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Electoral Insight – Electoral Participation of Ethnocultural Communities

Electoral Insight – December 2006

The "Roots" of Immigrant and Ethnic Voter Participation in Canada

Jack Jedwab
Executive Director, Association for Canadian Studies

It is widely held that voter turnout among immigrants is lower than among the Canadian-born electorate. But this view fails to account sufficiently for the diverse pattern of voter participation among Canada's many ethnocultural and ethno-racial groups. For example, there are differences between some communities of European and non-European origins in self-reported levels of voter participation. The extent to which ethnic attachment influences participation is more the object of speculation than empirical testing. Relatively few data sets have permitted such analysis. The Ethnic Diversity Survey of Statistics Canada provides useful insights in this area. The data reveal that people who settled in Canada between 1991 and 2001 were far less likely to report they voted than those arriving before 1991. Yet they also show that rates of voter participation are higher among foreign-born than Canadian-born members of visible minorities. Such results raise questions about the extent to which "rootedness" increases voter participation. More survey respondents with strong ethnic identities reported they voted in federal elections than those with weaker identification. Therefore, such attachment does not appear to undercut participation. This essay suggests the need to rethink certain notions about the relationship between ethnicity and voter participation.

photo of voters at the polling station

Canada's foreign-born population is largely comprised of persons whose ethnic origins are neither British nor French. As it is widely held that immigrants are less inclined to vote than non-immigrants, minority ethnic communities have become the objects of increasing attention among those concerned with declining voter turnout in democratic countries. And since nearly one in five Canadians is foreign-born, it is not surprising that there is considerable interest here in voter participation among immigrants and ethnic communities.

Those who use the non-immigrant/immigrant dichotomy to explain differences in voter participation sometimes pay insufficient attention to the diverse ethnocultural and ethno-racial backgrounds of foreign-born Canadians. In fact, it is not apparent that immigrants vote less than non-immigrants. But certain ethnic groups are more likely to vote than others, and frequently the difference is associated with how recently the immigration of a given community occurred. With some exceptions, there are differences in self-reported levels of voter participation between communities of European and non-European origin. Even so, in several non-European groups, self-reported rates of voter participation are higher among foreign-born than Canadian-born members.

Employing data from Statistics Canada's 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey, we examine reported differences in federal voter participation for several European and non-European groups. Findings for Canadians of non-European origins are most effectively analyzed by using data on visible minorities. (Statistics Canada defines visible minorities as persons who are identified under the Employment Equity Act as being non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.)

photo of voters at the polling station

To further understand the immigrant/non-immigrant electoral dichotomy, we analyze self-reported voter participation among immigrant and non-immigrant members of visible minorities. Analysts of voter turnout have established strong correlations between age and participation rates, and some insight will be provided into whether ethnic identification also plays a role.

Many Canadians believe that voter choices are frequently connected with ethnic identification. A January 2006 survey conducted by Ipsos Canada found that some three in four Canadians agree that "members of certain ethnic minorities in Canada tend to vote as a bloc for specific parties or candidates." Footnote 1 On the other hand, in the same survey two thirds disagreed that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who shared their ethnic or religious background. It is worth noting that immigrant and non-immigrant respondents, visible minorities and others were equally unlikely to vote for a candidate on that basis.

Literature on ethnicity and voter turnout

It remains unclear to what extent ethnic attachments encourage minority voters to participate in elections.

Finding a relationship between ethnicity and participation in voting is complicated by the multi-dimensional definition of ethnic identity, which includes factors such as origin, ancestry, language and religion.

How ethnic attachments influence such participation has more often been the object of speculation than empirical testing. In effect, to date relatively few data sets permit us to causally relate the complex expression of ethnic identity to aspects of democratic participation. Analysis of the relationship between ethnicity and voting is further rendered complex by the multi-dimensional definition of ethnic identity, which includes elements such as origin, ancestry, identity, language and religion.

In studying the participation rates of ethnic groups, Black measured the relative impact of ethnicity and place of birth on voter turnout. Controlling for socio-economic status, age, political attitudes and organizational involvement, he found that only the West Indian respondents (all of whom were foreign-born) vote significantly less than the reference group – Canadian-born British. Footnote 2 According to Black, it is interesting to note that controlling for length of residence in Canada weakens, but does not eliminate, the West Indian vote differential.

Lapp, on the other hand, stresses that both the Canadian-born and foreign-born populations possess a diverse ethnocultural makeup. Footnote 3 In her study of Montréal's ethnic communities, Lapp notes that voter turnout in some ethnic groups is higher than the provincial average. She suggests that this is the case for the Greek community, though not for Montréal's Chinese and Jewish communities. In the case of the Italians and Portuguese, group rates of voter participation were on par with those of the broader population. Lapp points out that variations occur despite controls for citizenship, period of immigration and home language. In effect, turnout is not merely a function of length of time spent in Canada. Consequently, Lapp contends that immigrant adaptation is not always the best predictor of voter participation.

