TTAWA — During one of the federal leaders’ debates, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was accused of having a secret meeting with members of the ethnic press in Vancouver, to which he retorted: “I’m not sure how you have a secret meeting with the media.”
But the reality of the ethnic press in Canada is that most of the political coverage or commentary in the hundreds of community newspapers, radio stations and television networks rarely breaks into the mainstream — until this week.
The decision by the Conservatives to yank one of their own candidates for something written in a Toronto Punjabi-language newspaper reflects the influence of those publications, especially in a race where heavily diverse ridings are much in play.
In Surrey, B.C., which has five federal ridings that are all competitive, there are 13 ethnic papers — nearly half of the city’s residents have a mother tongue other than English. In Brampton, Ont., where there are also five ridings and a visible minority population of over 66 per cent, there are at least 10 ethnic papers in the city and dozens more who serve its population from headquarters around the Greater Toronto Area.
Political coverage in the ethnic press has changed since the 2011 campaign, said Andrew Machalski, president of the ethnic media monitoring firm MIREMS, which keeps tabs on publications in more than 45 cultural communities in Canada for dozens of clients, including the federal government.
“It’s more engaged than in previous campaigns,” he said in an interview.
“What we are seeing is that issues that are of concern to immigrants, above and beyond their concerns as the general public, seem to be in the forefront in the campaign right now — the issue of the niqab, refugees and immigration policy.”
In 2011, the coverage was more general, he said, and often skewed towards the Conservatives because in that election, the party was more focused than the others on ethnic communities
But this time around, everyone is actively courting the so-called ethnic vote and media outlets have responded by broadening their coverage as well.
Another difference from past campaigns is the lead time available to papers, said Machalski. Many are weeklies, meaning that in the previous campaign they had only a handful of issues to discuss the election. With an 11-week campaign, there’s much more space available, he said.
“It’s been far more intense,” he said.
Engaging the ethnic press has just become a regular part of the campaign as opposed to past elections, when it was seen a specific target, said Ryerson University professor April Lindgren.
An increasingly diverse candidate pool also helps, she said.
“If there is a candidate from their own community who is engaged in the race, there is a fair bit of interest in it,” she said.
Lindgren researched some of the ethnic media coverage in the 2011 campaign in the Toronto-area and found that year, the most extensive election reporting came in the Punjabi-language papers. That community fielded at least 10 candidates in Toronto.
One of the papers she surveyed was the Punjabi Post, whose editor-in-chief was turfed as a candidate by the Conservatives this week.
Jagdish Grewal wrote an editorial earlier this year entitled, “Is it wrong for a homosexual to become a normal person?” defending therapies that attempt to turn gays straight.
After The Canadian Press reported the contents of the piece, the Conservatives removed him from their candidate list, though his name will remain on the ballot because the move came after the cut-off for candidate names to be submitted to Elections Canada.
He’s not the only influential South Asian journalist seeking a seat in Parliament; Harpeet Singh, who hosts his own television show, is the Conservative candidate in one of Surrey, B.C.’s hotly contested ridings.
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Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press