Courting our ethnic friends

Paul Wells on how the political fight for support from new Canadians is as old as the country

The title of this blog post is the title of a chapter in a curious book by C.P. Champion, published last fall, called The Strange Demise of British Canada: The Liberals and Canadian Nationalism 1964-1968. I’ve been meaning to write about this book since I saw it. Now, in an election when the votes of immigrants and ethnic minorities are one battleground, is as good as any time.

Chris Champion is a senior advisor to Jason Kenney. His book is a complex argument about the Pearson Liberals’ relationship to the British component of Canada’s heritage. I won’t try to sum it up here. But what’s interesting is the chapter where he traces an earlier attempt by one political party to break into ethnic communities another party had considered a captive market.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Champion writes, the party with the greatest success among new Canadians was the Conservatives, and it was the Liberals who needed to catch up. 

Champion goes on to recount, in fascinating detail, the story of a young Liberal organizer in the 1960s, Andrew Thompson. In 1961 he was 37 and an Ontario MPP for Dovercourt. He “packed his suitcase and moved in for a month with a family of Toronto immigrants,” Champion writes, ‘to discover ‘how the Italians live.'” It was not, Champion says, Thompson’s first foray into courting the non-British vote in English Canada.

“Three weeks before the 1953 [federal] election… Thompson raised the alarm that the ‘ethnic vote’ was shifting toward the Progressive Conservatives under George Drew. The Tories, Thompson warned, had seized control of the ethnic press.” When the Liberals lost 22 seats that year, “Thompson believed that ethnic voting had influenced the outcome.”

Champion finds a lot about Thompson in Jack Pickersgill’s memoirs. Pickersgill was the Liberal immigration minister in the 1950s. A branch of that department, the Canadian Citizenship Branch, was designed to “encourage” newcomers to “take their place as citizens of their new country,” Pickersgill wrote. Thompson, as a Liberal party operative, “worked closely” with ethnic organizations through this Canadian Citizenship Branch. Soon enough, in 1967, Thompson was appointed to the Senate by Lester Pearson.

That’s why Thompson’s name may sound familiar. More than a decade ago his failing health led him to take long vacations in Mexico for treatment. The Ottawa Citizen reported he was still drawing a senator’s salary while not even doing a senator’s work, and soon the Reform party was hiring a mariachi band to play on Parliament Hill to mock him. He eventually left the Senate. But even the most washed-up among us has a past, and Andy Thompson was the guy who built the Liberals into an electoral powerhouse among immigrant Canadians.

By the late 1950s he had his work cut out for him. “The Diefenbaker slogans ‘One Canada’ and ‘unhyphenated Canadianism,’ the Conservative rhetoric of equality and anti-discrimination, and the promise to enact the country’s first Bill of Rights, appealed to many members of ethnic communities,” Champion writes. “Conservatives also turned the tables by portraying the Liberals as the Anglo-Saxon party, an elitist organization that discriminated against ethnic groups and preferred to recruit candidates of British descent.”

Thompson set to work. “It was a long and painstaking courtship. Lists were compiled of ethnic contacts, organizations, churches, editors, newspapers, and radio stations that should be cultivated. Thompson wrote briefings on ‘annual ethnic ceremonies’ and events that Liberals should mention in speeches and, if possible, attend in person.” News organizations were identified by their allegiance to Liberals or other parties; “the Czech Novy Domov ‘seems to have gone CCF;’ Vilne Slovo was Tory, ‘controlled by Mr. Boyko.’… Thompson attended the studio opening of a CBC television program on ethnic music, and actually took the phone numbers of musicians who could provide ‘entertainment at Liberal functions.’ Clearly, he was working every angle to make new friends.”

There’s a lot more. Soon Thompson’s leader has started to pick up on these techniques. “When Pearson, campaigning as opposition leader in 1963, repeated his wish to bring in what he called a ‘distinctive Canadian flag,’ he made the anouncement in Winnipeg to a group of ethnic newspaper editors, at an event that went unnoticed by local newspapers.” And so on.

When I asked Kenney about Champion’s book several months ago, he said Champion did not have responsibility for ethnic outreach in Kenney’s office and that, while Champion had shared his research with Kenney, none of what Andy Thompson did 45 years ago served as a direct model for what Kenney is doing today. Times have changed, anyway, Kenney told me: in Thompson’s day, the immigrant vote was largely Central and Southern European. Now it’s far more diverse. The media landscape and the electoral maps have changed too.

The value of Champion’s book, or at least of these passages, is that it shows that the political fight for support from new Canadians is as old as the country; that Liberals have not always been the big winners in that fight; and that advantage is almost always fought for, not merely bestowed by the electoral gods, in this arena or any other.

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