IDENTITY politics can be tricky, even for such skilled practitioners as Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party. Who is given which cabinet post and who are selected as candidates for a general election send signals to the electorate about which group matters and which has ceased to matter.
Trudeau, whatever we may think of him, is a keen student of identity politics and he keeps a weather eye on population trends. His party is well aware of which way the demographic wind is blowing in Canada and which population groups are worth courting.
Times have changed in Canada from the 1970s when about 78 per cent of immigrants were from Europe. A 2011 survey found only 14 per cent of new immigrants were European-born. Currently, most immigrants come from South Asia (which for Canadian statistical purposes includes the Middle East), China and the Caribbean, and this trend is expected to continue, if not accelerate, under Trudeau’s immigration policies. Canada recently announced a policy of trying to attract one million immigrants in the next three years.
Trudeau appears to announce policy in symbolic terms to make apparent the contrast with Donald Trump. Earlier this month the Trump administration announced its ‘public charge’ rule which links immigrants’ legal status to their access to benefits. Immediately the Trudeau administration announced the provision of $20million in legal aid for immigrants and refugees.
Shortly after Trump signed an executive order banning entry of citizens from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations for 90 days, Trudeau couldn’t resist the opportunity of burnishing his credentials as the world’s woke boyfriend. He immediately jumped on to Twitter to post: ‘To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.’
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
Demographic trends help to explain the selection after a contested nomination in the riding, or federal election district, of Saint-Leonard-Saint-Michel of former imam Hassan Guillet. In so doing Guillet has become the first non Italian-Canadian Liberal candidate for the east end riding of Montreal since it was created in 1988.
Guillet’s selection is a clear indication of the trend in Liberal politics. According to the 2016 census, in all of Canada only the Anglo-Celtic and Francophone communities are more populous than the Italian community. This, however, is changing rapidly.
In French-speaking Quebec, where Saint-Leonard-Saint-Michel is situated, the pattern differs from the rest of Canada. Naturally enough, topping the Quebec list are the 33.4 per cent who have French as their mother tongue. Coming in second are the 17 per cent who speak Italian. Today the third most common mother tongue in the province, with 12 per cent of the population and expanding, is Arabic.
Immigration to Canada since the 1970s has overwhelmingly been of what the Canadian government terms ‘visible minorities’ from the developing world. A visible minority is defined by Canada’s government as ‘persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour’.
The qualifier ‘visible’ was chosen by the Canadian authorities as a way to distinguish newer immigrant minorities from both Aboriginal Canadians and other ‘older’ minorities distinguishable by language (English/French) and religion (Protestant/Catholic), which are ‘invisible’ traits.
Although the visible minorities are still a small proportion of the population, they are gaining ground in political terms as a result of the ‘older’ minorities are giving way to the ‘visible’ minorities in Liberal politics.
In 2016 Sikhs represented only 1.4 per cent of the Canadian population, yet were given four cabinet posts. The Sikh community had recently elected 16 Sikh MPs across Canada, so they were ripe for the cabinet selection. Italians, on the other hand, make up 4.6 per cent of Canada’s population, had 11 MPs, and yet received no cabinet seats. Signals were being sent.
The sensible reaction would be: ‘So what? Selection of cabinet posts should be on ability not identity.’ We know, however, that for Trudeau ability takes second place behind identity. On election Trudeau promised that his cabinet would ‘look like Canada’ and an important part of this pledge was gender equality.
Asked why it was important to him that his first cabinet was equally balanced between men and women, he did not reply that it was the way it worked out when he chose the best person for the job. His reply was the fatuous ‘Because it’s 2015’.
According to the 2016 Census of Canada, 1,587,970 Canadians, or 4.6 per cent of the total population, claimed full or partial Italian ancestry. Despite this, Trudeau’s initial cabinet, which he supposedly wished to ‘look like Canada’, did not have room for a single Italian-Canadian politician.
Trudeau holds to the principle that politicians should ‘never underestimate the power of symbols in today’s world’, and symbols include symbolic actions. Politicians term this ‘perception management’, the rest of us term it political theatre or propaganda.
Clear messages are being sent to both Canada’s ‘older’ minorities and ‘visible’ minorities. In Canada, the times they are a-changin’.