RICHMOND HILL, Ont. — At a Mid Autumn Festival celebration in a Toronto suburb Tuesday night, Stephen Harper took the stage in front of hundreds of Chinese Canadians and was handed a brush for the traditional painting of the lion's eyes, done to awaken the sleeping giants so they can begin to dance.
Harper had his choice of coloured beasts to anoint but of course chose the one in Conservative blue.
The Conservative leader was at the event in Richmond Hill, Ont., to awaken another giant — the Chinese Canadian vote.
There are an estimated 1.4 million Canadians of Chinese origin, and in several of the coveted ridings in the greater Toronto area in particular, they are the dominant ethnic group.
The Conservatives should be their natural party, Harper told a banquet hall where people stood in the aisles ten deep, many holding their phones aloft to record his remarks.
"A strong work ethic, a commitment to education, dedication to family and faith are keys to success," Harper said.
"These are the values of the Chinese Canadian community and they are also Conservative values."
The Conservatives have more candidates of Chinese origin than any other federal party, Harper said, listing off people running in Vancouver, around Toronto, Ottawa, Windsor, Ont. and Quebec.
Harper has long courted coverage from the ethnic press, of which Chinese-language media is a dominant force in Canada.
Now, much like the Conservatives have used their own communications tools to reach around English and French media and go directly to voters, they've also launched a Chinese-language version of their website.
Harper billed it Tuesday as an effort to connect more directly to Chinese speakers. The home page of chinese.conservative.ca includes a picture of him and his wife Laureen in China with a panda on their laps.
While the photo may be all cuddles, Harper's relationship with China got off to a rocky start. He was initially outspoken on the country's human rights record and angered Beijing by hosting the Dalai Lama in 2007, which they viewed as meddling in the conflict between them and Tibetans.
But the trade power of China eventually proved too strong to resist, and the Conservatives eventually signed investment and tourism deals as part of a bid to strengthen the economic and diplomatic connection.
Harper also called on the Chinese Canadian community to help further cement that relationship, noting they've already had an impact on the domestic agenda of his government, among them a GST exemption on acupuncture products and the announcement of an advisory board on traditional Chinese medicine.
While all of Harper's speeches are about his government's record, the one Tuesday night was unique. Instead of a room packed with card-carrying Conservatives, he was speaking to hundreds of people who'd gathered for the festival, to which he was an invited guest.
There was clear support for the party in the room — the emcee referred to Jason Kenney as his favourite MP and another host, Benson Lau, said as a former citizenship judge he approved of the Tory decision to try and ban the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
But many of the hundreds of people there also chatted animatedly between themselves during Harper's 13 minute address, a low hum of conversation in the room that the Conservative leader couldn't quite through.
While the Conservatives have spent years doing outreach into ethnic communities, they had some concern going into this campaign that the fact many immigrants arrived under the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau could soften their support.
So Harper also took the opportunity to remind Chinese voters of the Liberal record, starting with the imposition of the head tax, to immigration backlogs and all the way up to the current Liberal party's approach to the legalization of marijuana.
Kenney, Harper's point man for ethnic outreach, said in an interview with The Canadian Press after the event that while millions of new Canadians have only ever known a Conservative government, there is still a need to directly connect them to the party and remind them of Canada's political past.
The first-ever Chinese Canadian elected to Parliament was Conservative Douglas Yung in Vancouver, he noted, which many people in that community don't know. They also don't know the Liberal record, he said.
"It's a constant work of education," he said.
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