Second National Metropolis Conference
Immigrants and Civic Participation:
Contemporary Policy and Research Issues
Montréal, November 1997
Immigrants, Ethnocultural/visible Minorities
in the Canadian Political Process
by Daiva K. Stasiulis
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
provides a critical review of academic literature on the participation of immigrants,
ethnocultural groups and visible minorities in the Canadian political process. The focus
of the discussion is on research that has examined the participation of these groups in
electoral and party politics at federal, provincial, and municipal levels. The definition
of "political participation" applied in this review is thus purposefully narrow.
It does not include the many other significant forms of political activism in which
immigrants and non-immigrants engage - specifically ethnocultural community or individual
political involvement in various social and protest movements, trade unions,
"homeland politics," and the like (Stasiulis, 1994:204-207).The following review
will identify the main questions and findings of research on Canadian political
participation of immigrants, ethnocultural minorities and visible minorities. It will then
identify some gaps and biases in this research and suggest some areas that could
fruitfully be explored in further research.
The following review will identify the main
questions and findings of research on Canadian political participation of immigrants,
ethnocultural minorities and visible minorities. It will then identify some gaps and
biases in this research and suggest some areas that could fruitfully be explored in
1. Mass Political Participation of
Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities
Various studies have examined different types of political
participation to address the question of whether immigrant participation rates match those
of non-immigrants. Research conducted in the 1970s suggested that immigrant political
involvement was lower than that of non-immigrants. These findings were contradicted by
research in the 1980s suggesting that on the contrary, immigrants participated in politics
as much as people born in Canada. For example, when focusing on membership in political
organizations among Torontonians, Richmond and Goldlust (1977:52) concluded that, while
political organizational membership was low overall, it "tend[ed] to be lower among
immigrants than amongst Canadian-born."
These authors also found significant ethnic differences in organizational
membership: Jewish respondents were more likely to belong to political organizations in
comparison with Italians, Greek/Portuguese, and especially Asian/Black immigrants among
whom such membership was found to be "almost non-existent."
Using 1973 data on ethnic groups in five Canadian cities, Reitz (1980)
measured political participation in terms of an index that combined voting, attendance at
political meetings, and familiarity with public affairs. Reitzs chief findings were
that political participation was negatively associated with the intensity of ethnic
identity (227) and that this negative association was to be found particularly among those
low in socio-economic status. He argued that people of higher status have both higher
political participation rates and weaker ethnic identities.
Thus, according to Reitz, strong ethnic identity and "loyalty to the
culture of one's country or origin means the sacrifice of participation in the larger
society" (226). For Reitz, ethnic cohesion rather than immigrant status hindered
In a 1983 Toronto-based survey, Black (1987; 1991) compared voting,
campaign activity, communal activity, contacting politicians, and involvement in protest
movements of the British majority group and four categories of minority groups
South, North, and East Europeans, and British West Indians. In contrast to Reitz, Black
garnered evidence to support the view that immigrant status rather than minority ethnic
origin affects the level of political activity, even after controls for socio-economic
background, partisanship, efficacy, and interest. Significantly, the disparity in
political activity between the Canadian-born and foreign-born diminished as immigrants
became more established in Canada. Black (1987) challenges the conventional view that
non-British immigrants (particularly those migrating from non-democratic regimes) have
difficulty bringing their past political experiences to bear in the new Canadian context.
Indeed, there was little difference between British immigrants and those from South
European, East European and West Indian sources in their capacity to transfer their past
political experiences to the Canadian political setting.
In a complementary study, Black and Leithner (1988) examined one measure
of ethnic identification - consumption of ethnic media - to argue that such
intra-community activity does not hinder immigrants political incorporation in
Canada; rather, such activity furthers it by providing information on Canadian political
In research conducted for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and
Party Financing, Simard (1991) examined the interest in Canadian politics and political
participation of 57 community leaders in six visible minority communities -
Arabic-speaking, Chinese, Haitian, South Asian, Jamaican and Vietnamese - with the
majority (32) living in Montreal. Political participation in this study referred to
voting, membership in political parties, financial contributions to political parties, and
Although the small, non-representative sample and diversity of views
expressed in this study defied easy generalization, Simard found a high level of interest
and extensive knowledge of Canadian political issues among visible minority community
"elites." There appeared to be a positive association between length of time in
Canada for both particular communities and individuals within them, on one hand, and
community leaders interest and knowledge of Canadian politics, on the other.
