Burnaby byelection turmoil sparks debate about identity issues in politics

The Liberals still have not said whether they plan to replace Wang, who stepped aside Wednesday

Inside a sunlit co-operative housing complex in Burnaby, B.C., federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh knocked on doors of residents whose first languages included Croatian, Filipino and Spanish. Often, to their surprise, Singh greeted them or said goodbye in their mother tongue.

The leader is staking his political future on a byelection in Burnaby South, an extremely diverse riding where nearly 55 per cent of residents were born outside Canada. But recent missteps by his former Liberal opponent, Karen Wang, highlight why politicians must be careful when discussing issues of identity.

Singh said he learned to say, “Hello, how are you?” in about 40 languages because when he was young, someone unexpected greeted him in Punjabi and he appreciated it as a sign of respect.

“I feel like it’s my way of saying, ‘I respect where you come from and your history, and who you are, and a part of what makes you, you. It says a lot without saying a lot. It just says, ‘I value you,’ ” he said while on his recent door-knocking campaign.

The Liberals still have not said whether they plan to replace Wang, who stepped aside Wednesday after she urged Chinese people to vote for her on social media platform WeChat. She contrasted herself, the “only” Chinese candidate, with Singh, who she described as “of Indian descent.”

Wang held a tearful news conference a day after dropping out, in which she said a volunteer wrote the post and it’s common in Chinese culture to mention someone’s ethnicity. She said the Liberals asked her to resign, then wrote her apology, and she’s considering running as an Independent.

WATCH: Ex-Liberal candidate in Burnaby says volunteer wrote controversial post

The turmoil has sparked debate about how racial identity fits into Canadian politics. Some observers say parties have a long history of cynically appealing to the so-called “ethnic vote,” and Wang’s only fault might have been putting the strategy in writing. Others say her post crossed a line by pitting two groups against each other.

Peter Julian, the New Democrat MP for nearby New Westminster-Burnaby, said his party’s approach is to consider how best to communicate with every community.

“There are over 100 languages spoken in Burnaby South. It is a remarkably diverse riding. So, what we talk about is how best to reach out to all of those 100 communities, and make sure that we’re reflecting what the needs of the communities are,” he said.

Wang’s post was not at all in that spirit, as she didn’t mention the needs of the community or the issues within it, said Julian.

“She was just really trying to divide people in Burnaby South, and that’s why I think the reaction has been negative. People don’t want to see division. They want to feel in unity or in solidarity with their neighbours.”

The Liberals swiftly condemned the post and said it wasn’t aligned with their values, adding they have long supported full and equal participation of all Canadians in democracy. Wang said the party did not have a strategy to capture Chinese-Canadian voters.

Mario Canseco, president of Vancouver-based Research Co., said he conducted polling in 2015 on what ”multicultural voters” in the Lower Mainland are looking in a political representative.

“They’re motivated, more than anything, by the same things that any other voter would be motivated by — the party policies, the structures, the candidates. There were less than five per cent who said their main motivator for choosing a candidate is ethnicity,” he said.

“So there’s not a lot of meat on those bones, in my view. But it’s still something that many politicians spend time doing. Everybody celebrates the Lunar New Year, they go to Vaisakhi. … But it’s not going to be the main motivator for those voters.”

Both former premier Christy Clark and current Premier John Horgan created profiles on WeChat, a Chinese-language platform, during the last provincial election in 2017, said Guo Ding, a producer at OMNI BC Mandarin News.

Wang’s post was offensive to Chinese-Canadians who have worked hard not to be seen only for their ethnicity, said Alden Habacon, a diversity and inclusion strategist in Vancouver.

“They have value to bring as a creative person or a leader or a contributor that is more than just the Chinese person you see the first moment you see them,” he said.

“For her to point that out right away kind of counters all that effort that a lot of Chinese-Canadians have made to push this idea that, ‘I’m legitimate. I’m legitimately Canadian and I have something to offer.’ “

Still, others argue Wang is being held up to more scrutiny because of her ethnicity, particularly at a time of tension between China and Canada on the world stage.

Other politicians have been able to bounce back from worse scandals, said diversity consultant Ajay Puri.

Puri said he believed it would be easier for a white politician to win in the riding, even though it is nearly 40 per cent ethnically Chinese. Puri noted the last municipal election in Vancouver ended with a nearly all-white council despite the diversity of its residents.

“It’s harder for (white politician) to fail. But it’s easier for a person of colour to fail because the scrutiny is that much harder on them.”

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press

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