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Electoral Insight - Participation In The Electoral Process

Electoral Insight – January  2001

Immigrants and Ethnoracial Minorities
In Canada: A Review of Their Participation in Federal Electoral Politics

Jerome H. Black
Professor, Department of Political Science, McGill University

This article reviews the state of knowledge about the involvement of immigrants and ethnoracial minorities in Canadian federal elections. Both "visible minorities" and the traditional ethnic groups of European descent (those apart from the two "majority," British and French, communities) are considered here.Footnote 1 The aim is, firstly, to provide a profile of their political engagement as ordinary votersFootnote 2 and as candidates and MPs and, secondly, to identify some of the main factors that explain their differing levels of participation in these spheres. Because analysts of electoral participation, indeed of Canadian politics in general, have paid marginal attention to immigrants as a distinctive category and have rarely ventured beyond a (British-French) bi-national perspective in the interpretation of ethnic politics, only a sketch of immigrant and minority activism and not a full-grained portrait can be provided.

The premise that guides this review is that greater knowledge about immigrant and minority electoral participation should be a key goal for Canadian researchers. Major insights are likely in a variety of topic areas, including the capacity of such individuals (who represent sizeable numbers) to assume active citizenship roles, the impact of political institutions and processes in both facilitating and limiting their involvement, and the consequences of their participation for the polity itself. The fact that a few relatively recent studies have reliably demonstrated that the foreignborn and minorities are generally active in Canadian politics magnifies the likely benefits of such lines of analysis. This newer understanding has challenged earlier characterizations of political passivity and has documented increasing ethnoracial diversity among parliamentarians, though important groups, especially visible minorities, remain under-represented.

Immigrants and minorities as voters

A few early studies in the 1960s and 1970s tended both to reflect and reinforce a pessimistic outlook on the ability of the foreign-born, especially, to acquire knowledge about the norms and values of Canadian politics and to assume participatory roles.Footnote 3 Correspondingly, more emphasis was placed on explanations for political passivity than on any possible correlates of activism. The general view was informed by the language and ideas of "assimilation" theory or complementary "socialization" notions, which emphasized the time-consuming difficulties that immigrants had in establishing themselves and/or the penalizing disruptions in their political learning as transplanted individuals. Specific negative factors included immigrants' limited social ties and uncertain connections to a work milieu that otherwise would stimulate politicization and involvement, their often lower socio-economic status, a lack of host country language skills, and the existence of cultural differences that inhibit the transfer of political experiences. For their part, Canadian-born minorities were generally seen as being less participant than the two majority groups, either because they were viewed as being subordinate in ethnoracial terms or, in an extension of the immigrant-based argument, because their communities were still not as "deeply rooted" as the multi-generation majorities. For similar reasons, participation differences could be expected between more (e.g. Northern Europeans) and less (e.g. Southern Europeans) established groups.

In fact, this early literature generally made only limited distinctions between the effects of nativity and ethnicity. Without such distinctions, however, there is a risk of false inferences, such as attributing a community's lower participation level to ethnicity-related attributes when, in fact, it stems from a heavy concentration of recently arrived immigrants whose political integration is in a transition phase. Similarly, activism among immigrants (or the Canadian-born) may, indeed, vary according to community-linked differences. Moreover, it is important to employ multivariate techniques so that any inferences about the different effects take into account (control for) factors, such as socioeconomic status, that are routinely correlated with participation.

