‘Conservatives are losing traction in ethnic communities:’ Will their leadership race make it even worse?

Likely premature call.

As we know, voters in the 905 have flipped between Conservatives and Liberals, and Doug Ford won most of these ridings in 2018 and 2022.

And during the recent leadership debates, there was remarkable consensus in favour of immigration and no opposition to the current government’s ongoing increase in immigration levels:

Cyma Musarat still remembers being accused of having lost her mind when she ran for the federal Conservatives in 2019.

As a Muslim woman, she was asked time and time again how she could cast her lot with a party that promoted policies condemned as racist.

In her riding of Pickering-Uxbridge, it was a particularly sensitive topic — during the 2015 election campaign, the Tories held an event in a pocket of the riding where they promised a so-called “barbaric cultural practices” tip line for people to report on their neighbours.

The tip line proposal and support for a ban on face coverings during citizenship ceremonies were seen as key contributors to the party’s defeat in the election.

And not just that year.

The policies effectively bombed the bridges the party had built with ethnic communities, and the issues surfaced in the 2019 and 2021 campaigns as the Tories failed to make the gains in urban centres.

What it will take for the Tories to win the next election is the question at the heart of the party’s current leadership race.

But how ethnic communities factor into the equation is a point of contention, and an issue not being debated enough, some say.

So far, the race has not seen debate over social issues like systemic racism or inequality, or even how the party can and must embrace equity and inclusion internally, said long time political activist Sukhi Sandu, who backed the Tories in the last federal campaign.

“The Conservatives are losing traction in ethnic communities, and they seem not to understand the issues that pertain to those racialized groups,” Sandu said in an interview from Boston, where he’s working towards a master’s degree in diversity, equity and inclusion.

Musarat believes the party must first acknowledge these issues exist, then move beyond a process of just checking off boxes.

For her, that’s why Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown’s leadership bid is so appealing.

“He openly says that Islamophobia exists,” she said. “That’s where the journey starts. That’s where the change will start: acknowledge the problem. Once you’ve acknowledged it, and then you find a solution to fix it.”

Brown built his leadership bid on his outspoken opposition to Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans people in positions of public authority in that province from wearing religious symbols, like turbans or hijabs, at their workplaces.

He went on to promise a multi-faith, multicultural coalition that would restore trust between the Tories and ethnic communities.

While signing up what his campaign says are 150,000 new party members, Brown has made specific promises to different ethnic groups.

In turn, he has been accused of playing diaspora politics — an accusation his backers say is proof most candidates aren’t willing to do the hard work of sitting down with voters to listen to their specific concerns and address them.

“People have this misconception that someone stands up at the front door on stage and says, ‘We’re all gonna support Patrick,’ and, you know, 50,000 people sign up for the man,” said Jaskaran Sandu, a volunteer on the Brown campaign.

“That’s not how it works. It’s painstaking, person-to-person relationship building that only works if there is sincerity and a track record.”

Brown has also been unsparing in his attacks on rival Pierre Poilievre, challenging the Conservative MP for remaining silent when the Tory government introduced the niqab ban and proposed the tip line.

Poilievre’s campaign co-chair Tim Uppal has apologized for not personally pushing back against those policies when he was an MP — and minister of state of multiculturalism.

Uppal said he had no concerns that the candidates’ positions on tackling racism aren’t getting a broad airing on the campaign trail. An issue like that only gets debated if there’s a flashpoint which prompts it, he said.

He said while Brown is recruiting in diverse communities, so too is Poilievre, citing a recent speech to a packed mosque, among others.

“What I’ve talked to people a lot about is that they’re being included because of issues that are important to them, which is taxes and other issues that affect all Canadians,” he said.

Leslyn Lewis, a Black woman making her second run for the Conservative leadership, did not respond to questions from the Star about how she views the future of the party’s relationship with ethnic communities.

Vonny Sweetland is working on Jean Charest’s leadership bid, a decision based on the depth of the former Quebec premier’s experience — and his willingness to bring people like Sweetland onto his team.

The leader sets the tone, said Sweetland, who is Black, and Charest’s is inclusive and progressive.

But both Sweetland and Sandhu said they have concerns about what will happen to the party if the populist elements that appear to be playing a major role in this race ultimately triumph.

Sandhu pointed to the tension between members recruited with a promise the Conservatives will embrace diversity and those brought in over concerns about global institutions like the World Economic Forum, around which conspiracy theories with racist undertones persist.

“Why do you expect us to be involved or continue if that’s the type of rhetoric that’s going to be included back into the party?” he said of those recruited by Brown.

“That doesn’t actually solve the issue — it goes back to the basis of the problem, which is that the Conservative party is not ready to look in the mirror and evolve and realize why it falls short in places like the 905.”

Sweetland said while he’s planning to give the new leader is some runaway, whoever it is, there is anxiety among other Black conservatives.

“I’ve seen, people, particularly people of colour, feel that this is not only a leadership race — and I’m sure you’ve heard this quote, it’s not mine, but I agree with it — that this is the battle for the soul of our party,” he said.

“And many people of colour feel that way.”

Source: ‘Conservatives are losing traction in ethnic communities:’ Will their leadership race make it even worse?

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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