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Electoral Insight – Electoral Participation of Ethnocultural Communities

Electoral Insight – December 2006

The Political Involvement of New Canadians: An Exploratory Study

Carolle Simard
Professor, Department of Political Science, Université du Québec à Montréal

In this article, I present the findings of an exploratory study carried out among new Canadian citizens from non-democratic countries and discuss variables that may explain their perceptions and political behaviour. In particular, I focus on how three groups of political, psychological and socio-demographic variables are interrelated. My study analyzes 20 semi-directed interviews conducted with Montréal respondents who are originally from Peru, Lebanon and Haiti. The study finds that many new Canadian citizens associate democracy, at least in part, with the act of voting. Furthermore, they rely on social networks to help them develop social capital, which will enable them to acquire the skills to become active in political life. They also seem convinced that a high level of political efficacy goes hand-in-hand with strong political participation. Lastly, among respondents from visible-minority groups, I noticed the distinctiveness of minority identities. Inevitably, future research on political participation will have to take into account these new perspectives, which are presented here in exploratory form.

Background and selection of respondents

Political cynicism is now part of Canada's political landscape. In this context of weariness of politicians and the system that churns them out, the issue of the political socialization of newcomers to Canada deserves some attention. When they become involved in Canada's political community, new Canadians are affected by a context in which a wide variety of issues are at play, such as the age-old constitutional question, Canada's role in the war on terrorism, reduced funding for public services, and the lack of transparency among political officials. In other words, new Canadian citizens do not form their political vision of Canada and the problems assailing Canadian society in a vacuum. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Just like all other Canadians, their political sensibilities are made up of inconsistencies and their political involvement is marked by the complexity of the world in which they live.

This article tries to understand the processes that help newcomers who have become Canadian citizens learn how democratic institutions operate and play the game of civic and political participation by focusing on how three groups of variables – political, psychological and socio-demographic – are interrelated. My study analyzes 20 semi-directed interviews conducted with respondents originally from Peru (16 people), Lebanon (7 people) and Haiti (7 people). All of them are first-generation immigrants who came to Canada as adults. At the time of the study, they were all Canadian citizens living in the Montréal area. They had come to Canada under widely varied circumstances and most of them had been living in Canada for at least five years. They were chosen for the study using a contact system – we asked respondents to name acquaintances who met our immigration and length of stay criteria. The three groups selected are visible minorities and belong to ethnic groups that continue to increase in size both in Quebec and in Canada. Lastly, they were selected because a large number of Peruvians, Lebanese and Haitians reside in the greater Montréal area.

The Lebanese left Lebanon because of the war and the religious divisions that still exist there today. The majority of the Haitians fled a country struggling with extreme poverty and harsh political oppression under the regime of Baby Doc Duvalier. And the Peruvians emigrated to flee a country that, in the 1980s, was experiencing one of the most difficult economic situations in Latin America.

The sample is exploratory and is made up of individuals from non-democratic countries. This selection was made because Canada is welcoming more and more people who immigrate without the political skills required to participate in the democratic process, which is based on respect for institutional and parliamentary rules.

Many observers in Canada are concerned about the drop in voter turnout. Conscious that lack of political participation by a growing segment of the Canadian population poses a threat to the legitimacy of democratic institutions, Elections Canada and the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec have undertaken to make all citizens of voting age aware of the importance of going to the polls. In fact, over the past few years, people born in Canada have been participating less than ever in the electoral process; furthermore, certain groups have a higher abstention rate than Canadians overall, namely the majority of citizens belonging to visible-minority groups and young people between the ages of 18 and 35.

Before outlining the findings of my exploratory study, I will discuss some variables that may explain the perceptions and political behaviour of new Canadian citizens, particularly those from non-democratic countries.


One of my research questions refers to the concept of political efficacy and its dynamic ties to political participation. Aaron Cohen (2001), Footnote 1 after studying the effects of the mediation of psychological variables on socio-demographic Footnote 2 and political Footnote 3 variables, developed a model of interaction among these variables. According to Cohen, socio-demographic variables seem to affect self-esteem and the feeling of control over one's environment, which, in turn, favour a high level of confidence in the political system and increase faith in one's ability to have an impact on that system.

