04/25/2013 07:49 EDT | Updated 06/25/2013 05:12 EDT

BC Election 2013: Multicultral Vote Courted By Politicians


VANCOUVER - New Democrat Leader Adrian Dix spent Thursday making the rounds of several Chinese-language radio stations in Metro Vancouver.

Last weekend, Liberal Leader Christy Clark and Dix both appeared at the annual Vaisakhi parade, a major event on the South Asian calendar.

The parties are busy courting ethnic voters ahead of the May 14 election — or as they're simply called in British Columbia, voters.

According to the 2011 federal census, slightly more than a quarter of B.C. residents spoke a language other than English as their mother tongue.

In Vancouver, 40 per cent of people reported speaking a language other than English or French. After English, the most commonly spoken languages were Punjabi, Cantonese and unspecified Chinese.

"My immigrant background, my Chinese background is a great asset to me running in my riding because in Vancouver-Fraserview about 80 per cent of the population is immigrant and another 15 per cent is Filipinos and South Asian," said Gabriel Yiu, a New Democrat candidate.

Yiu said his background appeals to migrant voters, whether they are of Chinese heritage or not.

"It's my main asset in my riding," he said.

Shortly before the election campaign began, a Liberal strategy for winning multicultural votes was leaked to the media.

With a reference to the "quick wins" to be had with an apology for historic wrongs, such as the Chinese head tax, the memo engulfed the premier's office in scandal. Clark's deputy chief of staff and the Liberal multiculturalism minister were forced to step down.

The issue cast a shadow over the Times of India Film Awards

Just after that, the New Democrats were criticized for using hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to help organize political activities in multicultural communities. The majority of the NDP Members Constituency Office Centralized Fund was paid to Yiu, for work a draft report by the provincial auditor general's office deemed partisan.

"Ethnic-gate" made headlines for weeks, but former federal and provincial politician Ujjal Dosanjh said it was the "silliest scandal I've ever seen."

"The only thing scandalous about that is that they were either doing it on public time or public dime," Dosanjh said. "All parties are up to their neck in ethnic strategies or something else of that nature."

Canada is very ethnically diverse, said Dosanjh, a former NDP premier in B.C. and a federal Liberal member of Parliament. He came to Canada in 1968 and can recall Emery Barnes running for office in 1969. In 1972, Barnes became one of the first two politicians of African heritage elected in B.C.

The country has a history of inclusion in politics, Dosanjh said, but he also has concerns that voters are sometimes divided along ethnic lines.

"I recognize the need to do ethnic strategy or religious strategy ... but what worries me is that sometimes what we politicians do quite inadvertently, and innocently, in terms of outreach may fuel the identity politics that undermines the common good in the long run," he said.

"We can't produce the kind of cohesion and solidarity we need in our society if we keep reinforcing those silos."

Dosanjh said the slate of candidates reflects the diversity of the B.C. population, but he believes the parties need to work harder to recruit ethnic candidates who will be welcomed at the cabinet table. "Token" backbenchers are not enough, he said.

"It's not good to having six or nine MLAs out of 85 and not have one be a cabinet minister," Dosanjh said.

In much of Metro Vancouver, the diverse cultural mix of residents has rendered the term "visible minority" irrelevant.

But Yiu said that among recent immigrants to Canada from China, it can be a struggle to engage people politically. That's not the case in the South Asian or Filipinos communities, he said.

"I find it really amazing the interest and participation they have in the political system," Yiu said.

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