Harper's first stop in suburban, heavily ethnic territory [UPDATED from his second]

The biggest ovation Stephen Harper earned at his rally in Brampton, Ont. this morning didn’t come when he issued one of his grim warnings about the supposed inevitability of a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition seizing power if he doesn’t win Conservative majority.

No, the crowd drawn from the suburbs of Toronto’s western sprawl reacted with its most spontaneous-sounding applause, to my ear at least, when Harper said rather soberly that “Canada is the closest thing the world has to an island of security and stability.”

And this reaction flowed from a crowd of Tories that included a large contingent of Sikhs, a key component of the “very ethnic” voting demographic targeted, above all, by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. (Kenney was, not coincidentally, on hand to introduce the Prime Minister.)

The response of immigrants in particular to the evoking of Canada’s privileged safe-harbour status is hardly surprising. What’s crucial here is Harper’s apparent success in building his brand around “stability and security,” especially in the eyes of voters who come from places where those are scarce commodities. Hence the cheering.

Liberals traditionally won support from ethnic communities by touting their openness to immigration, their embrace of multiculturalism, and their willingness to deliver social programs that newcomers tend to value highly during their early struggles to get established in a new country.

The party’s success in selling that package, though, has taken a beating in the past three elections.  According to a fascinating academic dissection of the 2008 election, by five professors working on the Canadian Election Study, the historic preference of visible minority voters for the Liberals has already been mostly eradicated.

According to the paper, called “The Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat”: “The [Liberals’] visible minority vote dropped 14 points between 2000 and 2004. The main beneficiary was the NDP. The Liberals did not lose any further ground in 2006, but in 2008, they lost a massive 19 points. And now it was the Conservatives who benefited. In fact, minority voters were almost as likely to vote Conservative in 2008 as they were to vote Liberal.”

Still, achieving national parity with the Liberals on ethnic votes was not sufficient for the Tories to win many seats in key Liberal strongholds, especially in and around Toronto. So Harper needs more, and Ignatieff needs to deny him.

Today’s rally was Harper’s first foray of this campaign into that hotly contested territory. (Expect plenty more before the May 2 election.) The stakes are high. Brampton is part of Peel Region, where of eight ridings the Tories now hold only one, MP Bob Dechert’s Mississauga-Erindale.

Among the seats they didn’t win last time, two strike me as particularly interesting to watch. In Brampton-Springdale, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla faces a stiff challenge, for the second time, from Conservative candidate Parm Gill. Today, the Liberals alleged that Kenney gave Gill influence over handing out special visas in India—using his departmental power for partisan ends, in this case, to burnish a Tory hopeful’s image with his core constituency.

A far tougher challenge for the Tories will be trying to grab Mississauga-Brampton South from Navdeep Bains, one of the country’s most prominent elected Sikh politicians. The Conservatives have nominated a veteran Mississauga city councilor, Eve Adams, to take a run at Bains. If she even comes close, the Liberals are in trouble.


In his second rally of the day, just outside Vancouver in Burnaby, B.C., the Prime Minister knitted his campaign themes even more tightly with his party’s sustained pitch to new Canadians. Here’s how Harper connected his warning about the alleged coalition-in-waiting and his appeal to the sensibility of immigrants in particular:

“People like you, people who live in Burnaby, people who have come to this country from all over the world, all the different origins in the world, they’ve all come here because they believe in Canada. And they don’t want Members of Parliament who are going to sign on to Mr. Ignatieff’s reckless idea that he can lose an election and then run Canada backed by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.”

This lines, delivered at a Japanese-Canadian community centre, but with several other Asian communities well represented in the crowd, suggested that rejecting the Liberals and NDP amounts to a patriotic duty to newcomers. Incidentally, the community centre is in the NDP-held Burnaby-New Westminster riding, and close by Burnaby-Douglas, another NDP seat.

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