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Doug Ford, Jagmeet Singh and the myth of the ’ethnic vote’

Both politicians have been cast as potential beneficiaries of outsized support from ethnic voters. The evidence suggests something different.
Doug Ford
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford arrives ahead of the Ontario Elections Leaders debate at the CBC building in Toronto, Sunday May 27, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

During the second debate of the Ontario election in Parry Sound, Ont., Doug Ford shared some thoughts about immigration. “I’m taking care of our own first,” the leader of the Progressive Conservatives said, in response to a question about bringing newcomers to the province’s north.

Back in the Toronto area hours later, and facing criticism, he took a different tack. “We take care of new Canadians,” Ford said. “We take care of immigrants coming to this country. They call me personally on my phone.”

The PC leader’s insistence on his love for immigrants and on theirs for him fits closer to the story that’s commonly told about the Ford family’s electoral success in Toronto: Paragons of retail politics who picked up their phones and didn’t hesitate to use their municipal authority to fill in a pothole if a constituent requested it.

The support that reputation fuelled, particularly among visible minority voters, was supposed to help Doug Ford drive right into the premier’s office at Queen’s Park.

The ring of ridings around the city of Toronto—the suburban and exurban 905 where visible minorities are a plurality or majority of the population—has become the place where governments are formed or defeated. The Liberals swept the region in 2015, the Conservatives four years before, and the narrative was reinforced: The ethnic vote decides elections.

But “this assumption around the monolithic [block] only works if every racialized person voted the exact same way,” says Brittany Andrew-Amofah, a senior analyst at the Broadbent Institute, a left-leaning think tank. “And there’s no evidence pointing to that.”

Indeed, the evidence points to something different: Immigrants and visible minorities are politically diverse, their partisan leanings are unremarkable, and they often just vote the same way as everyone else. (Though “racialized” is a better way to describe these communities, “visible minority” is the more commonly used term in research).

And those findings have serious implications for Doug Ford as well as federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh—both of whom have been cast as potential beneficiaries of outsized support from those communities.


New Canadians have voted Liberal since the elder Trudeau opened the door to them in the 1970s, the conventional wisdom goes.

And those from outside Europe and the U.S. are “more likely than other Canadians to favour the Liberal Party of Canada at the federal level,” says Stephen White, an assistant professor in the department of political science at Carleton University. There have been exceptional elections, such as Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority in 2011 and Brian Mulroney’s 1984 win, in which the party has seen a significant drop in support among such new Canadians. The Liberals lost voters of all backgrounds in those campaigns, however, and immigrants were still more likely to back them than the domestically-born.

But there are reasons to downplay the importance of new Canadians’ partisan preferences. For one thing, Quebec accounts for “the entirety of the Liberal advantage among immigrants,” says Chris Cochrane, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. (Canadian-born voters tend to favour the Bloc Québécois and, in more recent elections, the NDP).

The voting gap between visible minority and white voters is similarly “incredibly small” according to Cochrane. The Liberals do “somewhat better’ among visible minority immigrants, while the Conservatives have an opposite but smaller advantage among non-visible minority immigrants.

Much was made during the Conservative term in government of the party’s efforts to reach immigrant and visible minority voters, spearheaded by Jason Kenney, who held the multiculturalism and immigration portfolios for many years. And pollster Darrell Bricker and journalist John Ibbitson’s 2013 book The Big Shift posited a long-lasting alignment between the Tories and new Canadians, increasingly coming from countries like India and China bearing more conservative views than the domestically-born population.

But just how successful the Tory strategy was, and the magnitude of any rightward shift, might bear a second look. “Is there evidence that the outreach was associated an increased gain in support among immigrants than among non-immigrants? The answer, on average, is no,” Cochrane says. In 2015 election, the Liberals won 29 “majority-minority” ridings; the Conservatives won two.

Among individual communities, the Conservatives do appear to have had some success. Jewish Canadians—not a visible minority, but a group Cochrane studies—did shift towards the Tories, and East Asian voters have also moved in their direction over the course of the last few elections.

But the party has done less well among South Asian Canadians than the Liberals, despite Kenney and prime minister Stephen Harper’s much-photographed visits to Sikh gurudwaras and Hindu temples. Zoom out, and the partisan leanings of particular communities appear small, and contradictory in aggregate.

Demographic voting trends within immigrant communities are also unremarkable. “The age and gender differences … don’t follow any different pattern than we would see in the Canadian-born population,” says White: Men and older voters are more likely to vote Conservative.

In terms of visible minorities, the numbers suggests that differences in values and voting behaviour are “at least as significant” within and between communities as they are in comparison to white Canadians, Cochrane suggests. And that’s supported by the anecdata.

