One of the last strongholds of the Liberal Party of Canada now appears on the verge of collapse. BC’s Premier, Christy Clark, is now facing demands that she resign after the province’s NDP leaked their “Multicultural Action Plan” last week (read it here). The documents showed an embarrassingly shallow plan to court “ethnic” voters using provincial funding, and it doesn’t seem to have impressed anybody. Clark is now facing resignations within her own party and demands she step down only months before the next election, which she wasn’t expected to win anyway. If so, she would be the second Premier to resign since the last election, herself replacing the disgraced Gordon Campbell earlier this term.

Kinda makes ya wonder how long Kathleen Wynne will last, doesn’t it?

So far, Clark is refusing to resign, though she’s apologized for the “language” contained in the Action Plan. Having just read through it, I wouldn’t say that the language was the problem (though some phrases, like “quick wins”, weren’t well chosen). Rather, people are upset because the plan embraces a superficial strategy of tokenism, and makes no distinction between government and party resources or personnel. It deals almost entirely with ways of speaking to “ethnic communities”, and little or no mention of listening. They’re willing to translate press releases, target immigrant press and compile “lists” and “dossiers” on individuals, but “critically assess our own policies” never makes the list. The strategy is clearly stated in phrases like “bringing voters who should be in our tent, back to our tent”, only a few lines after “Political centre-right is a natural fit for many immigrant/ethnic communities” (p10).

I wonder how many voters know that Liberals elites refer to their party as “centre-right” in their own internal documents…

The “Multicultural Action Plan” shows in print what many have long suspected. It illustrates how this kind of tokenism works from an insider perspective. The prescriptions are simple enough: address the communities in question, speak to them in their own language and appoint a few “party spokespersons” from the community. In an atmosphere where such attention has traditionally been lacking, this can go a long way, but only in a shallow sense. Focusing on media strategies and “validators” within the community for tasks such as writing letters to the editor in non-English publications (p4) shows how superficial these plans get, and explains much of the outrage.

This is not a new game, of course. Political parties have long used influential contacts within immigrant communities to assure large bloc-votes in their favour. The Liberals, particularly, are known for this and it’s been an influential factor in more Hamilton elections than I can count. The reasons it works are simple enough for anybody with friends in such communities – they’re amazingly tight-knit, functional groups. Given often overwhelming adversity, these networks of extended families and friends offer a level of mutual aid almost never seen among white Canadians (at least, in cities…). Since the state itself is often indifferent or even hostile, the notion that one politician or party is particularly sympathetic is going to win a lot of favour very quickly.

In America these matters are often quite blatant to the point where it’s often the deciding factor in elections. Black voters are (somewhat ironically) one of the most important groups, with the Republicans (post-Lincoln), Democrats (post-Civil Rights) and even the Communist party (in it’s 1930s heyday) deriving large amounts of their supporters from them.

The question is, are the connections forged with these communities any kind of authentic or effective way of communication, or are they simply another opportunity for influential people from both sides to advance their own interests? Ask anybody from a reserve how they feel about their Band Councillors, and you’ll see how quickly “one of us” can become “one of them” once becoming incorporated into the state. Power is colourblind, it will use as much or as little racism or multiculturalism as it feels is necessary, and usually finds a backhanded way of doing both. Tactics like this are often most effective when the state and society are otherwise hostile. The more oppressive things get, the more such a friend is needed.

The problems faced by “ethnic” communities in British Columbia and across Canada cannot be solved by a better media strategy, or any number of new token, “representative” spokespersons. “Historic wrongs” cannot be “corrected” with apologies from government (p6). These are not image problems, they’re not communication failures, they’re real problems. Things like barriers to accessing housing, work, education and health care. Years of semi-citizen status under constant fear of deportation. Cuts to refugee supports. Wages, hours and working conditions which approach slavery. Physical assaults for their skin colour, religion or languages. It’s not enough to say you’re sorry – these problems actually have to be addressed in a meaningful, physical way – otherwise it’s just more pandering.

Hiring translators is great, and I’m all for making government documents more open and accessible through any route possible. But instead of using them for propaganda and press releases, how about actually sending a few of them out into our cities. Not as a party looking for supporters, but instead to listen. Not just to “community leaders”, but to everybody. Such an initiative wouldn’t have to be secret or scandalous, and in fact could be done entirely without the help of parties or the state. Lots of amazing people already do this kind of work, and it usually goes unnoticed in today’s world of political opportunism. For anybody who actually cares, that would probably be a good place to start…

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