By Desmond Cole
How do you court the approval of white voters while trying to make everyone else feel included? In Ontario, you do it very carefully. Our province is home to a large percentage of Canada’s visible minority population, and has received the biggest share of immigrants to Canada for the last 10 years and beyond. But you wouldn’t know it by following our political campaigns.
As Ryerson professor Myer Siemiatycki pointed out in a recent Toronto Star piece, white voters need to believe they are at the centre of political conversations. Politicians seen as giving too much attention to immigrants and people of colour face potential backlash. Immigrants and people of colour are disproportionately struggling in today’s economy, but saying so during an election is risky because it may make white people feel left out. When party leaders do talk about immigrants, the piece illustrates, it is most often to celebrate their vague potential value to the economy.
This dynamic is real, and it only works in one direction. There can never be too much focus on issues that appear to impact middle-class white voters—especially since such voters are rarely named and scrutinized as a group.
Politicians dare not campaign on the health of Ontario’s immigrants, even though many of them are being denied basic health care. They can say little about the disproportionate numbers of black and aboriginal people incarcerated in provincial jails. Our politicians refuse to address these issues directly–they seemingly prefer to pose for selfies with people with dark skin, or turbans, or exotic flags.
The standard of white-centred political discourse in this province and country is so ingrained that political observers dutifully uphold it, often without realizing it. In their coverage of last year’s Liberal leadership race, columnists from eachofthefour major newspapers in Ontario called out former Liberal MPP Harinder Takhar for what they called his “ethnic tactics” and racial opportunism. Three of them accused Takhar, who hails from India, of appealing too heavily to South Asian voters.
Before we examine the meaning of these insidious charges, we must acknowledge that similar accusations against a white politician of British heritage courting similarly identified voters are practically impossible to imagine. White voters are the majority in nearly all Ontario ridings: to win, candidates need the support of white voters. Yet conversations about ethnic pandering to whites do not apply.
Not so with the brown-skinned, accent-bearing Takhar. Steve Paikin, in profiling the Liberal leadership race, tweeted a photo of Takhar’s supporters with the observation, “For what it's worth, not a single non-indian face among @harindertakhar's backdrop.” Such commentary applies exclusively when people of colour are the centre of attention.
Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn was the most vicious, accusing Takhar of making "a mockery of multiculturalism” by “ghettoizing himself rather than broadening his base with multi-ethnic outreach." “Takhar clings to that anachronistic, patronizing view of his own self-importance and the blind loyalty of ethnic groups — which many of them find embarrassing,” wrote Cohn. The white columnist somehow knew how Takhar’s South Asian constituents felt about being defined by their ethnicity, although he didn’t cite any of the “many” who apparently held this view.
Yet two months later, Cohn actually praised Takhar for hiring staff “who tapped into Sikh temples, networks of truck drivers, sports clubs and seniors’ associations to sign up new party members.” The problem, Cohn concluded, was simply that these organizers and prospective voters deserved a better candidate. His contradictory statements on tactics and his posturing on behalf of Indo-Canadian voters reveals another feature of white-centred political discourse: the assumption that white people are uniquely qualified to represent the interests of groups of which they are not members.
Ron Leech, a Wildrose Party candidate in Alberta’s 2012 election, unwittingly explained this dynamic in a radio interview during the campaign. "I think, as a Caucasian, I have an advantage," Leech said in an attempt to sell his candidacy. "When different community leaders, such as a Sikh leader or a Muslim leader speaks, they really speak to their own people in many ways. As a Caucasian I believe that I can speak to all the community." News reports of Leech’s comments completely failed to mention that he was competing with a Muslim man and a Sikh man, Manmeet Bhullar, who won the seat.
While Leech eventually apologized for his comments, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith shrugged them off, stating that candidates simply put forward their best arguments in an election. No kidding. Leech’s argument may have resonated deeply with his mainly white electorate, but there were no major columns about his pandering for white votes.
When whiteness is accidentally exposed as the invisible centrepiece of our political discourse, white people often try to change the subject. Alternately, they suggest that their racial comments are throwaway arguments unrelated to some larger point, which is what Cohn did when I shared and condemned his “ethnic tactics” commentary on Twitter.
If we are going to talk about racial and ethnic identities in politics, we should talk about how they actually affect people in our white-dominated society. As our political leaders should know, the people whose clothing, dances, and exotic foods make for great photos-ops are also those least likely to be thriving in today’s Ontario. The humanity of people of colour and immigrants is far more important than the discomfort white voters and observers might feel in acknowledging them.