“If you’re a Chinese Canadian, does that give you any real kind of connection with a Canadian who’s immigrated from North Africa?” he asks. Elsewhere, Andrew-Amofah points out that the Black community is extremely diverse, in terms of language, region of immigration and religion. “Being Black is not a monolith,” she says.

And while ethnicity likely factors into how visible minority people vote, “that’s not the only thing that matters,” notes Randy Besco, a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Toronto Mississauga’s political science department. “Minorities care about the economy just like everybody else.”

In particular, new immigrants are less likely to be partisan, Besco says. So campaigns and candidates in a particular election may actually matter more than for those who have been in Canada longer or who were born here.

Immigrants: We vote just like you.


A narrative emerged in the early days of the ongoing Ontario election, before the NDP’s sudden rise in the polls: Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives would be swept to power with the support of immigrant and visible minority voters.

The line of reasoning starts with Toronto’s last two mayoral elections. Results from 2010 and to a lesser degree 2014 show an inverse “T” pattern: Downtown and the areas surrounding the subway line voted for the non-Ford candidate, while the inner suburbs went for Rob Ford and Doug in successive editions.

The populations of the neighbourhoods in the latter category include more immigrants and racialized people than those in the former.

The common conclusion: Racialized folks love the Fords. The impression has been bolstered by the crowds at the brothers’ events, which are often attended by large numbers of visible minorities. One community in particular has been singled out as a supposedly counter-intuitive stronghold for the family. “There is a huge amount of focus on Black people and their relationship to [Doug] Ford,” says Andrew-Amofah.

Ford himself has claimed to have “massive support” in the Black community, and that no one other than his brother has done more in their aid. (But the PC leader’s own positions have run counter to his stated concern. At a Somali community event in Toronto in April, his call to revive the  controversial Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy drew a rebuke from an activist in the crowd.)

Andrew-Amofah points out that in northern Etobicoke, the Ford family’s traditional bastion, the single largest racialized group is South Asian. She says that the analytical lens for Ford’s skewed support in Toronto should be geography, not race. “If you look at the inner suburbs, transit is poor [and] they’ve been left out of city planning,” she observes. “So there are characteristics of what’s happening there that you can connect to populist rhetoric.”

Those neighbourhoods have higher-then-elsewhere percentages of racialized residents, because rents are cheaper than in the gentrifying city core. But there’s still a substantial white population there, and their political leanings are excluded from a narrative that has racialized people delivering the inner suburbs to Ford.

Comparisons between Ford and Donald Trump, a line of attack the Liberals in particular have favoured, have clouded rather than clarified the picture. Pundits have emphasized the differences between the two candidates, noting that the PC leader’s brand of populism is anti-establishment without being anti-immigrant or anti-minority.

But Ford doesn’t have to be those things to win. Andrew-Amofah defines populism as “creating an enemy and amplifying people’s insecurities.” The Liberals long reign in power and the premier’s low approval ratings provide a ready target.

Immigration is primarily a federal issue, not a provincial one, meaning Ford need not take a particularly strident position on it. Unlike Quebec, Ontario has not seen an influx of asylum seekers from the U.S., a potential trigger for anti-immigrant sentiment.

There is some evidence that visible minorities respond electorally when they are specifically slighted. Take the example of Muslim Canadians in federal politics. The community has historically favoured the Liberals, Cochrane says, despite being more socially conservative than average.

But the magnitude of the preference was particularly pronounced in the last election. “Even the small number of Muslim Canadians who had voted Conservative in 2011 defected from the party in 2015,” Cochrane says. While there’s no data on exactly why that happened, it’s not hard to draw a link to Tory positions like banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies or setting up a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line. By comparison, the swing away from the party by non-Muslim visible minorities was not significantly greater than among other Canadians.

As long as Ford does not make racialized communities or new Canadians feel targeted in a similarly specific way, his populism could work in his favour. “Immigrants and minorities have lots of reasons to be anti-establishment too,” notes Besco. Or perhaps they’re just swinging the same way as everyone else. “The fact that Kathleen Wynne is very unpopular and has been in government for a very long time affects the choices of minorities just as it does white people.”

A voter survey conducted by Pollara in association with Maclean’s put support for Ford and the PCs among visible minorities respondents at 34 per cent—a large share, but slightly lower than among Ontarians overall. Though those findings are based on a small number of such respondents within the poll, they suggest racialized voters are largely following the broader provincial trend.

The specific reasons for the Fords’ popularity in suburban Toronto also matter, Besco notes. “They made a lot of phone calls,” he says, pointing to their interventions on hyperlocal issues like filling potholes and housing repairs. Those retail politics tactics won the favour of not only the people helped, but the communities around them that heard about them.

But the Fords “don’t have that reputation in other parts of the province,” Besco says. “They know vaguely who they are, but they don’t have all those years of developing a relationship.”

