Over the last several years as a Member of Parliament, I’ve become active in cross-cultural outreach—something important for our party and for all political parties as they seek to engage an increasingly diverse country.
As political parties try to do this more, they also face counter-currents— efforts by some to suggest that cross-cultural political outreach is somehow inherently divisive and factionalizing. I expect this process itself as well as the conversations about it to become more and more important.
It is quite normal for politicians and political leaders to seek to meet with citizens and with community groups who represent citizens to discuss their priorities and concerns. In this sense, meeting with members of the Chamber of Commerce is not essentially different from meeting with worshippers at a mosque.
Religious identity tends to run much deeper than commercial identity, but the principle is the same—people with common interests and values wish to engage their elected representatives in discussions about the particular interests and values that are important to their communities
Is it “pandering” to attend these sorts of events? Certainly not. In a democracy, meeting with people to hear their concerns is essential and unavoidable. Nor is it pandering to, for example, dress in a way appropriate to the occasion.
I would not visit a Gurdwara with my head uncovered, and I would not go to an event at the Rideau Club without a tie and a jacket. Presence, respectful appropriate dress and comportment, as well as listening to people are things that we should all expect from our elected representatives.
When Jason Kenney was active in cross-cultural outreach at the federal level, he was sometimes called the minister of “Curry in a Hurry.” This was a fun way to describe certain aspects of his role, but it also created a bit of a confused impression, as if cross-cultural engagement was simply a matter of seeing how much curry you could eat, and as though all people wanted was to see you make an appearance at their events.
In reality, Kenney had a highly sophisticated understanding of the cultural experience, faith, and political priorities of different communities. He was genuinely interested in those things, and he brought what he heard back to Ottawa. He did not just fill up on curry, he filled up on information.
This is one of the reasons why, in the long run, I believe conservatives will always be better than liberals at cross-cultural engagement. Liberals are often that caricature of “curry in a hurry” —showing up at the event to eat the food and take the photo, but failing to act on the concerns that they hear.
Sometimes Liberals are better at being the life of the party, but Conservatives understand in a deep way the importance of culture, of family, of community, and of faith. We are interested in the particular concerns and values of those we interact with, and how their faith and cultural experiences inform those values.
Understanding the depth of experience and how it influences the attitudes and concerns of someone in a community, in which one did not grow up, is a daunting task, but really listening and really trying to bridge divides is and has always been part of the job description for Canadian politicians. Digging deep and trying to understand is not about extenuating division, it should be about seeing the opportunities for bridging divides.
Consider this example: how we related to India and Indian politics. A substantial portion, though not a majority, of Canada’s South Asian community are Sikh, and many Sikhs came to Canada in the wake of very difficult events in India in and around 1984.
Essentially, tensions involving questions about the status of Punjab led to Operation Blue Star, an Indian army operation against the holiest site in the Sikh faith. The Indian government argued that this was a necessary action to root out militants, but many ordinary pilgrims were killed in that process, especially since the attack coincided with an important date of pilgrimage.
Following this, India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by a Sikh bodyguard, and then thousands of Sikhs were tortured and killed by angry mobs in certain regions, almost certainly acting at the impetus of those within the governing Congress Party. Many Sikhs would see these events as constituting genocide.
So the Canadian Sikh community’s conversation about Indian politics is impacted by the terrible trauma of the violence of that period. That trauma has familial and inter-generational impacts.
On the other hand, the response to demands from some quarters of the Sikh community for political independence for Punjab, itself often a response to the trauma of 1984, is met by concerns rooted in a different kind of trauma – a recollection of the terrible violence associated with the partition of British India into India and Pakistan.
The division of British India into a predominantly Hindu and a predominantly Muslim state was associated with terrible bloodshed. Although Canadians can discuss the possibility of the democratic and peaceful separation of part of our country, that possibility is outside the experience of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and most other nations.
So, while one can understand the pursuit of political independence in response to traumatic experience, one can also understand the desire for unchallenged political unity in response to traumatic experience. Even though both impulses are contradictory, they are both a response to an experience of violence and a desire for self-preservation.
It is my hope that more Canadian politicians and political activists will seek to understand the complexity of these types of questions, and build bridges between these experiences.
It is in understanding experiences, not just in showing up and eating curry, that politicians truly engage in effective cross-cultural outreach. And understanding these dynamics gives us a better understanding of the world and a greater ability to engage effectively with it.