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Seeking ethnic dress for photo op 'unacceptable,' Tories tell riding

Conservative leader and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) talks with Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar before the start of the Canadian premiere of Kumar's film "Thank You" during a campaign stop at a theatre in Brampton, Ontario April 8, 2011. Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election on May 2.

Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters

Conservative efforts to reach out to ethnic communities strayed into sensitive territory Wednesday as the party called its own attempt to find people in ethnic costume for a photo op with Stephen Harper "completely unacceptable."

The self-criticism was sparked by an e-mail sent to leaders of the Arab community in Toronto on behalf of the Conservative candidate in Etobicoke-Centre, Ted Opitz. It said organizers were trying to arrange a photo op that would have up to 20 people in "national folklore costumes" to provide a backdrop for Mr. Harper's appearance in the riding Thursday.

Ryan Sparrow, spokesman for the Conservative Party, said the e-mail was not authorized by the national campaign.

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"The national campaign was not aware. We find it completely unacceptable," Mr. Sparrow said. "It doesn't reflect the intentions of the event whatsoever. It's a political rally and the contents of the e-mail were unacceptable."

The e-mail, which was written by party volunteer Zeljko Zidaric, said the Etobicoke Centre Conservative campaign was planning a photo-op that would portray a rainbow of multicultural support for Mr. Harper and the local candidate.

"The opportunity is to have up to 20 people in national folklore costumes which represent their ethnic backgrounds. These people will sit in front row behind the PM - great TV photo op. We are seeking representation from the Arab community. Do you have any cultural groups that would like to participate by having someone at the event in an ethnic costume?" the e-mail states.

Reaction to the e-mail was swift and negative from groups already irritated by the Conservative strategy of targeting certain ridings identified in party strategy documents as "very ethnic."

Avvy Go, a Toronto lawyer, said the e-mail highlights the absurdity of the political pursuit of an ethnic vote.

"It's not just the Conservatives that have used this strategy but they take it to a different level. …They treat us as homogeneous groups at a very superficial level, like all they need to know about us is what we wear and what we eat without engaging on a deeper level," Ms. Go said. "It's insulting."

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau said the incident demonstrates a Conservative tendency to look at ethnic communities as "commodities for photo ops."

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"It's sort of quaint. It's a throwback to a time when multiculturalism was about a mainstream consuming different little festivals and identities … instead of the modern view of a diverse, multicultural society with everyone participating together as Canadians," Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Opitz is no stranger to appealing to immigrant communities. Before the election, he was the regional adviser to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, the Conservative point man on ethnic politics. Mr. Opitz, who is also a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian military and the commanding officer of a reserve regiment, attended dozens of gatherings in the Toronto area with Mr. Kenney over the past few years.

According to The Canadian Press, a spokesman for Mr. Opitz said later that Mr. Zidaric is no longer with the campaign.

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About the Author
Demographics Reporter

Joe Friesen writes about immigration, population, culture and politics. He was previously the Globe's Prairie bureau chief. More

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