The provincial electoral districts in Brampton and Mississauga, just outside the Ford’s Etobicoke bastion, reflect Besco’s observation. Nine of the 11 ridings that overlay the neighbouring, rapidly-growing cities are majority-minority, based on 2016 census data. The Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP), which produces seat projections using a weighted aggregation of polls, deemed seven of those too close to call as of May 24. One—Brampton East, where Singh’s brother Gurratan Singh is the NDP candidate—was solidly orange, two others was trending that way, while the last leaned Tory.

But a similar trend is visible even in areas with large racialized populations where the PC leader is well known. Take Scarborough, which went for the Fords in both mayoral elections, in no small part because of the brothers stances on local transit issues. All six of the ridings in the former city are majority-minority, and the LISPOP projection judged three of them too close to call, with one leaning PC and two NDP.

By contrast, the bedroom communities around Toronto and most of the rest of southern Ontario outside were painted PC blue on LISPOP’s map.

None of the 17 seats in Scarborough, Brampton and Mississauga were sure PC pickups, regardless of Ford’s personal popularity among the residents—federally, the Liberals won every single one in 2015, most by significant margins, as did the provincial party in these same areas in 2014. But the early indicators in these majority-minority ridings do call into question the narrative that a groundswell among racialized people is set to propel Ford to the premier’s office.


Jagmeet Singh is the first person of colour to lead a major federal party in Canada. That fact initially had many pundits talking up the NDP’s prospects among visible minority voters, particularly in the suburban ridings of the 905 and in ethnically diverse urban areas across the country.

 The party itself has not shied away from that narrative. “The NDP has to become, and with [Singh] now as leader, is going to become the party for a lot of racialized folks,” said Nader Mohamed, the party’s digital director and a transplant from the new leader’s campaign and Queen’s Park team, in a December interview. “I think [the NDP] represent all the equity-seeking groups far more genuinely than the Liberal Party does.”

But there’s no guarantee that racialized voters will feel the same way come election time. Take Brampton and Mississauga. During the 2015 election, Singh, then an Ontario MPP, campaigned heavily in the Peel region for the federal party, and predicted that the “same communities that went en masse to the Conservatives” would pick another party this time around. They did, only it was the Liberals, who took the full set of seats. The best the NDP managed was a close third place in one riding.

Racialized voters are more likely to support racialized candidates, according to experimental research conducted by Besco. “The strongest effects are for your own ethnic group … but you also find cross-ethnic effects,” he says. For example, “Chinese voters are more likely to support South Asian candidates than white [ones], and vice-versa.”

Candidate recruitment is a priority for Singh, Mohamed said. The party wants to reflect “the real mosaic of Canada,” he said, highlighting young and racialized people in particular.

But parties already implicitly acknowledge the need to run racialized representatives in such seats. Twenty of the 33 candidates put forward by the three major parties in Brampton and Mississauga in 2015 were South Asian, including nine winning Liberals; the community is the largest minority in every one of those ridings. The two Mississauga ridings that elected white MPs were the only ones that are not majority-minority.

Across the country, just under half the visible minority candidates that the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP fielded were in what at the time of the election were 33 majority-minority ridings according to an analysis by former bureaucrat and immigration commentator Andrew Griffith. (There are now 41, based on the 2016 census). That kind of packing—there are 338 seats in the House of Commons—suggests that parties recognize the electoral importance of community associations, even if there’s clearly progress to be made on running racialized nominees elsewhere.

The change in Singh’s title between then and now could help sway electors in these and similar ridings the NDP’s way, however. Generally, “party leader effects are bigger than local candidate effects,” Besco says.

Parallels between Singh and Barack Obama are imperfect at best, but made necessary by the shortage of racialized people in high offices in comparable countries. Historically high turnout rates among Black, Hispanic and Asian voters were key to the U.S. president’s 2008 victory, and voting among the former rose even further four years later.

But in Canada, immigrants—an overlapping but not identical comparison group, of course—are actually engaged in politics at higher levels than those born in the country, White notes. “I don’t see any evidence that there’s a large untapped voting bloc of immigrants who don’t vote right now … who will suddenly be mobilized,” he says.

And while the NDP could see some uptick in support within racialized communities as a result of making Singh the country’s first party leader of colour, the magnitude and sustainability of that backing depends on how he chooses to use that fact. “If he can connect policies to the experience of racialized voters he has an easier sell, by virtue of lived experience” and the credibility provided by his prior social justice work, Andrew-Amofah says.

The Liberals won a swathe of ridings with large racialized populations in 2015. But they also won big in electoral districts with overwhelmingly white populations. It’s understandable that people have focused on the first fact, and on the Conservatives ethnic outreach efforts before that.

But the evidence suggests what’s going on is more complicated than a monolithic block swinging from one party to another, and that the prospects of politicians like Singh and Ford among racialized people will be determined by a variety of factors, including but certainly not limited to ethnicity.