Often underlying the perceived immigrant/non-immigrant voter dichotomy is the question of identification with Canada. In this context, some assumptions may be made about the extent to which ethnic group attachments undercut participation in the electoral process. Electoral analyses that have focused on cultural integration suggest that newcomers are less knowledgeable about Canadian political norms and values than native-born Canadians. Footnote 4 The fact that immigrants come from different cultures also may differentially affect their political participation in Canada. They may encounter difficulty in transferring their political experiences in their countries of origin to the political process in Canada. Explanations of limited voter participation based on problems of cultural integration have come under increasing scrutiny. Contrary to findings on the role of knowledge in the formation of public opinion, Bilodeau and Nevitte contend that factual knowledge about the host environment plays no significant role in how immigrants develop trust in host political institutions. Immigrants who knew more about the host democratic environment did not exhibit higher or lower levels of confidence than those who knew little. Footnote 5

Lapp maintains that the level of interest in politics may be an important consideration in explaining rates of voter turnout. Montréal Chinese community leaders interviewed by Lapp said that it was difficult to convince people to vote due to their lack of interest in politics. On the other hand, Greek community leaders attributed disproportionately high turnout to strong interest in politics.

An Environics survey, conducted for the Association for Canadian Studies during July and August 2004, made an effort to determine the degree of interest in federal politics. The survey revealed that 73% of respondents felt that there was no change in their interest in politics in the aftermath of the 2004 federal election. However, among the other respondents, more said their interest increased (19%) than said that it declined (8%). The immigrants surveyed were far more likely on average to report rising interest in politics. This was particularly true for the non-European immigrants, with some 30% indicating growing interest in politics in the aftermath of the 2004 contest, 60% declaring no change and 10% reporting a decline in interest. Footnote 6

Immigrant concentration and voter turnout: Federal elections of 2004 and 2006

Results of the 2004 and 2006 federal elections reveal that ridings with high concentrations of immigrants had lower than average rates of voter participation. In 2001, nearly 90% of all immigrants resided in the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia – notably in the Toronto, Vancouver and Montréal areas. As shown in Table 1, the ridings with the largest percentage of immigrants are located in these metropolitan areas.

Table 1
Voter Turnout in the 2004 and 2006 Federal Elections for 15 Federal Ridings with the Largest Immigrant Populations
Location % of riding population born outside Canada Voter turnout in 2004 federal election Voter turnout in 2006 federal election
Canada overall 60.9 64.7
Scarborough–Rouge River 66.7 51.1 57.0
Scarborough–Agincourt 64.0 56.4 61.7
York West 61.2 48.5 57.9
Markham–Unionville 60.0 56.1 61.7
Don Valley East 59.6 59.4 63.8
Mississauga East–Cooksville 58.0 52.4 58.3
Vancouver South 57.7 55.8 56.4
Richmond 57.2 56.7 56.3
York Centre 57.0 56.8 61.1
Etobicoke North 55.8 51.0 59.0
Davenport 55.5 52.9 60.6
Vancouver Kingsway 55.0 58.0 58.7
Mississauga–Brampton South 53.6 53.8 60.0
York South–Weston 53.5 51.7 60.0
Saint-Laurent–Cartierville 46.9 54.3 55.3
Burnaby–New Westminster 46.0 59.0 60.1

Sources: Statistics Canada, Census of Canada, 2001; and Elections Canada, Official Voting Results, 2004 and 2006

While a poll-by-poll analysis would shed greater light on the degree to which immigrant groups participated in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections, the overall results suggest that ridings with higher numbers of immigrants have rates of voter turnout that are at least below the average in the rest of their respective provinces. The national participation rate in 2006 was 64.7% (in 2004, it was 60.9%); in the province of Ontario, federal voter turnout was 66.6% in 2006 (61.8% in 2004), in British Columbia, it was 63.7% in 2006 (63.3% in 2004) and in Quebec, it was 63.9% in 2006 (60.5% in 2004). Consistent with the overall increases in voter turnout between 2004 and 2006, Table 1 demonstrates that the 15 ridings with the largest numbers of immigrants generally followed the trend. Indeed, in several Ontario ridings with significant immigrant populations, the percentage increases in turnout for the 2006 federal election were greater than those for the province as a whole.

Canada's immigrant and ethnic groups: Reported rates of voter turnout

Members of the Filipino-Canadian community greet Queen Elizabeth II in Toronto, during her 2002 tour of Canada.

