Immigration Reform 2013: What Republicans Can Learn From Their Canadian Counterparts

In 2006 and 2008, Conservatives, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, won back-to-back minority governments after over a decade of Liberal rule in Canada. 

In both of those elections, the Liberals were successful at painting the Conservatives as “scary” and warned Canadians that Prime Minister Harper would unleash a “hidden agenda” if given the chance. However, after five years of Conservative minority rule, all the opposition parties combined (Liberals, the New Democrats, and the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois) failed in their “fear-mongering” and Canadians, in 2011, elected a Conservative majority.

A significant factor in the Conservative Party’s electoral success in Canada has been its constant, consistent, and calculated cultivation of the immigrant vote. The Republican Party in the U.S. should take note.

Back in 1993, the former Progressive Conservative Party (PC) was essentially erased from the political landscape, holding on to only two seats after a federal election that led to 13 years of Liberal rule. As the PC party went about re-building and a new, conservative grassroots party called the Reform Party of Canada started to explore how it could continue to build on its largely rural base, a new party was formed. Some PCs slowly joined Reformers under a new party banner named the United Alternative (UA). The UA then became the Canadian Alliance (CA) and, in 2003 (a full ten years after the devastating election loss of 1993), the CA formally merged with the PC Party to form the new Conservative Party of Canada.

Under the new Conservative Party, the grassroots approach of the Reform Party was complemented by the institutional and professional approach that stemmed from the long history of the PC Party. Combined, these two parties began to apply “get out the vote” (GOTV) principles to outreach. In order to get elected, Conservatives could not afford to be exclusive. Many of the former Reform Party members were die-hard social conservatives, whereas many former PC members were “Red Tories,” a term given to more centralist or liberal conservatives. Through the merger process, these two groups agreed to work together. Policy was developed through town hall meetings and election platforms were eventually created. 

But printed policies are one thing. To combat a Liberal Party that was ruthless in branding the Conservative Party as an “anti-immigrant, rural white man’s party,” the Conservatives began to build ties with diverse ethnic and religious communities across Canada. 

After winning a minority government in 2006, the Conservatives were finally given a chance to prove themselves as responsible, inclusive stewards of Canada. By 2007, Jason Kenney (an original Reform Party Member of Parliament and former President of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation) had become Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity and since then, has served in one capacity or another as the Prime Minister’s lead on ethnic outreach and immigration.

Today, Jason Kenney serves as Canada’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism and has almost single handedly re-defined the Conservative Party as an immigrant-friendly, pro-diversity party, effectively stealing that identity from the Liberals.  Essentially, under Prime Minister Harper, the Conservative Party is becoming Canada’s “natural governing party,” a term long associated with the Liberal Party.

As in the U.S., Canada’s population is only growing thanks to immigration. Welcoming new Canadians who chose to build a better, more prosperous life is the key to winning elections. In fact, Canada has welcomed over 2 million immigrants since the Conservatives became the governing party and their continued courtship by Conservatives is likely to be rewarded in the next election. Minister Kenney is not just kowtowing to immigrants. He has spent his political life observing how these new Canadians live their lives. Arguing that “they are the personification of Margaret Thatcher's aspirational class. They're all about a massive work ethic,”he fully understands that they already share the conservative work ethic and ideal of building better communities for their children.

Because of the make up of congressional districts, U.S. Republicans may be successful at holding on to the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future. But as far as winning the Senate or, ultimately, the White House, they need to be able to win entire states – and have policies that are far more inclusive to a much more diverse audience than previously needed to win. If Republicans do not act now, the Democrats will assume the title of “the natural governing party” and it will take the Republicans, like the Conservatives in Canada, well over a dozen years to rebuild and re-brand. 

Republicans simply cannot afford to argue amongst each other over who will build a bigger fence or who will deport illegal immigrants faster. While stronger, more clearly enforced immigration policies are certainly essential, Republicans need to remember and recognize that America was built by newcomers. They can start with inclusive language, but they need to act on a comprehensive, grassroots approach designed to listen to, and welcome in, first generation immigrants into the Republican Party.

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Katie Robinette

Katie W. Robinette got her start in US politics in 1999 in Iowa volunteering on then-Gov. Bush’s Presidential campaign. Since then, she has served on Republican campaigns in 10 states – always in a volunteer capacity. She has also worked on many dozens of political campaigns in Canada. In her professional life, she works at an Executive Search firm in Toronto, Canada.

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