Such refinements were not evident in Wood's 1981 publication comparing the political behaviour of East Indians and non-East Indians in a Vancouver constituency.Footnote 4 Nevertheless, in finding near equality in the two groups' participation, also evident in surveys of voter turnout in the 1979 federal election, the study did challenge the traditional portrayal of minority passivity. A few subsequent endeavours, employing more appropriate methodological procedures, have been more effective in this regard. A study by Black published in 1982 focused on comparing immigrant and non-immigrant participation levels based on a 1974 Canadian national election survey of eligible voters.Footnote 5 While the data set provided for only crude ancestry distinctions both among the Canadian-born (British, French, "other") and foreign-born (British, non-British), the findings did reveal a general tendency for (naturalized) immigrants to match the participation levels of the native-born. Non-British immigrants were found to vote at only slightly lower levels, and they were as involved as the population at large in campaign activity. The same researcher was able to explore further ethnicity distinctions in a 1983 Toronto-area survey, which included subsamples of both Canadian-born individuals and immigrants originating from Britain and four geographical areas: Northern, Southern, and Eastern Europe, and the British West Indies. The study's broadest conclusions flow from an examination of the full array of nativity and ethnicity comparisons possible.Footnote 6 One confirmed that the immigration condition, rather than minority status, was the principal source of lower participation levels, by demonstrating, for example, that among the Canadian-born, minority groups were as active in electoral (and non-electoral) politics as the British were. Nevertheless, with an exception to be noted, immigrants did participate substantially in Canadian elections and, indeed, the more established among them were as politically engaged as the native-born.Footnote 7

Broadly similar findings by Chui and her associates, using the 1984 national election survey, suggest that these Toronto-based results were not idiosyncratic.Footnote 8 Even before the application of controls, the researchers found only minor differences between the foreignand native-born, and only for those in Canada less than ten years was there a lesser likelihood of voting in federal elections. They also directly challenged the idea that a multi-generation presence is related to greater activism, finding, in fact, the highest electoral participation levels among the second generation and below average levels among fourth- and fifth-generation Canadians. Another study that has helped revise thinking about minority participation is Lapp's multivariate analysis of voter turnout in five Montréal ethnic communities, utilizing aggregate information from the 1991 census and official voting tallies.Footnote 9 For the 1993 election, she found that while the Chinese and Jewish communities voted in lower numbers than the general population, Italians and the Portuguese matched that broader standard and the Greeks even surpassed it. Variability in participation across ethnic communities has also been evident in other studies. Earlier, Black discovered, as an exception, noticeably less voting and campaign activism by West Indian immigrantsFootnote 10 while Chui et al. found lower than average turnout for those whose origins were Asian (and, to a lesser extent, Southern European).

The more recent literature has also improved understanding of the antecedents of immigrant and minority participation. In some cases, it has called into question earlier characterizations. For instance, Black found that immigrants who had been involved previously in the politics of their former countries, including the non-democratic regimes of Eastern Europe, exhibited the capacity to "transfer" those experiences, becoming active in Canadian politics.Footnote 11 More generally, the newer scholarship has provided greater balance in identifying correlates of activism, including the recognition that some immigrants and minorities have attributes, such as socio-economic resources, that routinely facilitate participation. Furthermore, additional emphasis has been given to mobilization perspectives and, in particular, to the role that the ethnic community can play in providing contextual cues and opportunities that heighten the involvement of community members. For example, there is evidence that the exposure of immigrants to the ethnic media is moderately associated with involvement in Canadian politics.Footnote 12 In the Montréal-based study, interviews with elites from the five communities suggested their potential role as agents of voter mobilization.

Immigrants and minorities as candidates and MPs

Photo: Pierre Gaudard, NFB Collection, CMCP
A Toronto woman looks on as the deputy returning officer places her ballot
in the ballot box during the 1963 general election. Thirty years later, when
the electoral law was amended (Bill C-114, passed in 1993), voters
became entitled to place their own ballots into the box.