When surveyed, Canadians tend to collectively report higher rates of voter turnout than are shown by actual election outcomes. This is frequently attributed to the social desirability of indicating that one cast a ballot. Still, there is insight to be gained by looking at people's intentions, which provide an indication of the importance and value they attach to voting. Over 27,000 people describing themselves as eligible voters in the 2000 federal election took part in the 2002 Ethnic Diversity Survey (EDS). Footnote 7 Data from the EDS reveals that there is little difference in the extent to which eligible non-immigrants (78.8%) and immigrants (77.6%) reported voting in federal elections. However, the survey does show a substantial gap between self-reported federal voter participation on the part of immigrants who arrived before 1991 (83.4%) and those arriving between 1991 and 2001 (53%). Underlying these results are diverging patterns of reported participation between European and non-European immigrants. Table 2 reveals that immigrants born in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America report lower rates of voting in federal elections than the Canadian-born electorate. Immigrants born in European countries tend to report higher rates of such participation than the native-born group.

Table 2
Self-Reported Rates of Voter Participation for Selected Minorities in the 2000 Federal Election, by Place of Birth
Place of birth Voted Did not vote Total eligible voters surveyed Reported voter turnout %
Canada 21,290 5,738 27,028 78.8
Europe 3,067 519 3,586 87.6
Africa 267 69 336 79.4
United States 305 86 391 78.0
Central America, South America, Caribbean and Bermuda 607 220 827 73.3
Asia and the Middle East 1,713 722 2,435 70.4

Source: Ethnic Diversity Survey, Statistics Canada and Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002

Table 3 further illustrates the differences in self-reported voter turnout in the 2000 federal election between persons born in a number of European countries and those born in certain Asian countries. Those born in India are an exception to the difference between the European- and Asian-born populations.

Table 3
Self-Reported Rates of Voter Participation in the 2000 Federal Election, by Selected Place of Birth
Place of birth Voted Did not vote Total eligible voters surveyed Reported voter turnout %
Canada 21,290 5,738 27,028 78.8
Italy 470 34 504 94.0
Netherlands 210 14 224 93.7
United Kingdom 731 115 846 86.4
Germany 318 52 370 85.9
Poland 245 66 301 81.6
India 292 68 360 81.1
Portugal 194 49 243 79.8
United States 305 86 391 78.0
Philippines 220 71 291 75.6
People's Republic of China 263 110 373 70.5
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region 277 151 428 64.7

Source: Ethnic Diversity Survey, Statistics Canada and Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002

The differences shown above are reflected in the EDS data on self-reported visible-minority participation rates. Eligible voters who are not members of visible-minority groups generally report higher than average turnouts. But most striking in Table 4 are the differences between Canadian-born and foreign-born members of the same groups. With the exception of Japanese respondents, immigrants tend to self-report higher levels of participation than non-immigrants. These results suggest that more analysis needs to be directed at the relationship between immigrant and minority status in influencing voter participation.

Table 4
Self-Reported Rates of Voter Participation for Selected Visible Minorities in the 2000 Federal Election, by Immigrant Status
Group Total voter participation Born in Canada Born outside Canada
Not a visible minority 81.8 80.9 83.6
South Asian 70.9 60.4 78.2
Filipino 69.7 59.6 75.6
Arab 65.5 55.9 75.1
Black 61.8 53.2 74.6
Chinese 64.9 62.8 65.8
Japanese 75.8 77.1 60.8

Source: Ethnic Diversity Survey, Statistics Canada and Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002

Lower voter participation among younger Canadians has been widely documented. As the average age of visible minority groups is lower than that of the white population, it is useful to look at the reported levels of participation on the basis of age cohort. As observed in Table 5, there are wide differences in reported participation between survey respondents in the 18–24 and 45–54 age categories.

Table 5
Self-Reported Rates of Voter Participation in the 2000 Federal Election, for Selected Visible Minorities, by Selected Age Cohorts
Group 18–24 45–54
Not a visible minority 50.0 88.9
Japanese 49.0 85.7
South Asian 49.2 85.0
Black 32.8 85.0
Filipino 52.2 79.7
Chinese 37.0 73.9
Arab 40.0 ns
Total 47.7 87.6

Source: Ethnic Diversity Survey, Statistics Canada and Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002

ns = numbers of respondents are not sufficient for analytical purposes

Ethnic attachment, national identification and voter turnout

At least three quarters of EDS respondents regard ethnic identity as important (31,377 out of 41,695 surveyed rated its importance at 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale). The EDS offers no support for the idea that strong ethnic attachments result in lower rates of voter participation. As seen in Table 6, whether the factor considered is identity or belonging, those with strong connections to ethnicity tend to report higher voter turnout. The EDS reveals that more than 8 in 10 Canadians who declared their ethnic identity is important reported voting in the 2000 federal election, compared with approximately two thirds who described ethnic identity as not important at all. Hence, ethnic attachments do not appear to undercut participation. Table 6 also reveals that a strong sense of belonging to an ethnic or cultural group has little effect on lowering reported voter turnout rates.

