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Canada's elections might hinge on immigrant and religious issues

Canada's elections might hinge on immigrant and religious issues
Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper., Canada's incumbent prime minister, on the campaign trail for elections Monday. (Jonathan Hayward / AP)

Who will lead Canada after Monday's elections is likely to come down to the diverse inhabitants of "the 905."

The suburban Toronto neighborhoods reached by area code 905, key constituencies in this campaign thanks in part to a redistribution of parliamentary seats, are home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants drawn to a nation that for decades has been a refuge for victims of war and oppression.

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But the politicians vying to govern Canada have found in this campaign for Parliament and executive office one complication of diversity: What pleases one community can outrage another.

Incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper's call for curbs on Muslim women wearing the niqab facial veil in public probably has cost him support in Canada's largest cities, where Islamic communities traditionally vote for his Conservative Party. The more numerous non-Muslim immigrants, though, have rallied to Harper's contention that the veil reflects "anti-woman" culture and hinders integration. More broadly as many as 80% of Canadians surveyed by pollsters say they agree with the prime minister.

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The ascendant Liberal Party, headed by Justin Trudeau, 43, the charismatic eldest son of late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, has had its own stumbles with Muslims and other conservative cultures. The party that dominated Canadian politics for most of the 20th century has found itself under fire in immigrant communities in populous Ontario over the provincial government's introduction of a controversial sex education program in public schools.

And even the most seasoned pollsters and political gurus are reluctant to predict how the religious issues will play out in the ethnic kaleidoscopes of Montreal, Vancouver and especially Toronto.

The Liberals were surging out of a tight three-way pack in the closing days of the campaign for parliamentary leadership and the right to seat a prime minister and Cabinet. A CTV/Globe and Mail/Nanos poll released Thursday showed 37.1% of respondents support the Liberals against the Tories' 29.4%. The New Democratic Party headed by French Canadian lawyer Thomas Mulcair has slipped to 23.7% as voters bent on halting Harper's reign at three terms have shifted to Trudeau's party in the belief it has the better shot in the first-past-the-post races.

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Harper, a 56-year-old economist by training, put forth his views on facial veiling after a federal appeals court last month struck down a ban on new Canadians wearing the niqab during their swearing-in as citizens. The court sided with Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani who had refused to take the oath of citizenship if it meant removing her veil. Harper's government has said it will appeal the ruling to the Canadian Supreme Court.

"Most Canadians find it offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family," the Conservatives said in a statement on the Ishaq case, which it recently bolstered with calls for extending the ban on the niqab to employees of the federal government while they are at work.

Still, Canada's idiosyncratic electoral mechanics don't ensure that the Liberals will be able to command even a plurality in the legislature with their lead in the polls. The Conservatives enjoy maximum "voting efficiency," the experts say.

"In a first-past-the-post system, voting efficiency is rewarded. Even though the Conservatives are 7 percentage points back, the reality in the House of Commons might be much closer," said pollster Nik Nanos, chairman of the Nanos Research Group. He noted the Tories' history of winning more constituencies than their competitors with little more than a third of each district's votes as the Liberals and New Democrats split the left and center.

Harper's Conservatives are also projected to benefit most from the once-a-decade redistribution of parliamentary districts based on population dynamics. For 2015, the shifts in boundaries and the addition of 30 seats to the current 308 in Parliament is expected to give 22 of the new mandates to the Tories, a bit of an irony considering that most of the population growth came from the immigrant influx to the 905.

There is also uncertainty on how Quebec voters will respond to a campaign hijacked by the immigrant issues at the expense of the economy and environment, said Werner Antweiler, a political analyst and professor of economics at the University of British Columbia.

As in France, the predominantly Roman Catholic residents of the French-speaking province are staunchly supportive of secular society. The niqab issue has had resonance in Canada's second-most-populous province, which could boost the fortunes of the pro-sovereignty Bloc Quebecois, Antweiler said. The provincial arm of the bloc suffered a crushing defeat in elections last year, leading forecasters like the Forum research group to predict that the party will take only seven seats in Monday's elections.

"There is strong division in Quebec between church and state and many are against the display of religiosity in public," Antweiler said. "It's a very sensitive issue and has a lot of people excited and worked up. Nobody can predict how that will work out in the voting."

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In Ontario, Canada's largest province, the governing party's criticism of niqab-wearers struck a chord with minority groups that share the view that social cohesion is a stabilizing force. Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Slavs and other immigrants collectively far outnumber Muslims, the latter estimated by the CIA World Factbook to account for about 3% of Canada's 35 million people.

Political analysts see the immigrant issues as a diversion that worked for the Conservatives early in the 78-day campaign. But as election day closes in, there has been a resurgence of what Antweiler said is the "overarching" goal of defeating Harper.

"Momentum has been shifting toward the Liberals, even to the extent that the Liberal Party is campaigning in safe Conservative ridings where they wouldn't have competed four weeks ago," he said.

That late-campaign movement is attributed to concern about the economy that so far has been overshadowed by the immigration issues. Depressed oil and gas prices have hit the resource sector hard, Antweiler said, and the Canadian dollar that only a few years ago was at parity with the U.S. greenback has fallen to 77 cents against its neighbor's currency.

That is good for Canadian exports like Bombadier jets and tightly integrated U.S.-Canadian auto production, 75% of which go to the United States, he said. But with 90% of Canadians living within an hour's drive of the U.S. border, their habit of shopping and vacationing in the U.S. means higher costs for day-to-day purchases and favorite escapes.

In the end, Antweiler said, Trudeau has done the better job of convincing voters that Canada needs to invest deeply in infrastructure, even if that means budget deficits and more moderate tax reform. The Liberals also have downplayed their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Texas, avoiding a campaign-trail clash with the Conservatives over the potentially job-creating and export-enhancing project.

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"He has turned around all the negative campaigning of the Conservatives that he's not ready to lead," Antweiler said, predicting a Liberal plurality in Parliament and Trudeau in the prime minister's office. "He seems to have confounded the perceptions that he is a lightweight."

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