Chui, Curtis and Lambert (1991) use data from the 1984 Canadian
National Election Study to examine relative political participation of immigrants vs.
Canadian-born with respect to seven different measures: involvement in a campaign,
contacting politicians, voting, political organizational membership, exposure to political
stimuli , interest in the 1984 election, and paying attention to politics in general.
Statistically significant differences were found in relation to only one
measure: immigrants were slightly less likely to get in touch with politicians than were
Canadian-born respondents. Length of residence only reduced the likelihood of voting and
engaging in political discussions among immigrants who had been in Canada fewer than 10
One question addressed by this research was whether there were differences
in political participation among different generations of Canadians. Did
longer-established Canadians participate more extensively than new Canadians? As the
authors report, "[t]he results did not support the idea that there is a linear
progression of increased political participation with number of generations in the
country" (387). On the contrary, "Fourth and fifth generation Canadians were, if
anything below average in the two kinds of electoral activities [i.e. voting and
contacting politicians]" (Ibid.)
Further, on generational patterns, Chui et al. point out that political
involvement tends to peak in the second-generation category with respect to almost all
measures of political participation. The authors offer some speculative reasons for this
heightened participation for the second generation that might be tested in further
research. While immigrants may be motivated to participate in politics, their
preoccupation with more immediate concerns such as economic survival, affordable housing,
language training, and settlement may dampen their participation in Canadian politics.
"The motivation for involvement may be passed on" to the second generation, who
will not have the same structural impediments to political involvement as their immigrant
The generational patterns in political involvement in the Chui et al.
study suggest the need to question the assimilationist framework that underpins much of
the literature in Canada and elsewhere on the political behaviour of immigrants. This
framework implicitly assumes that non-immigrants, particularly "more deeply
rooted" Canadians of British and French origins, are the ideal citizens against whose
political behaviour immigrants should be measured and assessed. Yet the results of this
study "did not support the idea that there is a linear progression of increased
political participation with number of generations in the country" (375).
2. Voting Studies and Electoral Strategies
A subset of mass political participation research on immigrants and
ethnocultural/visible minorities focuses on their voting behaviour. As Mishler and Clarke
(1995) state, "[v]oting in periodic elections, whether at the national, provincial,
or local levels, is among the most common and widely recognized avenues for citizen
participation in Canada, as in other western democracies." Participation in the
"low-intensity" activity of voting in electoral politics can be viewed as an
important indicator of the integration of immigrants into the "mainstream" of
Canadian political life (Wood, 1981:177).
With the notable exceptions of the studies mentioned above, research on
the impact of ethnicity on contemporary voting behaviour in Canada has focused primarily
on French-English differences and has relegated voters from other ethnic communities to a
miscellaneous "Other" category. Generally speaking, even recent voting studies
tend to view "social status" and socio-economic factors (including occupation,
income and education) as the principal forces structuring participation (Mishler and
Clarke, 1995: 139).
Ethnicity and language tend to be conflated such that ethnic differences
are treated only in terms of Anglophone-Francophone differences (Ibid.). The tendency to
ignore or aggregate groups whose national origins are neither British nor French was noted
in the review by Jean Laponce (1994) of articles examining ethnic voting and party
preference in three academic journals over the period 1970-91: the Canadian Journal of
Political Science, Canadian Ethnic Studies, and the Canadian Review of Sociology
The only groups studied at least twice in these journals over this period
were Ukrainians, First Nations, West Indians, Japanese, Dutch, Icelandic and Jews (192).
In comparing coverage provided to voting behaviour of ethnic groups, Laponce notes that
the CES and CRSA were both "more sensitive to the community aspects of
ethnicity" than the CJPS and more likely to use "more anthropologically
meaningful categories such as Cree, Japanese, or German" (Ibid.)
