Indo-Canadians tend to vote Liberal. But will they continue to do so?

Interesting discussion of the generational differences:

For nearly two weeks, pundits have scoured pre-election surveys and post-election exit polls to analyze the voting patterns of Canadians in granular detail. So it’s surprising that scant attention has been paid to how Canada’s burgeoning immigrant communities voted.

Among immigrant groups, Canada’s large and rapidly growing Indo-Canadian population deserves particular consideration. According to the 2016 census, there are nearly 1.4 million people of Indian origin residing in Canada, accounting for four per cent of the population. Those numbers have grown dramatically since then; today, Indians represent the largest group of new immigrants in the country. In 2019 alone, more than 80,000 Indians made their way to Canada from India — one-quarter of all immigrants arriving that year.

For years, the Indian community in Canada — much like other ethnic minorities — has been perceived as a strong votary of the Liberal party. But the community’s rising socio-economic profile and young demographic skew, combined with the emergence of the Indo-Canadian NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, have raised questions about its political leanings.

On the eve of the election, we collaborated with YouGov on a nationally representative survey of Indo-Canadians. Our survey of 724 citizens of Indian origin suggests that the Indo-Canadian community continues, in large measure, to support the Liberals, with 38 per cent of respondents indicating their support of the party — twice the number that planned to vote Conservative. One in five (21 per cent) backed the NDP.

Remarkably, this breakdown is nearly identical to the distribution of Indo-Canadian votes in both 2015 and 2019, according to our analysis of the Canadian Election Study. How do we explain the voting habits of Indo-Canadians?

For starters, on a standard left-right ideological spectrum, Indo-Canadians strongly skew left. Nearly three in four Indo-Canadians self-identify on the liberal half of the scale. When it comes to the issues topping their agenda this election season, respondents identify the same bread-and-butter issues that weigh on most Canadians’ minds: health care and COVID-19, the cost of living, the state of the economy. 

If the Indian diaspora exhibits a leftward tilt, why don’t more of them vote for the NDP? Indeed, for many Indo-Canadians, Singh’s allure is undeniable. Nearly half of respondents reported that Singh’s leadership of the NDP makes them more enthusiastic about the party, in large part due to his Indian and/or Sikh roots. Furthermore, when asked to rate their views of Canadian political leaders on a sliding scale from 0-100, Justin Trudeau and Singh are virtually deadlocked — Singh earns an average rating of 67, with Trudeau at 65 and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole lagging at 49.

However, Singh is handicapped by the one impediment that has arguably prevented many Canadians from voting NDP: the party is perceived to have little shot at forming the government. One in four Indians say the primary reason they do not vote NDP is because they do not want to waste their vote. 

On the other end of the spectrum, when asked why they do not identify with the Conservatives, survey respondents reported that the party is too influenced by big business and seeks to cut public services. On everyday economic issues, Conservatives appear out of step with the left-of-centre policies Indo-Canadians favour. Misaligned policies on the right and limited electability on the left seem to funnel Indo-Canadian voters to the Liberal camp. 

The seeming stability of the votes of the Indo-Canadian community, however, elides deeper changes underway. While older voters (above 30) favour the Liberals over the NDP by a two-to-one margin, younger Indo-Canadians split their vote almost evenly between the two. The divide between first-generation Indo-Canadians (who came as immigrants) and second-generation citizens (born and raised in Canada) is starker. While half of naturalized citizens support the Liberal party, just one in three born in the country do so. The NDP is the principal beneficiary of this shift: the party’s vote share among second-generation Canadians is twice as large as among their first-generation counterparts. Indeed, country of birth is the single most important predictor of whether Indo-Canadians are likely to vote Liberal, even after controlling for age, education, gender and religion. 

The relative absence of a religious divide is worth emphasizing, as it stands in contrast with the voting attitudes of Indians in another large, English-speaking country — the United Kingdom. There, Hindus have abandoned the left-of-centre Labour Party in droves and embraced the Conservatives, which has given British Indians prominent cabinet berths and adopted pro-India policies. In Canada, partisan polarization on religious lines is not so evident in the Indian community. But differing views over how Canada should engage with India’s government and concerns that the Liberal party favours Sikhs over the Indo-Canadian community at large could trigger a realignment.

Looking forward, the voting behaviour of the community will be shaped by two competing demographic trends. As the size of the diaspora increases, so will the number of young, Canadian-born Indians who are eligible to vote — increasing popular support for the NDP. At the same time, the sharp increase in recent Indian immigration will boost the numbers of naturalized citizens, who are more likely to support the Liberal party. The net effect of these trends, and how the Conservatives respond, will determine if the stability in the voting preferences of the Indo-Canadian community continues.

Caroline Duckworth and Milan Vaishnav are with the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Devesh Kapur is Starr Foundation Professor of South Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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