[R-G] Canada's Arab immigrant vote
fentona at shaw.ca
Mon Oct 13 15:36:16 MDT 2008
Canada's Arab immigrant vote
By Ahmed Habib in Toronto
The immigrant vote is likely to become a central issue as Canadians
head to the polls.
On October 14, Stephen Harper, the incumbent prime minister from the
Conservative Party, will be seeking to gain more seats in parliament
from among the 300 ridings, or administrative districts, which are up
But this year, the immigrant vote is likely to play a crucial role, as
some one million newcomers have entered Canada over the past five years.
Historically, ethnic communities in Canada have supported the Liberal
party which many see as pro-immigration and favouring a multicultural
However, issues such as gay marriage and abortion have driven a wedge
between immigrant communities, which largely hold traditional values,
and the popular Liberals.
The immigrant vote
The left-leaning New Democratic (NDP) and Green parties are also
gaining greater support from immigrants, particularly young people,
who are becoming more disenchanted with mainstream political parties.
Faria Kamal, a campaign coordinator with No One Is Illegal, a national
organisation that advocates for immigrant and refugee rights, warns of
the tokenism that parties employ during every election season.
Experts warn of even a greater threat to immigrant communities
subjected to ethnic-based campaigning.
Sabah Al Nasseri, a political science professor at York University in
Toronto, said institutional fragmenting and fracturing of society
according to different communities strengthens the position of the
white ruling class in Canada.
A recent immigrant himself, he said: "By splitting our communities, we
are weakened in the sense that we cannot create a general political
project with other immigrants."
In the case of the Arab community in Canada, there are also internal
political schisms that run along the lines of what part of the Arab
world one comes from.
Al Nasseri, who is of Iraqi origin, sees these divisions as
jeopardising community efforts to confront Canada's problematic role
in the Middle East.
He urges Arab Canadian voters to remember that, "the same forces that
are determining domestic policies here are engineering foreign policy
in the Arab world".
Community organisations such as the Canadian Arab Federation (Caf) are
advising Arab Canadians to take their interests into account before
blindly following party allegiances.
Caf recently released a questionnaire to all the political parties as
a means of gauging their stance on issues affecting the Arab
community; they asked questions on issues like security measures
introduced as part of anti-terrorist legislation.
"These laws were passed hastily without consultation, and have led to
an increase in anti-Arab racism and Islamophobic sentiments in this
country," notes Khaled Mouammar, the president of Caf.
A retired Canadian immigration judge originally from Palestine,
Mouammar sees racism as the main deterrent to Arab involvement in the
"We cannot lead normal lives. We are attacked by policies of the
government here and at the same time we are bombarded by worries of
what's happening in the Arab world."
Caf has recently come under attack in the media for its stance against
Israeli policies towards the Palestinians, a common reoccurrence in
Canadian political discourse.
"Many are wary of hiring Arab Canadians, the treatment of Arab and
Muslim Canadians as suspects by security agencies is increasing, and
many are forced to deal with a legal system that sees them
differently," Muammar told Al Jazeera.
Nadia Daar, a 26-year-old graduate student who moved to Canada from
Oman in 2000, will be casting her ballot for the first time on October
"In order to strive for a community that promotes just and equitable
values, then we need to vote in the elections to compliment the
grassroots mobilisations around these issues," she says.
Daar, who lives in Toronto, Canada's largest city, will support a
party that will take a "clear stance against the apartheid-like
practices of the Israeli state, the American occupation of Iraq, and
that will withdraw all of Canada's troops from Afghanistan".
She also wants to vote for a party that will seek a just and equitable
solution to indigenous land claims. "We are all immigrants here aside
from the First Nations community, and as such we need to vote for a
party that gives them the rights they deserve."
Dr Qais Ghanem, a candidate for the Green Party in Ottawa, agrees with
many of Daar’s beliefs.
A former human rights activist and doctor, Ghanem says he is leaving a
successful medical practice to pursue a career as Member of Parliament.
He says he chose the Green Party because they shared many of the
principles regarding "social and economic justice, concern around the
extreme gaps between the wealthy and the destitute, and fighting
He believes merely becoming a candidate can help break stereotypes of
Arabs in Canada.
"An enemy is someone whose story you haven't heard yet," he said.
