The Conservative leadership race has seen the emergence of Kellie Leitch as a candidate who appears to be trying to capitalize on the growing anti-immigrant sentiment across the industrialized world. Leitch’s support of a Canadian-values test for immigrants has raised concerns that the far-right populism that has emerged in European and in the recent American Presidential campaign will influence the Canadian Conservative party. The Conservatives should be careful of Leitch’s candidacy. Throughout Canada’s history, courting immigrants and ethnic minorities has been an important part of the Conservatives’ success. Conservative Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney, and Stephen Harper all made significant efforts to win the support of ethnic minority voters. This is something that Conservatives should keep in mind when they choose their next leader.
Conservative efforts to broaden their appeal to a diverse group of voters date back to the Diefenbaker era. When Diefenbaker took over as leader of the then named Progressive Conservatives, the party’s base of support largely came from Anglophone Protestant voters. Diefenbaker made efforts to extend the party’s appeal to include ethnic minorities such as German-Canadians and Ukrainian-Canadians. He appointed Ukrainian-Canadian Paul Yuzyk to Senate, who would use his first speech in the Senate to advocate for the adoption of multiculturalism. He also appointed the first Ukrainian-Canadian cabinet minister, Michael Starr. Diefenbaker’s own German-Canadian heritage (his father was of German heritage and his mother Scottish) coupled with his efforts to include minorities in his government helped Diefenbaker to increase Progressive Conservative support amongst Eastern European immigrant communities.
The work that Diefenbaker did to appeal to Eastern European minorities paid off for the PCs electorally. Prior to Diefenbaker’s leadership the PCs were weak in Western Canada (which had a large Eastern European population). Between 1908 and 1957 the party only won more than 50% of the seats on the prairies in 1917, the year that Borden was able to campaign as part of a Unionist government in support of conscription. While Diefenbaker won just under 30% of prairie seats in 1957, he would dominate the prairies in subsequent elections. Between 1958 and 1965 the Diefenbaker led PCs never won fewer than 85% of prairie seats. This was not only due to Diefenbaker’s support for minority’s interests, as a Westerner from Saskatchewan Diefenbaker was able to appeal to prairie voters of many ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, the ability to win ethnic minority votes certainly played a role in Diefenbaker’s success.
Brian Mulroney also made a significant effort to appeal to ethnic minorities. In 1988, prior to the election that year, Mulroney increased funding to multiculturalism and passed the Multiculturalism Act. He brought Jewish-Canadian Gerry Weiner into cabinet as Secretary of State of Canada (the multiculturalism portfolio was subsumed within the Secretary of State’s Department). In 1991 Weiner would become the Minister of Multiculturalism and Citizenship as Mulroney created an independent department to oversee the federal government’s multiculturalism program. There was a clear electoral motivation behind Mulroney’s efforts to advance multiculturalism. The party sought to increase the PC’s appeal in the increasingly diverse ridings in urban areas such as Toronto that the party felt would become essential to its electoral success. Weiner said as much at the 1989 PC convention when he made note of the success that the Liberals had in in diverse Toronto ridings and the need of the party to emphasize the party’s commitment to multiculturalism in order to compete in such ridings.*
The 1990s saw the Progressive Conservatives retreat from their support from multiculturalism, in part in response to the rise of the Reform/Canadian Alliance party. After the creation of the Conservatives through the merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance, the Conservatives returned to their considerable efforts to reach out to a diverse electorate. In his role as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney made immense efforts to build relationships between the Conservative party and minority cultural communities. His efforts involved a schedule on some weekends that had Kenney attending 20-25 different events in different communities. As part of the effort to increase their support within ethnic minority communities the Conservatives issued an apology for the 1880-1920 head tax on Chinese immigration and pledged to reduce immigrant’s landing fees and increase foreign degree and credential recognition.
The Conservative efforts to win the support of ethnic minorities paid off in 2011. The party won a majority government in part because it was able to win diverse ridings in the Toronto and Vancouver regions such as Bramlea-Gore-Malton, Brampton Springdale, and Vancouver South. Without these ridings the Conservatives would have had difficulty winning a majority. It is notable that the Conservatives ran into trouble in ethnically diverse ridings in 2015 when they campaigned on policies such as a niqab ban in citizenship ceremonies and a “barbaric cultural practices” hotline. The party ended up losing many of the ridings that they had needed to win their majority in 2011.
There is a lesson in this for Conservatives aspiring to return to government. Since WWII the Conservative Party’s success has depended on its ability to reach out to ethnic minorities that have previously not been part of its electoral coalition. Doing so means taking the issues that are important to different minority and immigrant communities, such as multiculturalism and immigration policy, seriously and developing policies that reflect minorities’ interests. For Diefenbaker this meant including representatives from Eastern European cultural minorities in his government. For Mulroney and Harper this has meant supporting multiculturalism and easing the immigration processes. When the Conservatives have retreated from these positions, as the Harper government did after 2011, they have hurt their ability to win the ethnically diverse ridings they need in order to win government. As the Conservatives consider the proposals of leadership candidates such as Kellie Leitch they would do well to remember that they need the votes of immigrants and ethnic minorities if they are going to have any chance at winning an election.
* Hunter, Iain. (August 26, 1989). “Tories Urged to Cash in on Multicultural Policies.” The Ottawa Citizen. A3.