In contrast, the CJPS articles were more likely to use "catch-all
geographical classifications with little, if any, ethnic meaning...such as Northern
European, Southern European, Eastern European" (Ibid.)
In extending his examination to a wider range of publications, thereby
forming a link between the two descriptors "vote" and "ethnic,"
Laponce notes that his observations regarding the study of the ethnic vote in Canada
remain unchanged. In particular, smaller minorities and those who define themselves simply
as "Canadian" tend to be ignored (195).
A key problem in election studies is the reliance on surveys in which
ethnicity and race were not a primary focus, and where ethnicity is assumed to be equated
with country of origin of respondents or their ancestors (as opposed to more subjective
measures of ethnic identity) (Laponce, 1994).
A more meaningful picture of the electoral behaviour of different ethnic
groups can be obtained in constituency-based studies focusing on particular communities.
Such case studies examine whether ethnic communities adopt electoral strategies in order
to influence the outcome of an election, particular candidate, and political policy.
Electoral strategies can include forming ones own party, nominating
independent candidates, voting as a bloc, and electing candidates of ethnic origin within
the established political parties (Pelletier, 1991:121; Crewe, 1983).
These community- and constituency-based studies reveal that ethnocultural
minorities have not formed independent parties either on a single community or coalition
of communities basis. Indeed, Kymlicka has suggested that "the two parties in Canada
which are closest to being ethnic parties were created by and for those of English and
French ancestry namely, the Parti/Bloc Québécois, whose support is overwhelmingly
found amongst Québecers with French ancestry; and the Reform party, whose support is
concentrated amongst WASPs" (sic) (Kymlicka 2,
1997:4). The tendency for ethnic groups in Canada to choose among existing, established
parties has been noted in other societies such as the U.S., Australia and Britain
(Forrest, 1988; Anwar, 1988).
In his study of the Jewish electorate in Québec provincial politics,
1927-39, Jedwab (1986) shows how bloc voting by the Jewish voters in Montreal resulted in
the election of the first Jewish Conservative candidate in the 1938 election. The author
concludes that in this provincial election, the "minority desire for a Jewish
spokesman...transcended all other political considerations" (7).
In other provincial elections, however, different voting patterns emerged
such that the Jewish vote was split in part by class lines and between newer and more
established members of the community.
In a similar vein, Woods (1981) study of South Asian electoral
strategies in Vancouver South shows how an ethnic community may support the federal party,
such as the Liberals, whose immigration policies brought them to Canada, but that such
support is unstable. Thus, whereas in the 1974 federal election, almost 62% of South Asian
(primarily Sikh) respondents in a (non-representative sample) survey stated that they had
voted for the Liberals, the 1979 federal election resulted in a three-way split between
the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and the New Democratic Party. In both elections
there was a gap between South Asian and non-South Asian voting preferences. The author
suggests the fracturing of the vote within this community may be partially accounted for
in terms of class divisions - such as the support given to the NDP by unskilled and
skilled labourers, and the growth in support of the Tories by "the burgeoning of the
East Indian professional and business class" (198).
Woods study also examined the electoral strategies of South Asians
in provincial elections. In the 1979 B.C. elections, South Asians threw their support
behind the NDP, managing to nominate a South Asian candidate. The election of Socred
candidates in Vancouver South meant there was a risk in this communitys strategy of
attempting to maximize their influence through consolidation of support behind one party
(198). A significant aspect of this research, consistent with Blacks (1982, 1987)
and Chui et al.s (1991) research on immigrant electoral participation, is
Woods finding that South Asians are "not notably more apathetic about or
alienated from the electoral politics of the dominant society than [non-South
Asians]" (198). This finding is particularly notable given the history of racism in
B.C. against South Asians, the absence of traditional links to an almost all-white
political system, and the limited historical political influence in B.C. of Asian
3. Political Elite Participation and
Several recent studies have examined the representation of ethnic
minorities - and particularly visible minorities - as candidates and in positions of
political office at municipal, provincial, and federal levels. In this research, there is
generally an acknowledgement of the complex relationships that exist between statistical
or numerical representation and substantive representation (Abu-Laban, 1997:87;
Black and Lakhani, 1997:14; Stasiulis and Abu-Laban, 1991:5, 10-11).