Ghanem, who is also a professor at the University of Ottawa, believes
his candidacy is a natural extension to his role as an educator.
"You have to educate or else you won't get what you want. For example,
people have to know the real story about Afghanistan."
However, Ghanem quickly ran into a media storm when he successfully
convinced the Green Party to revise their foreign policy and recognise
the rights of the Palestinians.
Some in the media demanded his immediate expulsion from the party for
what they described as Israel-bashing and Anti-Semitic statements.
Elizabeth May, the leader of the Greens in Canada, however, stood by
her candidate, and showed, "tremendous courage," he says.
The Canadian dream
Ghanem's experiences appear to provide evidence to support Caf’s
claims that there exists racism against Arabs in the elections.
However, Omar Al Ghabra, a Liberal Member of Parliament originally
from Syria who is seeking re-election in the immigrant-concentrated
suburbs of Toronto, disagrees.
He says Canada is an accessible and equitable country and points to
his ability to run for Parliament as a reflection of "the values and
opportunities that Canada provides."
"I never expected starting off as a student working the graveyard
shift in a doughnut shop that one day I would be a Member of
Parliament," Al Ghabra, who is a former president of Caf, told Al
"People do not vote because of their ethnicity or religious
affiliation … they are more sophisticated and intelligent than that."
He insists that people vote for him because of his "values, stances
Despite Al Ghabra's beliefs, political parties use their stance on
immigration and social values as a means of gaining more community
Campaign ads, sometimes in different languages, can be seen and heard
across ethnic-based media outlets.
Even the Conservative Party has put forward a list of candidates from
Arab backgrounds; nevertheless, many Arab-Canadians criticise Harper
for his unwavering support of Israel and the American occupation of
Elie Salibi, a candidate with the Conservative party in Ottawa would
not respond to any requests for an interview.
Attempts to find other Arab-Canadian candidates with Stephen Harper's
party were thwarted by the Conservative party media team that insisted
they, "don't racially profile their candidates".
First veiled candidate
For Samira Laouni, a candidate with the NDP in Bourassa, Quebec, her
story seems to expose the many problems facing immigrants as they try
to break through debilitating stereotypes.
As a Muslim-Canadian, originally from Morocco, Laouni wears the hijab;
as a result, she has been the focus of many debates on radio stations
in the French-speaking province Quebec.
On a Montreal talk show, Laouni, termed "Quebec's first veiled federal
candidate" by the mainstream media was recently told by the radio that
if she was raped during the interview, under Islamic Shar'ia law, she
would need two witnesses to prove the assault.
In turn, this incident has triggered a campaign, spearheaded by
organisations like Caf to hold the radio station responsible for these
comments under Canadian radio regulations.
Despite these events, Laouni insists that such voices are a "minority"
in Canada and that "no-one in the world should be allowed to attack a
woman because of her hijab".
Zahia Al Masri, also a candidate with the NDP in Quebec, agrees with
her fellow party member in that these elections must be used as an
opportunity to fight harmful stereotypes.
Al Masri, a single mother of Palestinian origin, says that efforts
must be made to fight obstacles within the Arab community itself.
"For me, most of the resistance I've faced has come internally around
my involvement in politics as a woman."
She says these elections test Canada's claims of tolerance and equity;
she insists that: "We can't say we have a multicultural system, and
then leave it on its own to work."
Canada's social fabric
Regardless of who wins in the 40th Canadian elections, and what
minorities end up being represented, systemic issues of racism against
immigrants and indigenous communities will continue to test the social
fabric of Canada.
Recently, Canada was criticised by the UN for its treatment of First
Nations communities, and many community organisers have warned of an
increasingly undemocratic atmosphere under Harper and the Conservatives.
Elections in Canada are also in a struggle to gain more relevance
amongst its own citizens.
According to Elections Canada statistics, voter turnout in Canada has
been decreasing steadily since 1988; this is especially true amongst
Mina Mahdi, an Arab Canadian, who has lived in Toronto for several
years, will be looking more closely at how the American elections
"As an Iraqi, what happens in the American elections will have more of
an impact on what I'm most concerned about, the occupation," she says.
However, Mahdi will be voting for the first time in the upcoming
She said: "I will be voting to make sure Stephen Harper is out."
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