At the elite level, immigrants and minorities have expanded their presence among the ranks of candidates and MPs, although some groups have had more success than others. Most of the evidence is in connection with winning candidates, including Pelletier's examination of MPs elected to Parliament in the 1965-88 period.Footnote 13 His data show that increases of a percentage point or two typified change from one election to the next, resulting in minorities holding 16.3 percent of the seats by 1988.Footnote 14 An uncharacteristically large increment, however, was associated with the 1993 election. Using a multi-method classification approach, one reliable enough to classify individuals with mixed minority-majority ancestry as well, Black and Lakhani estimated that 24.1 percent of the MPs elected to the 35th Parliament had minority origins while another 9.1 percent had mixed backgrounds.Footnote 15 For European minorities, the increase was sufficient to bring about proportionality between their share of seats and their share of the population, though some specific groups remained under-represented (e.g. the Portuguese). For their part, 13 visible-minority MPs were elected in 1993, up sharply from only 5 in 1988, but amounting to only 4.4 percent of the legislature and well below their population incidence of 9.2 percent estimated in the 1991 census. This representation deficit narrowed slightly following the 1997 election. The 19 visible minorities elected to the 36th Parliament held 6.3 percent of the seats, but this remained far below the 11.2 percent of the general population they comprised in the 1996 census.Footnote 16

Visible minorities also remain under-represented among candidates running for the main contending parties, comprising 3.3 percent of the candidates in 1988 and 3.5 percent in 1993.Footnote 17 At the same time, there were more minority candidates as a whole in the latter election (21.9 percent), compared to five years earlier (18.2 percent). Finally, returning to the case of parliamentarians, it can be noted that altogether, minority MPs increased their percentage of seats by only about a point from 1993 to 1997, an increment more in keeping with the pre- 1993 pattern. Overall, MPs of British and French origin still had a disproportionate presence in Parliament.

What accounts for this broad pattern of expanding diversity in Parliament over time, but usually in slow increments and with remaining deficits in representation? Though definitive answers must await further research, many of the likely explanatory factors have been identified already in the fledgling literature. Problems in access have especially been emphasized, including the effects of incumbency and financial constraints, of particular relevance at the local party level where candidate nominations are typically decided. Minorities, as with all new social groups seeking to gain more representation, must confront the general norm that discourages challenges to sitting members (who usually occupy the party's most desirable constituencies) and the potentially high costs of urban nomination contests (which, unlike general election campaigns, are unregulated). These impediments were mentioned by party activists and candidates of minority background who had been interviewed for a study by Stasiulis and Abu-Laban.Footnote 18 Complaints were also voiced about adverse treatment by the media, particularly the disapproving coverage given to the mobilization of community members during nomination contests and the parochial characterization of ethnic candidates as only being able to respond to "ethnic issues."

The exclusionary practices of the local parties were also cited. One, decried as well by visible-minority community leaders interviewed by Simard and her associates,Footnote 19 was the reliance on circumscribed recruitment networks that often did not extend into the ethnic communities. More generally, the predominant characterization was of the local parties as "gatekeepers," whose norms and practices – and in some instances racist attitudes and stereotyping – posed serious problems especially, but not exclusively, for visible minorities. Bias in the recruitment process is also suggested by the disproportionate nomination of minorities in constituencies with poor election prospects. (In fact, the upsurge in minorities elected in 1993 was, in part, fortuitous, due to unforeseen vote splitting between the Progressive Conservative and the Reform parties, which paved the way for some Liberal minority MPs to win in low-prospect areas.) There is also evidence that visible-minority candidates and MPs have stronger than average credentials, raising the distinct possibility that their better qualifications are a requirement for them to counterbalance discriminatory attitudes.Footnote 20 At the same time, such exceptional qualities probably help explain their ability to enter such ranks, as does, for some groups, the winning of nomination contests through community mobilization, and possibly even some occasional party recruitment of ethnic candidates to attract votes in selected constituencies.

