It’s been a while since Harper’s conservatives began courting immigrant communities. Under the label of the Alliance, they had already got into some of the Indian and Pakistani networks. Now Stephen is going for these communities big time, especially in Toronto and Vancouver. At first glance, this is new. Traditionally, immigrant community representatives have mostly sided with the Liberals and even sometimes with the NDP. What has changed?

In the pre and post war periods, immigrants were mostly from Europe. Many came from England and its colonies and rapidly assimilated into Anglo Canada as working people and professionals. Others came from some of the poorest parts of Southern Europe like Italy, Greece and Portugal. They were often under the influence of big “ethnic barons” who were able to control access to employment and other social advantages. These “barons” were, in their vast majority, linked to the Liberal Party. The Liberals were big-time supporters of “multiculturalism” which meant, in practice, giving these “barons” an important role as gatekeepers and as community “representatives”, in return for political support and patronage. “Multiculturalism” was part and parcel of the “nation-building” entertained by Canadian elites, who wanted to dilute the national questions (in plural) into the “wonderful diversity” of the multi. Everyone was equal and happy, because everyone could express ethnic identity. It was two for the price of one: diminishing Québécois nationalism on the one hand, cultivating ethnic networks on the other hand. It worked very well for the Liberal Party for decades.

Fast-forward into the “modern” era. From the 1980s onwards, and accelerated in the last decade, immigration has been “managed” differently by the elites. The numbers of new immigrants increased a lot, in order to fill the needs of capital accumulation for cheap labor and at the same time to get lots of entrepreneurs and professionals from the outside. This “outside” was not the same as in the past, as the flows came mostly from the global South. This new surge (almost as important as the previous big intake of the 1910-1930s) continues to change the demographic and social landscape of our big cities.

What do we have now? At a first level, we have dislocated communities of poor immigrants trying to survive in the cracks of our “restructured” economy. Since permanent and stable jobs (in manufacturing in particular) are very difficult to get, they flood semi-formal and precarious jobs in services, construction, agriculture. More and more, these migrants are not landed-migrants but contractual “foreign workers”, accepted for a limited duration, forced to accept conditions that no one else would, without the possibility of obtaining citizenship. Last year, the numbers of migrants without rights surpassed the number of “ordinary” immigrants. Politically, for mainstream politics, these communities are totally disregarded: they simply do not count.

At a second level, we have important flows of business people, investors and highly trained professionals, aspiring to replace the declining baby-boomers in trade, medical and legal professions and everywhere else where their talents, for which we did not pay, will be used. These immigrants are now “carefully selected” by Immigration Canada so that they can “perform” well and respond to the “needs” of the Canadian economy as it is defined by the elites

These middle and upper-middle class immigrants are the “clients” that Stephen Harper wants to mobilize. Of course one cannot generalize, but they fit well with the conservative agenda and even sometimes with the neoconservative agenda. They often see the public sector as an enemy or at the best a parasite, for many reasons starting from the fact that they are unlikely to be part of it. Social movements and dissent are in the eyes of many small businessmen and shop keepers “irritants”, if not “trouble-makers”. They are happy to get into the wonderful world of suburban consumption based on cars and the small private lot. And they really don’t care at all about “multiculturalism”, leave alone “bilingualism” and perceive the Canadian “experience” in one-dimensional terms. The idea that the country has many nations with “rights” is contrary to their beliefs that there is no such a thing as a nation or collective rights, but only “self-made man” ready to compete under the wonderful invisible hand of the market.

In the meantime, the traditional “ethic barons” linked with the Liberal Party are loosing their grip. Even within “their” communities, second or third generations have lost their inhibitions and are not dependent on the barons as their parents or grand-parents were.

I admit that this caricature over-simplifies the diversity and the richness of immigrant communities that are now more than 15% of the total population. I hope my friend Ali Mallah who is working hard in Toronto to unionize immigrant workers and raise hell about discrimination is not going to be angry with me. Thanks God, there are many Alis all over Canada who do a fantastic job of bringing immigrants from different backgrounds into the struggles for social justice.

But in any case, this shift of composition of the immigrant communities is behind Stephen Harper’s run and we will see in a few weeks if he has succeeded.



Pierre Beaudet

Pierre Beaudet, active in international solidarity and social movements in Quebec, is founder of Quebec NGO Alternatives, and Editor of the Nouveaux cahiers du socialisme. He blogs on in English...