Generally speaking, access to elected office for individuals from
historically marginalized groups has traditionally been greatest at the municipal level,
where the financial costs incurred by candidates tend to be lower and the impediment of
political party structures is less prevalent. Thus, several western cities elected mayors
of Ukrainian origin, while Toronto had two Jewish mayors during the late 1950s and early
1960s (Burnet and Palmer, 1988:175). In some cities, however, such as Vancouver, Winnipeg
and Montreal, ethnic and racial minorities have encountered hostile lobby groups and
political parties at the local level, histories of minority exclusion, and the tenacity of
negative stereotypes denigrating visible minority and recent immigrant groups. Thus,
Abu-Laban (1997a:85) notes that "the first Chinese-Canadian councillor in Vancouver
was not elected until 1981, a remarkable fact given the very deep roots of the Chinese
community in Vancouver" (86). In the 1993 municipal election, only two of ten seats
on the Vancouver City Council were won by visible minorities (Ibid).
One of the first efforts to study the ethnic origins of elected members in
the federal House of Commons was undertaken by Roman March for the Royal Commission on
Bilingualism and Biculturalism (Royal Commission, 1970). March, whose methods of ethnic
origin classification are unclear (Black and Lakhani, 1997:fn.16), found that between 1867
and 1964, a total of only 97 individuals of non-British, non-French origin were MPs. Among
the minority communities, Germans, and to a lesser extent, Ukrainians and Jews, had the
largest number of MPs.
Other groups, particularly visible minorities, had weaker or negligible
membership in the federal legislature. In fact, it is striking that from Confederation
until the mid-1960s, the non-British, non-French groups became increasingly under-represented
in the House of Commons in comparison with their growing proportions in the Canadian
population (Manzer, 1974:251).
In recent federal elections, the statistical representation of ethnic and
visible minorities has improved. Pelletier (1991:129) states that representation of ethnic
minorities increased "significantly and continuously from 9.4 percent in 1965 to 16.3
percent in 1988." The increase was primarily attributable to a growth in
participation of Europeans, and was much smaller for visible minorities. The latter varied
in their representation from 0.8% in 1968 to 2.0% in 1988 (Ibid.) Members of ethnic
minorities were overwhelmingly male during this period (114 of 120). Regionally, the
majority of ethnic minorities were elected in Ontario (40 %), followed by Alberta (13.3
%), Quebec and British Columbia (11.7% each), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (10.8% each). Only
one ethnic minority MP was elected in the Maritimes and one in the Territories during this
period (Ibid.: 130-131).
In their meticulous study of numerical representation in the 35th
Parliament, Black and Lakhani (1997) illustrate the inroads made by ethnic minorities into
the House of Commons. A major finding in their research, which relies on biographical and
surname analysis, as well as a survey of parliamentarians, is that the level of minority
presence in the House of Commons had by 1993 nearly corresponded to the incidence of
non-British, non-French minorities in the population at large. Thus, while MPs of the
British-only and French-only origins exceeded their proportions of the general population,
the percentage (24.7%) of parliamentarians whose origins fell completely outside
the two majority groups and Aboriginal origins compared fairly well to their level in the
population at large (27%).
In contrast, visible minorities continued to be starkly under-represented
in comparison with their population base. In 1993, only 13 (4.4%) of all MPs were
classified as visible minorities, in comparison with 9.4% of the total population (the
figure provided by Statistics Canada for 1991).
In partisan terms, 12 of the 13 visible minorities, and 51 of 71 MPs with
minority origins, and all 21 of South Europeans (primarily of Italian origin) were elected
as Liberals. Six of nine NDP MPs were of minority or mixed (majority-minority) origins.
