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Pitfalls of identity politics

Inside a sunlit co-operative housing complex in Burnaby, 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.

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.



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