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Canadian Conservatives woo Toronto's Asian vote

10 april 2011, 09:02
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ousted Conservatives are launching a charm offensive in Canada's biggest city, hoping to win over the Asian vote and another shot at power, AFP reports.

"Xie xie ... Xie xie," said Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in broken Mandarin, thanking Chinese-Canadians who stopped briefly to shake his hand and pledge support at a Chinese supermarket in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto.

His audience giggled at his pronunciation, but they seemed to appreciate his efforts to address them in their mother tongue.

One by one, they posed with him in front of a Chinese flag.

"Because the Conservatives have strong support in my electoral district in Calgary, I've been delegated to help with the campaign in Mississauga," Kenney said explaining his presence.

The race in this district ahead of the May 2 general elections is close and competition for the support of Canada's minorities is fierce, he added.

To win a majority in parliament, the Conservatives, ousted last month in a non-confidence vote, must win 12 more seats in this election -- the fourth in seven years.

The latest polls show the party, which had ruled as a minority government before being toppled in a row over the budget, might be tantalisingly close to their goal.

Harper has headed two minority governments since 2006 and needs at least 40 percent support for a technical majority. But after topping the benchmark in the early days of the election, support for the Tories has slipped back to around 38 percent.

So the Conservatives have cranked their election machinery into gear to woo Canadians of Asian descent in the Toronto area.

One-third of the 2.5 million people living in Toronto proper are Chinese-Canadian or from another Asian country, and the Tories have been buoyed by the election last year of a conservative-leaning mayor in the city.

Their strategy to win votes from the Liberals and New Democrats is simple: a lot of hand-shaking and targeted election promises, such as making it easier for immigrants to have their foreign professional credentials recognized.

And so far, it seems to be working.

Auto parts worker Wei Wu has lived in Canada for the past 40 years but has never voted in a federal election. "This year I will," he said as he waited at a supermarket check-out.

"I hope the Harper government gets a majority," he added, explaining he appreciated the tax cuts the administration previously rolled out.

Grace Gu, who was born in the Philippines, said: "I like their immigration policy."

Canada has sought to boost legal immigration while cracking down on those trying to sneak into the country after the recent arrival of two rickety cargo ships carrying illegal migrants.

Last year, Canada welcomed 280,636 permanent residents, the highest number of immigrants in more than 50 years.

"We (also) need jobs, healthcare, education: these are the three most important," Gu added.

"We've changed the multicultural program. It used to be about celebrating cultural diversity, which was fairly superficial. Now we're stressing economic, social and cultural integration," Kenney said.

Trading his sports wind breaker for a suit jacket, the minister left the food store and headed for a slightly more upscale neighborhood inhabited by Asian-, as well as Portuguese- and Italian-Canadians to campaign door to door.

Liberal MP Paul Szabo, who has held the seat for Mississauga South since 1993, won by just 2,000 votes last time.

The Conservatives are running Stella Ambler, a housewife involved in the local board of trade and the Catholic Women's League of her parish, against him.

Szabo is blunt, accusing Kenney of abusing his post as immigration minister for political gain by campaigning for Ambler.

"If (Kenney) panders to a particular heritage group, they will get the feeling that he can do a lot more for them especially if they help them (win the election)," Szabo said.

"It's playing partisan politics when in fact he is the minister of immigration and shouldn't be using his position for this purpose."

A proponent of the sort of multiculturalism conceived by former Liberal prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Szabo says he opposes the Conservatives' plan to replace the current "mosaic" of ethnic diversity in Canada with a US-style "melting pot."

"Canada is a mixture of different faces and heritage groups and we all share one thing: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that makes us equal," he said.

By Clement Sabourin

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