When voters choose ethnicity over issues

National Post (Canada)
March 31, 2004 Wednesday All but Toronto Edition

When voters choose ethnicity over issues

by James Cowan

In the final installment of the Post’s series on ethnopolitics, James
Cowan visits Don Valley East, where ethnic alliances determined not
just the issues, but the backroom battles that decided the Liberal

– – –

TORONTO – Visible minorities are the visible majority in Don Valley
East, a riding where last Sunday the crowd outside the Liberal
nomination meeting fiddled with prayer beads, nibbled on Persian
cookies and chewed Turkish delight. They spoke Farsi, Tamil, Armenian
and Greek. They rarely spoke English — unless they were chatting
with a different ethic contingent.

Four candidates were vying to replace David Collenette, the former
cabinet minister and Chretien loyalist. Many assumed John Kazanjian,
a Bay Street lawyer closely associated with Paul Martin, would easily
win the nomination.

But he faced still competition from three candidates: George
Kalkounis, a former riding president of Greek extraction; Ali
Ehsassi, a legal scholar who had the backing of the large Iranian
community; and Yasmin Ratansi, an accountant with a solid base
amongst South Asian voters.

Sixty per cent of the residents of Don Valley East are immigrants.
Fifty-five per cent speak a mother tongue other than English.
Twenty-one per cent still live in homes that function in a foreign

These demographics dictated not only the issues discussed by the
candidates, but also the machinations taking place in the backrooms.
There were allegations that the South Asian community stacked the
membership list with illegitimate forms. There were cheat sheets to
help first-generation immigrants understand the complex balloting
process. And there was the suggestion the successful campaign won
because many voters didn’t understand how to mark their ballots

It’s not that there weren’t issues that might have been of interest
— the promise of new training opportunities for immigrants, or
faster accreditation programs for professionals from overseas. But
campaign workers said the voters didn’t care about these things. What
mattered to them was what ethnic group an individual represented.

“I was very shocked and surprised by how people weren’t engaging on
the issues,” said one high ranking campaign official, “I never
thought you’d literally get pigeonholed into a particular community.
But that’s what nominations come down to.”

This tribal mentality resulted in some intriguing exchanges as the
throng waited to vote on Sunday.

“Support John Kazanjian,” said one campaign worker, attempting to
hand a button to a man in line.

“But I’m Persian,” responded the man, implying he would be backing
Mr. Ehsassi. “I’m Persian too,” said the Kazanjian supporter.

“And you’re supporting John? That is a crime,” said the man.

Ms. Ratansi insisted she had broad support, but nevertheless made
clear efforts to win the backing of the South Asian community.

“I am the only candidate in this contest who is of South Asian
heritage and understands your issues, because they are my issues
too,” she said in an interview with the Weekly Voice, a community

The Ratansi and Ehsassi campaigns both focussed on limited portions
of the riding population. According to Statistics Canada, 12% of the
riding population is South Asian, while only 4% are Iranian. And yet,
standing outside the middle school at some points, one could easily
believe one-half the local populous spoke Farsi and the other half
Tamil. With the emphasis on these communities, other groups went
untapped, including significant Chinese, black and WASP populations.
In fact, of the nearly 5,000 members eligible to vote, only 220 spoke
English as their first language.

“There are not as many Anglo-Saxons involved as one might expect,”
Mr. Kalkounis said.

“It’s perhaps a matter of the candidates choosing specific groups
based on the individual’s own groups. It’s an easier way to achieve

The masses wearing Ehsassi t-shirts and busloads of Ratansi backers
made it clear they had drawn successfully on their own communities.
Mr. Kazanjian boasted of a broader range of support, with pamphlets
featuring endorsements from local mosque president Assadulah
Farahmand and Abdulhaq Ingar, the president of Toronto Islamic

But behind the politicking, accusations were flying. The eligibility
of 700 Ratansi supporters was challenged by other camps (one source
indicated almost all the challenges came from the Kazajian team).
Most of the challenges, sources say, related to a voter’s signature
not matching the one appearing on their registration form. In the
past, these problems developed when one member of a large family
filled out forms for all of their relatives.