Other arguments that also may help explain why some groups are under-represented are tied to standard views emphasizing the different stages of community establishment. The Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, in part, accounted for the smaller numbers of visible-minority MPs relative to those of European background by noting that the former faced a necessary "transition period" through which the latter had already passed.Footnote 21 While there is no doubt some truth to this, the fact that nearly half of all minority MPs were foreign-born suggests that birthplace alone is not a major obstacle at the elite level.Footnote 22

Concluding reflections

What are some of the implications that flow from these more recent images of immigrant and minority expression in Canadian electoral politics? First of all, the need for more research is quite evident. One priority involves exploration of the differences in voter turnout across specific communities. Presumably this requires analysis both at the individual and community levels, the former involving such aspects as the extensiveness of group identification and commitment to group-linked political goals, the latter focusing on the community's "political culture," its institutions and leadership patterns, its partisan strategies, and also its dominant political concerns, including any homeland-connected issues. More research is needed, too, on office-seeking by minorities. The nature and impact of discrimination and bias, in particular, require more nuanced and empirically guided work. A concrete question is whether there is any truth to the belief, apparently prevalent in some party circles, that Canadian voters may be hesitant to vote for visible-minority candidates.

The examination of immigrant and minority participation also draws attention to the advisability of proposals for reform designed to encourage further involvement. Greater sensitivity to the linguistic (and other) needs of newer Canadians in the registration and voting processes has been the main thrust of proposed change at this level, but extending the franchise to landed immigrants has also been suggested. A more varied series of recommendations has been offered as a way of augmenting the number of minority MPs. Suggestions include incorporating a proportionality dimension into the electoral system (to allow for more "balanced" party lists), regulating nomination campaigns, imposing term limits on incumbents, and providing incentives for parties to be more proactive in recruiting minority candidates, particularly in more winnable ridings.

Immigrant and minority electoral participation also prompts further reflection on its consequences for a variety of issues, including debates about multiculturalism policy and the nature of representation of minority interests. As Kymlicka has noted, evidence of minority participation challenges the criticism that multiculturalism, in legitimizing distinctiveness, encourages separateness and aloofness from the mainstream.Footnote 23 A positive link between ethnic media consumption and Canadian participation also implies that political integration can be engendered in the context of diversity, as does Lapp's observation that Montréal community elites tended to use vote mobilization arguments stressing membership in the larger society, rather than those promoting community-centred interests.

Nevertheless, the extent to which more activism prompts responsiveness to minority concerns remains an important question, especially at the elite level. There is some evidence that minority candidates hold somewhat distinctive policy views,Footnote 24 though it is unclear how extensive their commitment is to the promotion of minority interests. Even if only some minorities, visible minorities most of all, are likely to be motivated by issues of particular salience to their communities, they still face significant constraints as representatives. Some pressures are universal, such as the discipline imposed by the party leadership to limit independent action. Others are particular to minority MPs, such as the challenge of balancing the representation of territorially-based interests defined by the constituency and community-based interests that are not necessarily limited to any particular locale. Advocates also risk being pigeonholed and losing credibility when they are perceived as being too strident in the representation of minority interests. This possibility stems, in turn, from the continuing domination of majority politicians and their tendency to define ethnic politics almost exclusively in terms of British-French relations.

It remains to be seen whether further increases in the number of minority MPs will erode this traditional approach and replace it with one that more realistically reflects the full range of Canadian diversity. In the meantime, this review has demonstrated that immigrants and minorities, generally speaking, are active participants when it comes to electoral politics in Canada.


Footnote 1 This review does not examine the experiences of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Footnote 2 For an account of franchise restrictions that many ethnoracial groups, especially visible minorities, have faced historically, see Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, A History of the Vote in Canada (Ottawa, Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 1997). Campaign activism is considered here as part of electoral involvement.

Footnote 3 For brief reviews of this earlier literature, see T. Chui et al., "Immigrant Background and Political Participation: Examining Generational Patterns," Canadian Journal of Sociology 16 (1991): 375-96, and D. Stasiulis, "Participation by Immigrants, Ethnocultural/Visible Minorities in the Canadian Political Process," a paper presented at the Heritage Canada Research Domain Seminar on Immigrants and Civic Participation, Montréal, 1997.

