OTTAWA — He was a teenage refugee, fleeing civil war in Somalia, when he came to Canada 22 years ago. Now, after completing high school and earning degrees in history and law, Ahmed Hussen is about to be sworn in as a member of Parliament — one of 46 nonwhite candidates elected to the House of Commons on Oct. 19, most of them immigrants.
“Even as recently as two years ago, if you asked, ‘Would you ever become an M.P. in Canada?’ I would say, ‘Impossible,’ ” said Mr. Hussen, 39, a Liberal who will represent a Toronto constituency. “It speaks well of Canadians that they’re willing to vote for a person based on his views and his platform, not where they come from.”
Many factors contributed to the sweeping victory last month by the Liberals, whose leader, Justin Trudeau, will take office as prime minister on Wednesday. But several analysts said that one of the most important factors was the immigration and refugee policies of the losing Conservative government.
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In a country that generally prizes immigrants as a source of economic growth and officially encourages newcomers to maintain their ethnic identities, the Conservatives and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were widely seen as anti-Muslim, especially after they made an issue of the face coverings worn by some Muslim women.
Ahmed Hussen, left, became the first Somali-born person elected to Canada’s Parliament Credit Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star, via Getty Images
“The Conservative government tried to use wedge politics, but in the end, it backfired,” said Andrew Griffith, a former director general of the government office that oversees citizenship matters and the author of a book about multiculturalism in Canada. “It should give any political party in Canada food for thought, food for reflection.”
The move was uncharacteristic even for the Conservatives, who assiduously courted immigrant communities even before they first won power in 2006, particularly in two areas that often decide the balance of power in Parliament: the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia. The Liberals and the New Democratic Party also seek support there, but the Conservatives often found that their more traditional approach to many social issues found an eager audience.
Canadian law makes it relatively easy to move from landed immigrant to citizen, and Mr. Griffith said that many newcomers became politically active once they could vote. Because Canada’s immigration rules favor well-educated and affluent migrants, ethic communities are also an important source of donations to political parties, not least because the country’s campaign finance laws ban contributions from corporations or unions and set a relatively low ceiling for individuals.
“It’s empowering in that there are groups that can no longer be ignored,” said Arif Virani, 43, a newly elected Liberal lawmaker from Toronto who came to Canada with his parents as an Ismaili Muslim refugee from Uganda in 1972. He noted that in some constituencies, all three major parties ran minority candidates.
At times over the past decade, Jason Kenney, a Conservative cabinet minister, seemed to be appearing at just about every ethnic celebration in the country — a butter-chicken circuit that appeared to take a toll on his waistline. But Mr. Kenney’s courtship of ethnic minorities, Mr. Griffith said, was undone when the Conservative government decided to make it harder for recent immigrants to bring in relatives, when it was slow to accept Syrian refugees and when it tried to ban the niqab, or face covering, during citizenship ceremonies. Mr. Harper’s use of the phrase “old-stock Canadians” on the campaign trail made matters worse.
Mr. Griffith reckons that there are 33 electoral districts where a majority of voters belong to what are known in Canada as visible minority groups — people who are not of white European extraction. All 33 districts are in the suburbs of Toronto or Vancouver, and many were held by Conservatives until last month, when Liberals won in all but three of them.
Canada first introduced a policy of official multiculturalism, recognizing the differences in Canadians’ heritage, in 1971 under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a Liberal prime minister and the father of Justin Trudeau. Initially, the policy provided funds for programs like language classes, but it has since evolved into a broad legal protection of religious and ethnic differences.
Though it was contentious at first, the policy is now frequently cited by Canadians as a defining characteristic of their country — though both Mr. Griffith and Mr. Virani say it has limits.
Canadians tend to think that, where the United States assimilates immigrants’ cultures in a melting pot, Canada allows all cultures to flourish. But Mr. Virani said that the contrast was “a little bit more gray than that.”
Voters appeared to reject Mr. Harper’s plan to ban face coverings during citizenship ceremonies, but Mr. Griffith said there was still widespread unease about the practice of wearing them, which many Canadians believe limits the participation of Muslim women in society.
Still, despite the tenor of the Conservatives’ last campaign, all the major Canadian political parties favor encouraging immigration. New arrivals account for two-thirds of Canada’s population growth, an important factor in a country where there are now more citizens over 65 than under 15. Geography helps form that pro-immigration consensus by making it difficult to slip into the country as an illegal immigrant or a refugee.
“You can’t walk to Canada, apart from the U.S., so we don’t have a neighbor that generates a lot of refugees or immigrants coming across,” Mr. Griffith said. “That helps the discussion.”
Mr. Hussen and Mr. Virani have built impressive résumés since coming to Canada. Mr. Hussen, who once lived in a public-housing project in downtown Toronto, earned part of his college tuition pumping gas for minimum wage at a service station a half-hour’s walk beyond the last public transit stop. He did volunteer work as a community organizer and led an organization for Somali Canadians. As the first Somali-born person elected to Canada’s Parliament, he said, he received congratulations from Somalian expatriates around the world.
Mr. Virani, who was an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal at the same time as the younger Mr. Trudeau, also became a lawyer, arguing constitutional law cases, often involving human rights issues, for the province of Ontario before he sought office.
As Mr. Harper’s rhetoric rose over the niqab issue, Mr. Virani said, he found a corresponding rise in the number of voters he met who raised anti-Muslim sentiments.
The Harper government was “just so far removed from the humanitarian and compassionate responses we’ve had over the past number of decades, under a number of governments of various political stripes,” he said. “It really gave me pause to wonder what kind of life I would have had, or what kind of future I would have had, had that government been in power in 1972.”
He added, “It’s fundamental to Canadians’ identity that they want to be seen as, and to be, a welcoming and accommodating nation.”