There were also suggestions Ratansi’s team blockaded the parking lot
at the nomination meeting, an allegation that prompted a shouting
match between Mr. Ehsassi’s campaign director and a Ratansi
supporter. In the end, Ms. Ratansi forced her small frame between the
Liberal members, anxious to stop the infighting.

There were also complaints campaigns were not following through on
agreements struck before the voting began. The selection on Sunday
took place by preferential ballot, with participants marking a first
and second choice on their form. If none of the candidates received
more than 50% of the vote, then the individual with the fewest number
of supporters was dropped from the list and the votes were
retabulated to distribute the loser’s votes to his supporters’ second

The Kazajian and Ehsassi camps formed an alliance, each agreeing to
select the other’s candidate as their second choice. The Kalkounis
and Ratanis teams had a similar agreement. However, halfway through
the vote, there were complaints that the Kazajian team were not
living up to their bargain. The rumour suggested that Armenian
supporters were told not to mark a second choice at all. The Ehsassi
camp only noticed the problem because they had an Armenian amongst
their Farsi speaking midst.

The allegations against the Kazajian campaign were unproven and all
of the campaigns had taken steps to ensure votes were cast properly.
Each group had printed slips of paper, instructing their supporters
how to fill in their ballots and providing a handy graphic. Thus, if
a voter did not speak English well enough to understand the
instructions on how to fill in the ballots, they only needed to copy
the slip of paper. While the other candidates disguised their voting
guides as pedagogical aids, the Kazajian page provided very clear

“When voting, mark you ballot as follows,” the slip reads, before
telling the voter to choose Kazajian, followed by Ehsassi.

When the ballots were counted, redistributed, recounted,
redistributed and recounted again, Ms. Ratansi won a convincing
victory. The Liberal Party does not disclose the number of votes cast
for each candidate, but senior officials indicated Ms. Ratansi
defeated Mr. Kazanjian on the third ballot by a margin of 895 to 580
votes. “I guess you had the incorrect information,” She told the
National Post, anxious to contradict suggestions she had a limited
base of support.

However, those privy to the full results suggest Ms. Ratansi did have
narrow support, but won anyway. After the first ballot, Mr. Kalkounis
was eliminated and much of his vote transferred to Ms. Ratansi. On
the second count, Mrs. Kazanjian and Mr. Ehsassi were closely matched
but it was the Paul Martin lawyer who won out. Thus, Mr. Ehsassi
dropped from the contest. However, many of Mr. Ehsassi’s supporters
had not marked a second choice on their ballot, meaning his
supporters failed to carry to Mr. Kazanjian. Ms. Ratansi was handed
the win.

One can only speculate why Ehsassi supporters did not back Mr.
Kazanjian in the end. Others believe the Ehsassi camp quietly
withdrew their support once rumours of the Armenian scandal started
to circulate. Most, however, believe many immigrant voters simply had
a hard time understanding the preferential balloting process and so
many Ehsassi supporters failed to select a second choice candidate at

Regardless of the reason, Ms. Ratansi will apparently have a hard
time convincing some Liberals that she is the candidate with appeal
beyond her South Asian roots.

“It’s a wasted nomination,” one prominent Kazanjian supporter told
the Post, “No matter who the Conservatives put in here, she can’t
win. All of her support is with the South Asians, she can’t reach out
to the broader community. Either of the guys — Ali or John — could
have done it. But she can’t win the seat. And all I know is I’m not
going to help her with the fight.”

GRAPHIC: Black & White Photo: Zoran Bozicevic, National Post; Voters
wait inside Milne Valley School to vote for a Liberal candidate in
Toronto’s Don Valley East riding.