According to Cohen, the concept of political efficacy refers to an individual's perception that the actions of members of a community can have an impact on the political system. This perception comes from the feeling of having some control over both one's personal life and one's environment. Such a feeling is based on perceiving the political system and its representatives as being able to take citizens' concerns and demands into account in the process of governing and developing public policy. To that end, Cohen points out that an individual must have the cognitive skills to understand the country's political habits and customs.

Marc A. Zimmerman (1995) Footnote 4 echoes those observations when he places emphasis on active participation, and the personal certainty of being able to change things and of having the skills required to do so. He uses the concept of psychological empowerment, which involves two dimensions: the first being interpersonal (self-esteem, feelings of control, personal skills) and the second being interactive (understanding of the surrounding environment). Zimmerman places great importance on socialization and networks.

However, another author, Günter Krampen (1991), Footnote 5 says that an individual's expectations of the political environment are often closely related to personality traits that are part of what the author calls the action-theory model of personality, which involves both psychological conditioning and sociological characteristics.

Of course, it is difficult, as yet, to show that there is a causal link between the psychological variables, as defined by these authors, and political participation. On the other hand, and taking into account that political participation always involves pursuing and defending differing interests, it can be logically supported that those psychological variables are going to play out in a dynamic relationship, Footnote 6 where a series of factors relating to socialization and political habits intertwine. Footnote 7 The impact of such variables is also going to depend on identity-driven characteristics that develop throughout the immigration process and the sense of belonging felt towards the new community. Lastly, psychological variables influence our analysis of events such as the sponsorship scandal or the constitutional debate.


In the following section, the study's main findings are discussed. They deal with voting, civic and political participation, and social change.


I vote most of the time. It is my responsibility as a citizen. In my country, that responsibility was taken away from me. (Woman of Lebanese origin)

What emerges from the study with regard to voting is particularly interesting. In fact, all the participants said that they exercise their right to vote during elections, especially at the federal and provincial levels. New Canadian citizens who come from non-democratic countries see voter participation as one of the foundations of democracy. For them, democracy pertains as much to the rule of law, freedom of expression, a free press, and redistribution of wealth to the have-nots, as it does to exercising one's right to vote. The fact was also emphasized that in Canada "every vote counts" and that its value does not change whether a person is rich or poor.

Furthermore, over half the new citizens who took part in the survey believe that a democratic society is defined by much more than the right to vote. They say that without responsible citizens who join forces and hold elected officials accountable and put an end to their corruption, a democratic society cannot exist. In brief, our findings indicate that the meaning attributed to civic engagement refers back to the psychological determinants that I mentioned earlier and to the positive interactions they create for political participation.

Voting is not merely a symbolic act. This fundamental action, which many respondents were deprived of in their home countries, represents a type of "democracy in action." That being said, that new citizens are showing up at the polls is not an indication of blind trust in politicians and the political system. Rather, voting makes it possible for the principles that underpin democratic society to be renewed, regardless of the individual or collective meanings associated with it. Footnote 8

Civic and political participation

Canada's Haitian-born Governor General Michaëlle Jean returned in May of this year to visit with the people of the town of Jacmel, in Haiti, where she spent part of her childhood.

I began to get involved in various boards of directors and community groups. I am involved because I want to help bring about change. (Man of Haitian origin)

It is known that an interest shown in politics does not always translate into active participation in political parties or into concrete actions Footnote 9 aimed at influencing politics. However, what Cohen qualifies as psychological involvement constitutes a level of politicization that can lead to more active participation.

Besides formal political participation, which boils down to involvement in electoral politics and government policy, researchers also study another area of participation – often referred to as civic – the borders of which are often poorly defined, and which particularly involves the community sector, as well as socio-cultural and sports associations. While this type of participation is not always directed towards government policy, it is indeed a type of civic engagement which, through daily interactions, makes the acquisition of social capital that can be transferred to the political arena much easier. Footnote 10

According to Peter S. Li, the feeling of belonging to an ethnic group is a way of acquiring social capital, which in turn contributes to the economic integration of newcomers. The concept of social capital, developed by Robert D. Putnam, Footnote 11 is illuminating, in that newcomers to Canada often seek out their ethnic network to help them enter the labour market. My study of new Canadian citizens shows the high level of importance that they place on economic integration, which is part and parcel of a successful immigration process. There seems to be a causal relation between acquiring social capital, the employment conditions that new Canadian citizens face and their level of civic and political participation.