The Reform Party had elected 15 of 52 members, drawn primarily from north and east
European origin communities. The Bloc Québécois stands out as a party of MPs almost
exclusively of French ancestry (53 of 54 MPs).
In regional terms, minority MPs were thinly represented in Quebec and
especially Atlantic Canada; minority MPs of north and east European origins were
concentrated in the Prairies; and visible minorities were strongly concentrated in Ontario
(Toronto) and British Columbia (Vancouver) (Black and Lakhani, 1997:20-21). In separate
analyses, Black (1997a, 1997b) has studied the notable number of women with minority
origins elected in 1993: of the 53 women MPs elected, 33 had majority ancestry, eight had
mixed majority-minority origins, 11 had minority-only (including two visible minority)
backgrounds, and one had Aboriginal origins (Black and Lakhani, 1997:21). At 6% of all
MPs, the 19 minority women in the 35th parliament, however, remained greatly
under-represented (Black, 1997b:20).
No similar study has as yet been undertaken of numerical representation of
minorities in the most recent (36th) Parliament. The Montreal-based Centre for Research
Action on Race Relations (CRARR), however, has compiled data on 16 visible minority MPs
elected to the House of Commons in 1997. The majority of these MPs (10) are Liberals, five
are from the Reform Party, and the remaining one is a New Democrat. Four are women. Other
data suggest that CRARR may have under-counted the number of visible minorities, which
more likely totals 18.
If we accept the latter figure, visible minorities comprise 6.1% of
parliamentarians, compared with 9.4% of the population at large, a notable increase from
1993. The appointment of Herb Dhaliwal, an Indo-Canadian, as Minister of National Revenue
also increased "non-white minority representation within the federal cabinet, when
taking into account the three Secretaries of State from visible minorities and aboriginal
communities: the Hon. Ethel Blondin-Andrew (Children and Youth), the Hon. Raymond Chan
(Asia-Pacific Affairs) and the Hon. Hedy Fry (Multiculturalism and Status of Women)"
(CRARR, 1997). Other aspects of the 36th Parliament remarked upon by CRARR included the
absence of visible minority MPs from the Bloc Québécois and from the much-reduced
Progressive Conservative caucus.
The substantial increase in ethnic minority and visible minority
representation among MPs observed in the 1993 and 1997 federal elections represents an
acceleration in trends begun in the mid-1980s. Stasiulis and Abu-Laban (1990; 1991)
analyzed the mobilization of ethnocultural and visible minority communities preceding the
1984 and 1988 federal elections, which became a major focus of mass media attention,
especially with regard to Liberal nomination battles in Metropolitan Toronto and other
Ontario ridings. The practice of rounding up blocs of ethnic votes for competing
candidates (most often of British origin) had a lengthy history in Toronto, with its many
ethnic neighbourhoods. The novel feature of the 1984 and (particularly) the 1988 elections
lay in the aggressive pursuit of nominations and election, most notably within the Liberal
Party, by ethnic minority (chiefly visible minority and South European) candidates. This
strategy, designed to make inroads into the national political elite, was observed also to
take place in some ridings outside Ontario such as Vancouver, Calgary, and the
Montreal area, where Italians formed a sizeable population in certain ridings. Ethnic
community mobilization in the nomination process was also reported to have taken place in
Winnipeg, where ethnic loyalties had long been an issue in provincial politics (Stasiulis
and Abu-Laban, 1990:589; Wiseman and Taylor, 1974, 1979, 1982; Taylor and Wiseman, 1977).
In the study prepared for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and
Party Financing, Stasiulis and Abu-Laban (1991) drew from interviews with minority MPs,
unsuccessful candidates and party officials to identify the barriers to the participation
of ethnic and visible minorities at higher levels of electoral politics. A significant
structural hurdle identified in this study inhibiting ethnic minority nominations was the
"incumbency" factor, which discourages placement of minority candidates in
winnable or safe seats (64-65; see also Pelletier, 1991). Other barriers include
conventional networks of recruitment of activists heavily reliant on personal,
ethnic/racial networks; financial barriers for more newly arrived, those facing
discrimination and those concentrated in lower-income jobs; and cultural hurdles such as
the bicultural framework within the Canadian party system, which relegates questions of
representation of "the others" to much lower rank of importance.
