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#CityVote2019: Candidates seek connection with voters in immigrant-rich Brampton East

Last Updated Oct 14, 2019 at 7:48 pm EDT

A man tells NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh that he should cut off his turban so he can look “like a Canadian.”

Yearbook photos of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing brown and blackface during his tenure as a teacher surface.

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier is invited to an official election debate, where he brashly declares: “We must have fewer immigrants in this country.”

It’s undeniable: Race and immigration have been at the epicentre of the 2019 federal election.

They are issues that affect all Canadians, but they’re especially significant in the riding of Brampton East.

According to the 2016 census, Brampton East has the second-highest rate of visible minority residents in Canada at 90 percent. Fifty-nine per cent of those residents are immigrants.

They came here looking for a better life, for jobs, safety and security, health care and hope. And now they’re looking for someone to represent them.

Three-way fight

The riding is up for grabs after Liberal MP Raj Grewal, who won in 2015, left caucus and said he wouldn’t be running again in light of a devastating gambling addiction.

Instead, Maninder Sidhu is left to defend the Liberal record. He’ll clash with the two other perceived front-runners — Conservative candidate Ramona Singh, and the NDP’s Saranjit Singh.

While Brampton East has swung back and forth between the Liberals and Conservatives over the last few federal elections, the signs lining residential streets aren’t limited to red and blue. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s influence is palpable in the riding — he held it while at Queens Park — and there are plenty of orange NDP signs in front yards throughout Brampton East.

The leaders of their respective parties have outlined their immigration policies, but far from the scandal and sanctimony of Parliament Hill, the three hopefuls have been knocking on doors in the suburbs, trying to connect with residents on a personal level.

And while topics like cost-of-living and crime are top of mind — the one constant is immigration.

‘We’re focused on family reunification’

NDP candidate Saranjit Singh believes residents will identify with his own family’s struggles and subsequent successes.

His parents settled in Canada as refugees in 1988. Both were teachers with Master’s Degrees in their home country, but as Singh explains, his father worked as a taxi driver and his mother worked long days in a factory after coming to Canada to provide a better life for their children.

He now wants to help make it easier for immigrants with special skills and degrees to be accredited here in Canada.

“I’m a human rights and labour lawyer today because of how hard they worked,” he said. “We want to see when people come with expertise from different countries that those accreditations and credentials are able to be recognized. It’s really important because we’re losing out on such amazing talent because of a system that’s not working for regular everyday people.”

“We’re focused on family reunification as well,” he added. “A lot of individuals have family that they’ve been separated from for decades. We need to make sure that they are able to bring their loved ones here, that they can provide for them and make sure we have a stronger country.”

Singh cites health care as another key issue in the riding, noting that “we have over 600,000 people and only one hospital.”

“It’s a very working-class town, a lot of people don’t have benefits so pharma-care and dental care are really important things for people here … When somebody falls ill, they shouldn’t be concerned about having to pay for their medication, it’s a time when they need assistance from our government … so we need to focus on having universal pharma-care …”

‘This country is built on immigration’

Liberal candidate Maninder Sidhu is also the son of immigrant parents and he downplayed fears that illegal immigration is a growing problem in Canada.

“We have a fair immigration system,” he insisted. “Canada is built on fairness and opportunities and we’ve got to remember that this country is built on immigration. Everyone’s come into this country, just like my parents … for the opportunities to live in Canada because we have the greatest country in the world.”

Sidhu says his own values align with the Liberal party, leading to sincere interactions on the campaign trail.

“People know that Canada has always been open to immigration, open to all types of cultures, so it’s not like I have to get out of my shell to be that person, I am that person. I represent an immigrant success story. I was born in Canada, but my parents came in the early 80s.”

“Immigrants bring a huge economic value to our country,” he added. “My parents were immigrants in the early 80s. They came during Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s time. Had they not been given the opportunity — I probably wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today.”

Sidhu touted the Canada Child Benefits Program and increased funding for guns and gang violence as some of Liberal initiatives that he’s most proud of.

He’s been canvassing the riding regularly and says aside from immigration, most voters express concerns about crime.

“Every second house now has a camera … people are worried,” he said.

Education cuts and health care are also high priorities among the people he’s spoken to.

‘People have a lot of frustrations with this Trudeau government’

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have taken a tough stance on immigration, vowing to close the loophole that allows tens of thousands of asylum seekers to claim refugee status. But Brampton East Conservative candidate, Ramona Singh, doesn’t think voters in her immigrant-rich riding will hold that against her.

On the contrary, she believes immigrants will be better served under a Conservative government than they have been under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

“Some of the drawbacks have been what has happened under the Trudeau administration,” she said. “Some of it could be Visas that are not coming, the long queues that are happening for getting Visas for family members.

“Another issue is fraudulent marriages so people going back to the home country, coming here, and then the person leaving. Before, under the (Harper) Conservative government, you had a two-year minimum criteria to make sure the marriage was not fraudulent and now the spouse can come and just flee from the airport and it’s left a lot of devastated families.”

“So there’s a lot of issues that they’ve seen under this (Liberal) government that they’ve been very careless about and they don’t understand that all the issues are interrelated.”

Singh also stressed that immigrants with skills should be able find appropriate work once in Canada.

“We want to make sure that we can match the trades, so having some sort of comparison where whatever profession they practiced back home, they find an equivalent here, and are able to get back to work, be a taxpayer.”

She also contends that immigrants will appreciate a more frugal, cost-efficient Conservative government.

“Whether you want to call it new Canadians or the ethnic community — they work hard, they work seven days a week, they pay their taxes, so they are saying where are our tax dollars going?”

Singh says immigration, along with affordability and community safety are the top issues residents in her riding talk about when she goes door-to-door.

“Guns, gangs, crime. That’s now on the top of everyone’s minds.”