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Canada’s political parties say “diversity matters.” What does that mean?

In this installment of McMillan Vantage’s regular spotlight on the federal election, Vantage Associate Anushka Kurian analyzes how parties approach diversity in today’s political climate:

While issues like COVID-19 and the environment defined the political conversations of the past two years, another political narrative has been unfolding. Like many of our western allies, Canadians are reckoning with their understanding of what it means to be diverse, what a truly inclusive society really entails, and what constitutes strong political representation for diverse constituencies.

The 2020 murder of George Floyd sparked protests around the world and drove into the mainstream a new conversation about anti-Black racism. In late May 2021, 215 unmarked graves found at a former residential school started a devastating wave of grave findings at these institutions across the country, and spurred a new public conversation on the urgency of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples moving forward. While Covid-19 caused distress throughout health systems, it also disproportionately hurt women in the labour force when it led to the lowest level of labour force participation women have experienced in three decades. Together, these events and more have brought inequalities into the spotlight during this political cycle.

In the 2021 election, how do these pivotal moments and the cry for equity show up on the campaign trail? Every party has the task of tackling these issues and more in a way that appeals to diverse constituencies across gender, race, religion, and sexual identity and orientation. The sheer number of marginalized people impacted by Covid-19 era politics means more than ever that any political party that ignores diversity in this campaign can’t win.

Looking at race as a factor alone, there are 57 racially diverse swing ridings across Canada, with visible minority populations of 40 per cent or greater, that can mean the difference between a majority and a minority.

In five Toronto ridings, the visible minority population makes up over 90%. Framing voting behaviour by gender paints a similar picture: women make up the largest progressive voting bloc of Canadian voters, tipping election results dramatically away from right-leaning policies, and most notably making a difference in increased Liberal party support. 2020 polling found that if only men voted, the Liberals and Conservatives would be tied in support nation-wide. Accounting for women, however, that tie moved to a stark 20-point lead in favour of the Liberals as well as increased support for other progressive and left-leaning parties. Statistics Canada has found that Indigenous participation in elections is not only on the rise, but that a majority of Canadians think that they or their governments should be doing more to advance reconciliation.

Social background demonstrably has an affect on how groups like younger people, gender-diverse Canadians, immigrants and people of colour vote. These identity groups are substantial game-changers in making or breaking elections.

So how are major parties on the 2021 campaign trail aiming to woo diverse voters?

The Liberals are focused on $10 a day childcare as a spotlight issue. This is an appeal not just to working poor and middle class families, but to a large voting bloc of women who are pushed out of the workforce without accessible childcare and those allied with this population. Other platform points have emphasized affordable housing strategies, increased financial assistance for students through grants and adjusted loan repayment schemes, and increased investments in Indigenous communities.

The NDP have emphasized issues faced by Indigenous peoples and Black Canadians, including a proposed ban on carding by police and further justice reforms, collecting race-based data on health, employment, and policing, and a national action plan to combat far-right extremism online. They have also put forward policies on housing affordability, geared towards millennial and young voters, as well as a similar commitment to childcare as the Liberals, among other promises towards gender equality (such as gender-based pay equity).

The Conservatives have addressed a similar slate of key issues. Their platform advocates for a national mental health strategy, a response to young and millennial voters who have emphasized dramatically rising rates of mental health conditions in recent years. It likewise mentions economic recovery schemes as being key to women and youth who faced disproportionate unemployment from the pandemic.

All parties are engaged in targeted campaigning this election to draw in diverse constituencies and tip key urban and suburban ridings in their favour. They are speaking to youth, to racialized Canadians, to women, to Indigenous peoples, and more, both through their platforms and on the campaign trail. In 2021, this isn’t just about speaking to Canadians who identify with these groups; it’s about speaking to the widening Canadian consciousness on key issues of justice, representation, and opportunities for historically underrepresented communities.

More diversity in politics, both among active voters as well as among candidates, stands to create a Canada where more voices are heard, our democracy is stronger, more meritocratic, and equal, and better policy is made for more people across the country.

Beyond wooing diverse constituencies with targeted policies at election time, any party that is elected has the challenge of creating strong public policy that substantially delivers on promises to diverse groups to sustain the faith of their voters long term.

This piece is part of a 2-part series on diversity in Canadian politics in 2021 – check back soon for part 2: teasing apart symbolic representation from substantive representation.



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