The mass media were also widely perceived to have done damage to the
complex issue of ethnic minority political representation by focusing almost solely on the
sensationalist aspects of nomination and delegate selection processes. As the authors
point out, certain aspects of nomination processes identified as
"packing" of nomination meetings with "instant" party members and or
riding association "take-overs" (which became the conventional discourse of
political journalists in the late 1980s) were wrongly attributed to ethnic and
visible minority communities rather than being portrayed as traditional features of party
politics (Stasiulis and Abu-Laban, 1991:24, 70-71).
The Stasiulis and Abu-Laban (1991) study also examined affirmative
measures taken by the then three major federal parties (Liberal, Progressive Conservative
and NDP) to encourage the participation of minorities within party organization and
decision-making. The three parties differed in their stance on affirmative measures, and
there were also significant differences at provincial and federal levels of party
The most extensive affirmative action policy for visible and ethnocultural
minorities existed in the NDP. The Liberals had developed an "ethnic satellite"
structure in Ontario at the provincial level, but Liberal minority MPs opposed formal
affirmative action at the federal level. The Tories had established a Multicultural
Advisory Committee to assist Ontario ridings in recruiting ethnic candidates in heavily
The recent election of more ethnic minorities (and especially visible
minorities) into the Reform Party underscores the complexity of the relationship between substantive
(e.g., party policy on issues of concern to ethnic and visible minorities) and numerical
representation of these groups. The Reform Party is widely known to take stands that
are antithetical to multiculturalism policy; it favours a restrictive immigration policy
and a "colour-blind" stance on equality issues that downplays the historical
exclusion and contemporary reality of racism in Canadian society. The rejection of
multiculturalism by visible minority Reform MPs must be placed within the larger context
of the assault on multiculturalism policy from both those who favour stronger anti-racist
measures, and those espousing anti-immigrant and racist sentiments.
Many ethnic minority Liberal MPs have been outspoken in their opposition
to the ghettoizing implications of multiculturalism policy (Abu-Laban and Stasiulis,
1992). As Black and Lakhani (1997:21) suggest, it is difficult to believe that the ethnic
and visible minority MPs in the Reform caucus "approach the world of politics based
on any promotion of their own ancestral origins." The new visible minority Reform MPs
arrived in Ottawa with strong backgrounds in business. They are more likely to have
identified in class terms with the neo-liberal economic and financial platforms of the
Reform Party, and with an immigration policy that favours "investor immigrants,"
and were thus undeterred by the partys "all-white image" (Simpson,
Black and Lakhani (Ibid:24, fn.41) ironically observe that a "demise
in the saliency of the minority agenda" has occurred at the same time that Parliament
is witnessing record numbers of minority group MPs. This observation suggests the need for
further research on the complex relationship between numerical and substantive
4. Current State of Research Identifying Gaps
In Canada, immigration plays a major continuing role, forms a large
proportion of the population, and has significantly altered the racial and ethnic
diversity of urban centres in particular. All the same, there has been a dearth of
research focussed specifically on the experiences of immigrants and ethnocultural
minorities in electoral politics and the Canadian political process. This neglect is
compounded by the (at best) uneven attention paid to questions of race, ethnicity and
immigration by political science, the discipline devoted to the study of political
participation (Abu-Laban, 1997b, Taylor, 1996). With few exceptions, Canadian political
scientists have tended to consider "ethnic politics" almost entirely in terms of
"French-English" relations, with an intensified interest in First Nations
politics in recent years. The study of immigrant and ethnocultural/racial minority
activity in Canadian politics has thus received scant empirical or theoretical attention,
largely reaching tentative, contested, and extremely partial conclusions.
As Peter Li (1996:33) has observed about research more generally on
immigration, much of the study of political participation of immigrants and ethnic
minorities implicitly adopts a "benchmark." This indicator uses the behavioural
standards of Canadian-born or ethnically dominant Canadians to gauge the political
performance of immigrants and minorities. The empirical findings suggest that while new
immigrants are less likely to immediately participate in Canadian politics, the levels of
immigrant participation over time are as high as for non-immigrants.