Table 6
Importance of Ethnic Identity and Belonging to Ethnic Group and Self-Reported Voter Participation in the 2000 Federal Election
Level of Importance Ethnic identity – % who voted Ethnic belonging – % who voted Level of belonging
1 – not important at all 66.8 77.3 1 – not strong at all
2 67.2 77.8 2
3 72.5 78.1 3
4 75.1 78.2 4
5 – very important 82.3 80.7 5 – very strong

Source: Ethnic Diversity Survey, Statistics Canada and Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002

Table 7
Self-Reported Voting in the 2000 Federal Election, by Reported Sense of Belonging to Canada, 2002
Sense of belonging to Canada % who voted
1 – not strong at all 62.5
2 69.1
3 70.0
4 75.5
5 – very strong 82.7

Source: Ethnic Diversity Survey, Statistics Canada and Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002

The EDS reveals that more of those indicating higher levels of belonging to Canada tend to report that they voted in federal elections. However, EDS data also indicate that strong attachment to ethnic communities does not imply weaker attachment to Canada and therefore it would be wrong to assume that minority ethnic groups participate less because of insufficient national identification. Employing the data, Jantzen Footnote 8 notes that among the various minority ethnocultural and ethno-racial groups a significant share reports a strong sense of belonging to Canada.


The EDS findings raise several questions about the voter participation of immigrants and members of ethnic communities. On the surface, one may be struck by contradictory empirical evidence when it comes to rates of participation. Data from federal ridings with high immigrant concentrations imply that turnout rates are lower among foreign-born Canadians. The EDS data reveal that people who settled in Canada between 1991 and 2001 were far less likely to report they voted than those arriving before 1991. And since many recent immigrants reside in the urban ridings listed in Table 1, the lower than average turnout rates do not seem surprising. Yet the idea that "rootedness" in Canada contributes to higher voter turnout is thrown into question by the EDS figures on visible-minority Canadian-born youth, who often report dramatically lower rates of participation in federal elections than their immigrant counterparts.

An Environics survey found that 41% of Canadians think the main reason for reduced electoral participation is that their votes have no impact. It is by far the single most important reason given by survey respondents. Footnote 9 How questions of identity influence voter turnout needs to be further examined. It is likely that age, ethnocultural background and place of residence, among other factors, all contribute somewhat in modifying rates of voter participation. Some expressions of identity may carry more weight in affecting rates of voter turnout. It is widely agreed that age significantly influences voter participation. It is contended here that certain ethnic attitudes further undercut such participation, as they potentially create another layer in the feelings of voter indifference and/or the sense of disempowerment. If the EDS findings cited here are accurate, then it is vital to comprehend why Canada's visible-minority youth in particular report such low involvement in the election process. It is an area that merits much further inquiry.


Footnote 1 Ipsos Canada, "Canadian Immigration and Ethnicity – Where Do Voters Stand?," January 11, 2006.

Footnote 2 Jerome H. Black, "Ethnic Minorities and Mass Politics in Canada: Some Observations in the Toronto Setting," International Journal of Canadian Studies No. 3 (1991), pp. 129–151.

Footnote 3 Miriam Lapp, "Ethnic Group Leaders and the Mobilization of Voter Turnout: Evidence from Five Montreal Communities," Canadian Ethnic Studies Vol. XXXI, No. 2 (1999), pp. 17–42.

Footnote 4 David Bell and Lorne Tepperman, The Roots of Disunity: A Look at Canadian Political Culture (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979).

Footnote 5 Antoine Bilodeau and Neil Nevitte, paper prepared for the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Halifax, 2003.

Footnote 6 Jack Jedwab, "Apathy, Protest and Convergence in Canadian Politics: A 2004 Federal Election Post-Mortem," <>.

Footnote 7 Ethnic Diversity Survey, Statistics Canada and Department of Canadian Heritage, 2002.

Footnote 8 Lorna Jantzen, "The Advantages of Analyzing Ethnic Attitudes Across Generations – Results from the Ethnic Diversity Survey," paper presented at conference on Canadian and French Perspectives on Diversity, Ottawa, October 16, 2003, <>.

Footnote 9 Jedwab, "Apathy, Protest and Convergence."


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.