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Minorities await positive gestures from Trudeau government

In total, 47 visible minority (non-Caucasian and non-indigenous) MPs were elected into government

Published: Updated:

As the new Canadian government lavishes attention on taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees, as promised by the Liberal Party, minority communities want to know its plans to regain their trust lost under the previous government of Conservative leader Stephen Harper.

One of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s strongest moments during an election debate was when he sparred with Harper over a new law to strip citizenship from those convicted of terrorism offences.

“A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” Trudeau said, “and you devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country when you break down and make it conditional for anyone.”

Mobina Jaffer, the first Muslim member of Canada’s Senate (upper house of parliament), told iPolitics that when you create fear in the community, it takes a while for it to go away.

“Most important [now] is where the new government focuses its resources. You can say all the good things in the world, but without resources communities can’t work. None of it means anything until we see how the money is spent,” said Jaffer.

However, she is encouraged by the record number of minority MPs elected: “Now I won’t feel so lonely.”

Keeping her company on Parliament Hill would be a record number of candidates of South Asian, Arab, Iranian and other heritages who were elected to the House of Commons (the lower house).

In total, 47 visible minority (non-Caucasian and non-indigenous) MPs were elected: 39 Liberals, six Conservatives, and two from the National Democratic Party.

These MPs now account for 13.6 percent of the 338-member House of Commons, which is close to parity with the number of visible minority citizens in Canada (15 percent). Only 28 (9.7 percent) minority MPs were elected in 2011, but that was a new high at the time.

While some of the new minority members have gone on to secure coveted cabinet posts, others made history by being the first MPs from their communities.

Although Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet is seen by many as diverse, some have said it is less diverse than Harper's because of the absence of East Asians and blacks.

Rachel Décoste, a media analyst and community activist, said Harper did not name a black minister because he had no blacks in his caucus, but that is not the case with Trudeau as he has four in his team.

Arab-origin MPs

Whereas no Arabs made it to the cabinet, the MPs list has almost doubled compared to the previous house.

There are eight of them now: Ahmed Hussen, Alain Rayes, Eva Nassif, Fayçal el-Khoury, Marwan Tabbara, Omar Alghabra, Ramez Ayoub and Ziad Aboultaif.

Rayes and Aboultaif are Conservatives, the rest are Liberals. Hussen is the first MP of Somali heritage. Also among the Liberal caucus are two first-time MPs of Iranian heritage, Ali Ehsassi and Majid Jowhari.

Maryam Monsef is the first Afghan-born Canadian elected to parliament. As minister of democratic institutions, Monsef is also the first Muslim member of any federal cabinet and, at 30, the youngest member of the current cabinet.

Muslims from other backgrounds also figure in the Liberal caucus: Iqra Khalid and Salma Zahid are of Pakistani heritage, while Yasmin Ratansi and Arif Virani are Ismailis of Indian heritage.

Refugee crisis

The success of the Liberal Party in winning minority votes and bringing in a slew of minority MPs suggests that concerns over changes to citizenship and immigration laws played a major part.

The Syrian refugee crisis also seems to have galvanized many Canadians of Arab origin to engage politically.

Alghabra, who is of Syrian descent, had voiced concerns about how the refugee crisis was handled: “There was a disproportionate emphasis on security risks, and not enough on humanitarian aid.”

Raja Khouri, president of the Canadian Arab Institute (CAI), a non-partisan think tank, said the refugee crisis was not the only issue the community was concerned about: “They expressed frustrations with a number of policies, from economic to Bill C-24 [the law that gave government more power to revoke Canadian citizenship from a dual citizen] and Middle East policy.”

To encourage increased voter turnout among the community, the CAI rolled out a Your Voice campaign.

“One of the tricks up our sleeve” to open the hearts and minds of the community was the release of an unofficial translation of the national anthem, said Khouri.

Ya Canada, the Arabic version of O Canada, rendered by soprano Miriam Khalil, hit all the right notes, including the replacement of the contentious “in all thy sons command” phrase with the gender-inclusive “in all of us command.”

During a panel discussion organized by the CAI, Mohamad Fakih, the CEO of a local restaurant chain, said change for the community started with voting, as it ensured the right to have a say in the shaping of laws.

However, Ratna Omidvar, executive director of the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University, said involvement in the political process must go beyond mere voting: “We must all become members of one political party or the other. We must infiltrate the system. By not just sitting aside, when we move, we make change.”

Lessons learnt

Arab involvement in Canadian federal politics began when Liberal Pierre de Bane became the first Arab Canadian to be elected to the House of Commons in 1968.

He was also the first Arab in cabinet, and represented his Matane, Quebec riding (constituency) until 1984.

Since then, there has been a steady trickle of Arab Canadian MPs, especially from French-speaking Quebec.

However, this time three of the MPs are from Ontario and one from Alberta, indicating the spread of the community across Canada.

“It’s fantastic and refreshing to see an increased level of engagement from members of the community. It demonstrates that Canadian Arabs have come a long way in the last decade,” said Alghabra.

However, the kind of hurdles they are likely to face on the way up the political ladder was made evident when up to 30 campaign signs of Liberal candidate Khalil Ramal were defaced with racist messages in the riding of London-Fanshawe in Ontario during the elections. The signs were vandalized with words such as “Arab scum” and “Muslim scum.”

Although upset by the incident, Ramal said it would not change his direction or conviction: “I believe strongly in the people of London-Fanshawe... I believe strongly in the people of Canada. That’s why I came from Lebanon in 1989 to a place that believes strongly in multi-culturalism and diversity.”