Moreover, as suggested by Chui et al. (1991), Canadians who grow up in
immigrant households are more highly motivated to participate than third- and
fourth-generation Canadians. Academic opinion is divided on whether Canadians as a whole
are relatively politically active or more akin to political "spectators" in
comparison with residents of other democratic countries. This suggests, therefore, a
pressing need to reevaluate the assumption that the political behaviour of non-immigrants
or ethnically/racially dominant Canadians forms the normative ideal.
Important inroads have been made to document more accurately the numerical
representation of ethnic and visible minorities, especially in the House of Commons. There
is a similar gap in systematic study of minority representation at other levels of
government including municipal councils, and provincial and territorial legislatures (see
Balthazar, 1996:89 for Quebec). At the federal level, in aggregate terms, non-British,
non-French origin groups are fairly well represented, while visible minorities continue to
be under-represented. The declining positive attention Parliament gives to political
issues that have conventionally been identified as of concern to visible minorities and
immigrant communities (such as immigration, employment equity and multiculturalism)
indicates a need to pursue closer study of the processes that hinder substantive
representation of minority issues (Black and Lakhani, 1997:24).
While research into political participation makes some mention of the
socially constructed nature of ethnicity and race, these aspects of identity, culture,
communities and political institutions are rarely problematized and are treated as
discrete variables or "things in themselves which we encounter"
(Taylor, 1996:884), particularly in "Others" and not in the
"mainstream." Although recent research (Black and Lakhani, 1997) attempts to
include data on Canadians of mixed origins, most research into political participation is
oblivious to the political implications of the hybrid identities among a growing number of
Canadians who are products of mixed parentage of majority/minority and First World/Third
Over the last 25 years, immigrants are more likely to originate from South
and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, the Pacific (and especially
Asia, rather than from European countries. Moreover, there is now immense diversity within
and between groups relating to such factors as migration and settlement histories,
generational composition, socio-economic status, official language competence, and in
comparison with white British and French populations, "racial" and cultural
distinctiveness. This diversity renders generalizations about immigrant and ethnocultural
minority political participation problematic and suggests the need for undertaking more
nuanced strategies for research on immigrant and ethnocultural participation.
Similarly, research on immigrant political participation has not yet
examined the political implications of the circularity of population movements that pass
through Canadas global cities, such as transnational economic elites who enter
Canada through Canadian business immigration schemes, and various categories of service
workers in Canada on temporary employment authorizations. For some circular migrants,
participation in public life occurs in both their homeland and their new land, allowing
these individuals to become proficient political, economic and cultural mediators for
their communities. In light of such political phenomena, conventional categories in
immigration research (such as the concept of "host society") need to be redrawn.
Research in the area of political participation has tended to focus on the
individual characteristics and behaviour of immigrants and ethnic minorities. This
individual orientation, consistent with the scientific, empiricist approach to North
American politics, has not dealt well with the collective dimensions of migration,
settlement and community processes.
3Anecdotal evidence suggests that
some members of ethnocultural and visible minorities have used experience in immigrant and
minority community work to build a political base for themselves. The relationships
between political activism within minority community (including homeland-oriented)
participation and participation in electoral politics are not merely individual phenomena;
rather, they also say something about the collective strategies undertaken by different
communities (Wihtol de Wenden, 1995).
The study of the political participation of immigrants and ethnocultural
and visible minorities must recognize these groups as socially, economically, culturally
and even juridically diversified groups. The stark under-representation of ethnic minority
(and especially visible minority) women suggests the need for further research on the
gender aspects of ethnic/racial minority political participation (and on the racialized
aspects of womens political activity). In addition, several scholars have pointed
out how the category of "visible minority" is sociologically meaningless, in the
sense that "visible minorities have nothing in common with each other, except their
visibility to the majority" (Synnott and Howes, 1996:145). Yet individual-oriented
assumptions of the study of politics in Canada have inhibited a more nuanced and
diversified understanding of minority politics.