Cohen, in his study mentioned above, shows how socio-economic status positively or negatively affects psychological attributes such as self-esteem and a feeling of control over one's environment. Furthermore, according to Cohen, the more an individual believes that his or her commitment and actions will help change things, the more that individual will have a tendency to become involved politically. What Cohen refers to as political efficacy largely explains how the most politically active people in the three sample groups are also the most convinced of the importance and benefit of their actions; they are also more critical of politicians and the political system.

Social change

People must get involved so that things work as they should, so that the parties are also aware of people's needs. (Woman of Peruvian origin)

Several of my respondents acknowledge that they are active in community life so that they can better understand their socio-political environment. Participation in civil society favours the acquisition of political skills (analytical ability, development of critical thinking, understanding of institutions), in connection with a series of factors relating to socialization networks.

While this is only an exploratory sample, I have noticed certain trends regarding the respondents' political behaviour. It appears that their level of politicization falls into a broad spectrum between status quo and change. Greater political involvement seems to give rise to actions that strengthen qualities involving self-esteem and a sense of control, which in turn pave the way for actions that promote social change.


What information can be drawn from this exploratory study, and what can one conclude about future research on the political participation of new citizens? In brief, I will reiterate the four most promising avenues. Many new Canadian citizens associate democracy, at least in part, with the act of voting. However, they rely on social networks to develop social capital, which enables them to acquire the skills to be involved in political life. They also seem to support the idea that a high level of political efficacy goes hand-in-hand with strong political involvement. Lastly, I noticed the distinctiveness of minority identities among respondents from visible-minority groups.

These trends, which will have to be checked empirically on a representative sample, reveal a perceptual universe that is much more complex than the model proposed by political scientists – a model that generally ignores a number of psycho-political elements, including the impression that newcomers have of the host society and avenues for integration. Such elements, in turn, help form the perceptions that newcomers have of majority groups.

Future research on political participation, if aimed at perfecting existing models, will have to factor in these new perspectives, which have not yet been explored in depth. In that context, an exploratory qualitative approach, combined with a pan-Canadian quantitative approach including other ethnic groups, should make it possible to establish other operational models for the political participation of new Canadian citizens.


Footnote 1 Aaron Cohen, Eran Vigoda and Aliza Samorly, "Analysis of the Mediating Effect of Personal-Psychological Variables on the Relationship Between Socioeconomic Status and Political Participation: A Structural Equations Framework," Political Psychology Vol. 22, No. 4 (December 2001), pp. 727–757.

Footnote 2 Especially education level, revenue and profession.

Footnote 3 Including the level of politicization and active political participation.

Footnote 4 Marc A. Zimmerman, "Psychological Empowerment: Issues and Illustrations," American Journal of Community Psychology Vol. 23, No. 5 (1995), pp. 581–599.

Footnote 5 Günter Krampen, "Political Participation in an Action-Theory Model of Personality: Theory and Empirical Evidence," Political Psychology Vol. 12 (1991), pp. 1–25.

Footnote 6 Rather than linear, in that the complexity of social relations is taken into consideration.

Footnote 7 It is a matter of highlighting the hidden dimension of political perceptions, which are often internalized at a very young age; often they are also the result of underlying life paths and social networks.

Footnote 8 In that regard, I noticed differences among the three groups in this study. In an expanded version of this article, I will provide a more detailed outline.

Footnote 9 See Carolle Simard, "Visible Minorities and the Canadian Political System," in Ethno-cultural Groups and Visible Minorities in Canadian Politics: The Question of Access, in Kathy Megyery, ed., Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Vol. 7 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991), pp. 161–261.

Footnote 10 Annick Germain, "Capital social et vie associative de quartier en contexte multi-ethnique : Quelques réflexions à partir de recherches montréalaises," Journal of International Migration and Integration Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2004), pp. 191–206; Peter S. Li, "Social Capital and Economic Outcomes for Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities," Journal of International Migration and Integration Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring 2004), pp. 171–190.

Footnote 11 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).


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