraqi refugees the Harper government has brought to Canada since 2009. There are obviously not enough eligible voters within this group to materially affect the outcome of the election. But they are representative of a much larger newcomer constituency across Canada that sees the Conservative party as the party of pro-immigration, integration, and inclusion.
This is truly a Canadian anomaly. In Europe, a chorus of politicians – mostly on the right but also on the left – have declared multiculturalism a failed policy; many blame immigrants for the political and economic woes of their countries. In Germany, a recent string of arson attacks against housing projects designated for asylum seekers is just the most recent example of what happens when a host society revolts against its government’s immigration policies. Around the world, conservative politicians are feeding this frenzy by demonizing immigrants.
Perhaps the worst example is just south of the border. The only thing more surprising than Donald Trump’s recent incendiary comments about Mexico — he characterized Mexicans as rapists and criminals — is that he actually leads the polls as the preferred Republican candidate for president in 2016. Though few consider him a credible contender, there is no doubt he resonates with conservative voters. Rather than learning from Canadian Conservative model of pluralism and openness, it seems the American right is following Europe down the path of social exclusion.
Meanwhile, in Canada, all parties are competing to appeal to new Canadians and ethnic communities. But their pitches are very different. While the Liberals and New Democrats are offering to throw open the doors to the current wave of refugees and promising them a conventional no-strings-attached multicultural welcome, the Conservatives are being more circumspect about refugee numbers and insistent on ensuring the integrity of Canada’s security.
It used to be said that no political party could achieve a majority government in Canada without a strong base in Quebec. As the Harper Conservatives demonstrated in the last election, this is no longer true. The political and economic heart of the country has shifted. It now belongs in the 905, the prairies, and in Greater Vancouver. With 30 new electoral districts added mostly to these regions for the 2015 election, it’s now more accurate to say that no political party can win a national majority without winning seats in Brampton and Burnaby; Richmond and Richmond Hill; and Surrey and Scarborough. In many of those ridings, the outcome will be determined by the votes of new Canadians, and the Conservatives will learn if the work they’ve done to build support in ethnic communities over the last decade has won them another election.
Candice Malcolm is an International Fellow with the D.C.-based Center for a Secure Free Society and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. She is the author of the book Generation Screwed and writes a column twice a week in the Sun newspapers.