Diaspora Voters, Canadian Voters: What Roles?

In a recent Globe and Mail column, Jeffrey Simpson notes that the Harper government’s pro-Israel stance is likely responsible for a shift of Jewish Canadians toward the Conservatives, who were supported by 52% of Jewish voters in the last election. The inverse of that trend among Muslim Canadian voters was even starker, with only 12% backing the Tories. “On this highly polarized issue of Israel and its neighbours, where almost no middle ground exists,” Simpson writes, “such a position risks alienating Muslims, whose numbers in Canada are growing much faster than the Jewish population.”

Those remarks might simply acknowledge the obvious fact that the government’s Middle East policy is not calibrated to win maximal electoral support. But perhaps Simpson is implying something more profound: a divergence of voter preference and government policy that potentially alienates Muslims from a sense of citizen identification with Canada.

To the extent that the latter interpretation is plausible, it might seem to open up a can of worms about the voting behaviour and citizenship not just of Canadian Muslims (and Jews), but of diaspora groups as a whole. If many members of diaspora groups cast their votes primarily on the basis of Canada’s policy toward a foreign country or region—and if they identify with Canada only in proportion to their approval of that policy—is that what citizenship is supposed to be about? In focussing their gaze beyond our shores, aren’t such voters forgetting the duty to act as Canadians in choosing a government that’s best for Canada?

Such concerns are all the more vital given that most of today’s immigrants to Canada come from currently or potentially turbulent regions, with respect to which the federal government may take divisive foreign policy stands. The top ten source countries for immigration to Canada in 2010 included the hotspots of India, China and Iran, as well as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. So it’s likely that future federal elections will continue to see various diaspora groups up in arms about Canadian foreign policy. And uncomfortable concerns about diaspora groups’ voting will likely continue as well.

Of course, diaspora voting isn’t the only sphere in which there are question about how actors in the democratic process should function. In September, the thinktank Samara released a study showing that Canada’s MPs suffer from an unclear sense of their roles—whether they’re primarily responsible for serving the interests of their constituents, their parties, Parliament, their own conscience or Canadians at large. To improve the functioning of federal politicians—and the broader health of Canadian democracy—Samara recommends orientation training for MPs that explicitly clarifies their responsibilities as elected representatives.

To be sure, there are legitimately different conceptions of where the ultimate loyalties of MPs should lie. Because they are tied to fundamentally different views about representative democracy itself, training can’t dissolve the deep conflicts of political philosophy at stake. Still, such training would open up conversations that could only benefit Canadian democracy.

The same holds true for electors: the potential for a more robust exercise of voters’ democratic role could only be strengthened by a candid discussion—within and without diaspora communities—about the practice of casting votes on the basis of Canada’s foreign policy toward a country of origin or region of attachment.

But in fact this conversation must encompass all voters, whether their roots in Canada go back several years or many generations. For members of diaspora groups aren’t the only ones to hold strong views about foreign policy issues that might determine how their ballot is cast; so do Canadians of all stripes. Indeed, millions of Canadians cast their votes on single issues running the gamut from taxes to gay marriage or the environment.

Concerns about the nature of diaspora voting are real, but they’re no direr than ones about single-issue voting as such. There’s a case to be made that a single policy preference is all a voter needs to justify the casting of her ballot. And arguably, there’s a stronger case to be made that responsible voting should reflect a voter’s assessment of a much broader array of policy and other considerations. It’s a debate worth having for the sake of keeping Canadian democracy healthy in an era of increasing citizen diversity.


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