Focusing on the individual characteristics of ethnocultural minorities
also omits consideration of the structural and cultural impediments to participation that
exist in political parties and legislative (and other societal) institutions. Research is
needed to identify the mechanisms and accompanying discourses within these institutions
that continue to privilege historically dominant groups and discriminate against visible
and ethnic minorities.
While the Canadian policy of granting citizenship to landed immigrants
after three years has been called "generous" (Pelletier, 1991:110), the fact
that some groups (Somali and Afghani refugees, foreign domestic workers entering under the
Live-in Caregiver Program) must wait considerably longer has an important bearing on their
political participation in Canada. These and other groups from the Caribbean, Africa, Asia
and Pacific region are frequently portrayed in the mass media as criminals or as people
without a legitimate reason for being here.
In this sense, research into political participation must draw upon the
growing body of multi-disciplinary research that has sought to understand the many forms
and types of racism and discrimination. Such research might also examine the political
subjectivities and agendas of immigrant and minority communities in relation to
nationalist agendas of other communities (Francophone Québécois, First Nations) that
define themselves as oppressed or politically marginalized. This research should also be
shaped to root the findings about individual political subjectivities and behaviour of
immigrants and ethnocultural/visible minorities in a broader understanding of the shifting
ideal-type political subjectivity that is expected of citizens in liberal democracies
wrought by restructuring in both the "post-fordist" economy and the state. 4
Finally, an understanding of the political integration of various
immigrant, ethnocultural and visible minority groups in Canada would be greatly enhanced
by comparative analyses of Canada with other countries. Yasmeen Abu-Laban (1997b) has
embarked on a review of similarities and differences in political participation of female
and male immigrants in Canada, the United States, and countries of western Europe, based
on existing literature. There is a need to pursue more empirical, comparative,
inter-disciplinary studies that are better informed by theoretical debates. Such research
should be rigorous, yet still allow for qualitative as well as quantitative methodologies
flexible enough to capture the range of politics engaged in by minority communities.
Future research agendas should also examine the bi-directional influence of immigrant and
minority political action, on the one hand, and state and societal institutions on the
other (see Ireland, 1994; Miller, 1981).
Current research has seriously limited the understanding of minority
politics by adopting a definition of political participation that is confined to electoral
politics and the official politics of the state. As immigrants and minorities engage in
many other kinds of political activities, research might profitably investigate why they
choose these other venues.
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author wishes to thank Laura Gemmell for assisting in the literature search for this
underestimates the degree to which the traditional national parties were based on ethnic
appeal to the French and British in Canada. In one authoritative interpretation of the
federal party systems preoccupation with a "bicultural definition of
politics," Brodie and Jenson (1988:41-47; 1989) argue that the Liberals, unable to
differentiate themselves from the other bourgeois party, the Progressive Conservatives,
realized the potential of religious and linguistic allegiances as a basis for building a
party and sought to appease the nationalist sentiment in French Québec. In contrast, the
Progressive Conservatives fought electoral campaigns by solidifying their base among
Anglophone and largely Anglo-Celtic Canadians. But in large part because of the
Liberals more expansive immigration policies, and Tory nativism and repressive
policies towards immigrants, the Liberal Party has traditionally been the recipient of
ethnic minority support.
Agnew (1996:162) notes that Winnie Ng, an activist in immigrant womens issues, won
nomination as a candidate for the federal New Democratic Party.
Elsewhere (Stasiulis, 1997:202), I have argued that, "The current directions in state
intervention have...fundamentally altered the ideal-type subjectivity expected of citizens
in liberal democratic states. Citizens are urged by their governments to become more
self-disciplined, infinitely flexible and multi-skilled, more entrepreneurial and
resilient in riding the roller-coaster vagaries of business cycles, technological change,
and restructuring the labour market and public institutions such as hospitals and schools.
This emphasis on individual freedoms and responsibilities also discourages or clashes with
the development of particular types of collective solidarities such as membership within
trade unions and oppositional movements..."