Ethnic Group Leaders and the Mobilization of Voter Turnout: Evidence from Five Montreal Communities

By Lapp, Miriam | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Ethnic Group Leaders and the Mobilization of Voter Turnout: Evidence from Five Montreal Communities


Lapp, Miriam, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


Introduction

Although scholarly interest in the relationship between ethnicity and political participation in Canada has increased in recent years, much remains lobe done in this field. Compared to the United States, where questions relating to the impact of race and ethnicity on political participation have been studied extensively for decades, and where a rich body of theoretical and empirical literature has accumulated, Canada continues to provide a great deal of unexplored territory. (1) This is particularly the case with respect to ethnicity and voter turnout. We still cannot say with certainty whether turnout varies significantly across ethnic groups; we are even less able to explain why such variations might occur. This study addresses this problem by examining how group leaders from five Montreal ethnic communities mobilized voters during three recent elections. Specifically, it seeks to understand observed across-group variations in turnout by studying the nature of the mobilization arguments used by group leade rs. Before doing so, it reviews the existing Canadian literature on ethnic political participation in order to answer two important questions. Are there systematic and significant variations in turnout across ethnic groups? If there are, what explanations are offered for them?

Ethnicity and Political Participation in Canada

Any assessment of the research on ethnic political participation must begin with a definition of terms. For the purposes of this study, I have adopted the usage of Stasiulis and Abu-Laban for ethnic minority, which they define as "non-Native, non-British, non-French immigrants and their descendents" (1990:580). My interest lies in determining how much is known about those minority groups in Canada that do not fall under one of the so-called "charter group" categories. I therefore exclude those studies that focus exclusively on the British-French dichotomy as well as studies relating to aboriginal peoples.

Political participation generally refers to "those voluntary activities by citizens that are intended to influence the selection of government leaders or the decisions they make" (Mishler and Clarke, 1995:130). While the term can encompass a wide variety of activities, I will focus on the most common of these: voter participation. Voting in free and fair elections is the fundamental act in a democracy; an examination of who votes and why is therefore a good way of gauging the democratic health of a country. Voting is also a low-cost activity. Whether costs are measured in terms of money, time or information, voting is by far the cheapest voluntary political activity a citizen can perform in Canada. As such, it is the most accessible and egalitarian of activities. (2)

The Canadian literature on ethnic electoral participation is relatively small in size and tends to adhere to a narrow definition of ethnicity. As Stasiulis and Abu-Laban have observed, this narrow approach "is evident in voting studies where 'ethnicity' usually refers to French-English differences and is often counter-poised to 'class'" (1990:582). Laponce, in his overview of ethnicity and voting studies in Canada, concurs: "Few are the studies of groups whose national origin is not either French or British" (1994:192). (3)

Of those studies that do look beyond the French-English dichotomy, most have focused on voter choice as the dependent variable rather than voter turnout. (4) Only a handful of studies have examined the question of whether ethnicity is related to voter participation rates in Canada. One of the earliest is a small survey by Laskin and Baird (1970) which examines party preference and voter turnout in three elections--the 1958 federal, the 1960 provincial and the 1960 local--in the town of Biggar, Saskatchewan. Included among their independent variables is national origin which they have categorized as United Kingdom, Other Northern European and Eastern European. …

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