Footnote 4 J. Wood, "A Visible Minority Votes: East Indian Electoral Behaviour in the Vancouver South Provincial and Federal Elections of 1979," in J. Dahlie and T. Fernando, eds., Ethnicity, Power and Politics in Canada (Toronto: Methuen, 1981), 177-201.

Footnote 5 J. Black, "Immigrant Political Adaptation in Canada: Some Tentative Findings," Canadian Journal of Political Science 15 (1982): 3-27.

Footnote 6 J. Black, "Ethnic Minorities and Mass Politics in Canada: Some Observations in the Toronto Setting," International Journal of Canadian Studies 3 (1991): 129-51.

Footnote 7 The "more established" immigrants were defined as those who had spent at least 20 years in Canada, become citizens, indicated a commitment to stay, and developed some (English) language skills.

Footnote 8 T. Chui et al. "Immigrant Background and Political Participation."

Footnote 9 M. Lapp, "Ethnic Group Leaders and the Mobilization of Voter Turnout: Evidence from Five Montreal Communities," Canadian Ethnic Studies 31 (1999): 17-42. Note that controls for citizenship acquisition and period of immigration were applied.

Footnote 10 Black, "Ethnic Minorities and Mass Politics in Canada."

Footnote 11 J. Black, "The Practice of Politics in Two Settings: Political Transferability Among Recent Immigrants to Canada," Canadian Journal of Political Science 20 (1987): 731-53.

Footnote 12 J. Black and C. Leithner, "Immigrants and Political Involvement in Canada: The Role of the Ethnic Media," Canadian Ethnic Studies 20 (1988): 1-20.

Footnote 13 A. Pelletier, "Politics and Ethnicity: Representation of Ethnic and Visible Minority Groups in the House of Commons," in K. Meygery, ed., Ethno-cultural Groups and Visible Minorities in Canadian Politics (Toronto: Dundurn, 1991), 101-59. See also R. Ogmundson and J. McLaughlin, "Trends in the Ethnic Origins of Canadian Elites: The Decline of the BRITS?" Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 29 (1992): 227-41.

Footnote 14 Compare with Ogmundson and McLaughlin, "Trends in the Ethnic Origins of Canadian Elites."

Footnote 15 J. Black and A. Lakhani, "Ethnoracial Diversity in the House of Commons: An Analysis of Numerical Representation in the 35th Parliament," Canadian Ethnic Studies 29 (1997): 1-21.

Footnote 16 J. Black, "Minority Representation in the Canadian Parliament Following the 1997 Election: Patterns of Continuity and Change," paper presented at the Fourth National Metropolis Conference, Toronto, 2000.

Footnote 17 These estimates reference the three older parties in 1988, and include Reform and the BQ for 1993.

Footnote 18 D. Stasiulis and Y. Abu-Laban, "The House the Parties Built: (Re)constructing Ethnic Representation in Canadian Politics," in Meygery, ed., Ethno-cultural Groups and Visible Minorities, 3-99.

Footnote 19 C. Simard et al., "Visible Minorities and the Canadian Political System," in Megyery, ed., Ethno-cultural Groups and Visible Minorities, 161-261.

Footnote 20 J. Black, "Entering the Political Elite in Canada: The Case of Minority Women as Parliamentary Candidates and MPs," Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 37 (2000): 143-66.

Footnote 21 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral Democracy, Vol. 1. (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1991), 101-05.

Footnote 22 Pelletier found that the proportion of foreign-born among minority MPs increased over time, reaching 42 percent in 1988. The figure for 1993 is about 45 percent.

Footnote 23 W. Kymlicka, Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada (Toronto: Oxford, 1998), 18-22.

Footnote 24 J. Black, "Representation in the Parliament of Canada: The Case of Ethnoracial Minorities," in B. O'Neil and J. Everitt, eds., Political Behaviour: Theory and Practice in a Canadian Context (Toronto: Oxford, forthcoming).


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