Former B.C. NDP premier slams ethnic debate: 'nauseating'

VICTORIA – Former New Democrat premier Ujjal Dosanjh says the ethnic vote-winning debate that has hammered British Columbia’s Liberals and forced them to issue numerous apologies is nauseating, sanctimonious and holier-than-thou.

Dosanjh said Friday all political parties engage in what he calls pandering to ethnic voters and that pandering gets especially rich as election dates approach.

Others agree, suggesting the leaked Liberal strategy from last year — which surfaced last week, less than three months before the May 14 B.C. election — mirrors the goals of other political parties. It’s similar to federal Conservative Party strategies and compliments the prowess of the B.C. New Democrats in maintaining ethnic voter support, observers say.

Dosanjh, a former federal Liberal cabinet minister, said the only real problem with the leaked B.C. Liberal ethnic strategy is its calls to co-ordinate operations between taxpayer-funded government workers and B.C. Liberal Party operatives when it comes to courting ethnic voters.

Otherwise, Dosanjh said the scandal that has forced Clark’s former deputy chief of staff and her multiculturalism minister to resign and prompted an internal review is much ado about nothing.

“Other than the fact they mixed political work with government money, this is absolutely what all political parties do,” he said.

“They pander to groups: business groups, union groups, ethnic groups. There is no one in this business that is pure, so I find this holier-than-thou nonsense nauseating.”

In 1999, Dosanjh, known for his strong views in B.C.’s politically active Sikh community, became Canada’s first Indo-Canadian politician to lead a political party when he succeeded former NDP premier Glen Clark.

He said Premier Christy Clark has intensified the debate around the strategy with her multiple apologies to ethnic communities.

“It’s become a bit of a joke and I just believe Premier Clark made a mistake in taking it as seriously as she has,” said Dosanjh.

“She has given it more legs than it deserves. No emperor has any clothes in this business.”

Dosanjh said he completely opposes political parties issuing apologies to multicultural groups for historical injustices, calling them phoney.

The Liberal documents leaked by the NDP highlight “quick wins” that can be gained by governments who identify and correct historic wrongs, noting the political capital the Liberals gained in 2008 with the Indo-Canadian community by issuing a formal apology for the Komagata Maru incident.

In 1914, Canada denied entry to a ship carrying almost 380 passengers from India. The shipped docked at Vancouver’s harbour for two months before returning to India with most of the passengers, of which 22 died during a riot.

Clark’s Liberals say they are working on plans to issue an apology for the Chinese head tax that forced Chinese immigrants to pay a fee to enter Canada.

“That is not to say injustices have not been done,” said Dosanjh. “But we should redress those injustices by bringing about real equality (rather) than these phoney apologies.”

Dosanjh even apologized for what he now says was a historic apology mistake he made when he introduced a motion in the B.C. legislature in the early 1990s calling on former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives to issue a Chinese head tax apology.

“I believe (now) it was the wrong thing to do,” he said.

University of Victoria political scientist James Lawson said he sees several good initiatives in the leaked documents, but is concerned the document doesn’t fully weigh the profoundly personal issues surrounding apologies for historic wrongs.

“Authentic relationships have to be a pre-condition for the moves to be acceptable,” said Lawson. “It would be hard to come up with an area where that’s more at a premium than apologies for historic wrongs.”

He said the leaked document is on target in calling for the Liberals to ensure the ethnic media are included whenever the government calls a news conference or pursues initiatives.

And Lawson said the document is solid in its call for more people who can deliver the government’s message to ethnic communities in their own language.

“Some of those initiatives in that document sound like smart things to do,” he said.

Lawson said he also senses the Liberal government’s previous pre-occupation with beating back the threat from the B.C. Conservatives in the document.

The documents were published in January 2012, about the same time the Liberals were openly courting Conservative Party members and preparing to run in two spring byelections, which they lost to the NDP.

Lawson said the strategy also appears aimed at achieving the recent breakthroughs the federal Conservatives have made with ethnic voters. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former aide, Ken Boessenkool, was serving as Clark’s chief of staff at this time last year, although his name has not surfaced on any published material.

“What we’re looking at here is a party that perceives the federal Conservatives offer them something to learn from,” he said.

Lawson said it’s clear from the document the Liberals believed they were behind the NDP on the ethnic voter file.

“Party spokespersons who speak target languages are urgently needed,” said the document. “Using the Chinese-Canadian community, we suffer from the lack of a Gabriel Yiu-type figure who can be deployed rapidly and speak knowledgeably on the issues of the day.”

Yiu has twice run unsuccessfully for the NDP. Last week , the Liberals tried to embroil Yiu, a civil servant, in the scandal, but the NDP said he twice took unpaid leaves of absences from his government job to run in elections.

Earlier this week from Berlin, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney described the Conservative approach towards voters in ethnic communities.

“I believe the majority of new Canadians are natural conservatives who have a profound work ethic, are often very entrepreneurial … with a strong support for principled democratic foreign policy.

“These are the kinds of values that I think our party at its best represents so that’s been the core of our approach and I would encourage any other party to take a similar approach which is to be clear about what your values are and encourage people to vote on that basis,” said Kenney.

In March 2011, one of Kenney’s chief aides resigned hours after the revelation he had used Kenney’s official House of Commons letterhead to solicit money from fellow MPs for a campaign to woo ethnic voters to the Conservatives.