Last bid for votes in Canadian election

Composite photo

As Canada's political leaders make their last bid for votes ahead of Monday's election, the campaigns are focusing on immigrant communities - and areas that have swung politically in the last election. Brampton, a suburb of Toronto, is both.

"Does anyone have the leader's jacket?"

Liberal Party standard-bearer Justin Trudeau had just jumped off his campaign bus sporting a black varsity jacket with a maple leaf and "Canada" emblazoned on the back in large red letters. As a cold rain fell in the north-west Toronto suburb of Brampton, he pressed through a crowd and into a local cafe frequented by the area's sizable Indian population.

Now a staffer had emerged from the restaurant, concerned that a supporter had nabbed a rather unique campaign souvenir.

Also nearly lost in the throng were two Liberal parliamentary candidates who could be critical to Mr Trudeau's quest to become the next prime minister of Canada - Ramesh Sangha and Ruby Sahota.

Both are challenging incumbents in Brampton parliamentary races, a traditionally left-leaning area that was carried by the Conservative Party when Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a parliamentary majority in 2011.

Ms Sahota, a Toronto-born criminal lawyer and daughter of a local Sikh community leader, and Mr Sangha, an India-born immigration lawyer, were both damp and packed in near the door of the restaurant, before security finally ushered them inside to stand with Mr Trudeau.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Justin Trudeau at a campaign stop in Brampton

The jacket was eventually located, and Mr Trudeau emerged to pose for selfies with young fans and shake the hands of white-bearded residents, some clad in colourful dastars - a Sikh style of turban.

According to the latest polls, Brampton - and other immigrant-heavy outlying Toronto suburbs - will be a key to victory in Monday's general election. The vote is shaping up as a showdown between the Liberals and Conservatives, after the left-leaning New Democratic Party slid to a clear third place in the recent weeks.

Ms Sahota faces off against incumbent Conservative Parm Gill and NDP's Martin Singh. Mr Sangha has a slightly more difficult task, as his Conservative opponent is Bal Gosal, who serves in Mr Harper's cabinet. Rosemary Keenan is the NDP candidate. (Neither Conservative candidate responded to interview requests.)

Brampton, with its five ridings - Canada's version of an electoral constituency - is 70% minority, mostly from South Asia. Ms Sahota and Mr Sangha say that jobs, the economy and Toronto's overwhelmed transit system are important concerns of their voters.

However, they say that Mr Harper's immigration policies are proving to be a pivotal point of difference between Liberals and Conservatives.

Shortly after his re-election in 2011, in an attempt to reduce the backlog of immigrant applications, Mr Harper raised income requirements for Canadians to sponsor the entry of family members and lowered the cap on parents and grandparents who could be admitted.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A supporter holds up a sign at a Stephen Harper rally

Mr Sangha says this last measure is particularly irksome.

"People are sending their children back to their countries because they need to work," he says. "No one is here to take care of their children."

Mr Sangha adds that granting entry to grandparents doesn't just help working parents, it benefits all of Canada.

"They become the good citizens," he says. "Canada is progressing with their help."

Mr Harper is making his own values pitch to Canada's immigrant community, however. In the past few days, the Conservative Party has been running adverts in Indian-language newspapers criticising Mr Trudeau for his support of legalised marijuana and the Liberal Party's opposition to a law re-instituting a ban on prostitution after Canadian courts struck earlier measures down.

"New Canadians from India, from South Asia, have also found this Conservative government respects your values," Mr Harper said at a campaign event in Brampton on Wednesday, noting that while Liberals may support legalised prostitution, his party won't.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mr Harper is making his own values pitch to Canada's immigrant community

Ms Sahota counters that such "attack ads" are aimed at creating fear and division. "I think that's what their campaign is run on and based on," she says.

She also points to recent Conservative measures to ease deportation proceedings for immigrants convicted of crimes and Mr Harper's use of the term "old stock Canadians" during a leaders' debate in Calgary to describe multi-generational Canadian residents as evidence that he's trying to employ divisive rhetoric and policies to pull ahead on election day.

"There is no such thing as old stock Canadians as far as I'm concerned," she says. "Everyone at some point came through an immigration process to enter this country, so we should respect all the contributions that everyone has made."

Mr Harper has responded to these types of criticisms by saying that he's not fear mongering. He's just stating facts that Liberals don't want to confront, Harper says.

For Azam Hussain, another Brampton-based Liberal supporter among the crowd gathered to greet Mr Trudeau on Friday, Mr Harper's opposition to a recent Canadian court order permitting a woman to wear an Islamic head-covering scarf, the niqab, during a citizenship ceremony was of particular concern.

"They should not use religion or anything like that to advance themselves in the polls," the member of the Toronto-based Islamic Forum of Canada says.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Tom Mulcair's NDP has slipped to third in the polls - but the race is still close

He credits Mr Trudeau's father, Pierre Trudeau - a Canadian prime minister in the 1970s - with opening the nation up to the benefits of immigration. He says he believes the younger Trudeau will follow suit.

"That's the reason why we are here," he says. "We built this economy."

In 2011 Mr Trudeau's Liberal Party was soundly beaten in Brampton and across much of Canada, finishing a distant third behind the ruling Conservatives and the NDP. Now, however, polls show the Liberals poised to win a plurality of seats and - with an outright majority or the support of like-minded NDP politicians - could have the chance to oust Mr Harper after a record 10 years in office.

Mr Sangha said that when he first began contemplating a run for office, he compared his Liberal Party to a phoenix, which had been reduced to ashes in its 2011 defeat.

"I'm feeling the phoenix is born again now," he says. "We're touching the hearts of the people."

The final judgement on that view - in Brampton and around Canada - will have to wait until Monday's voting concludes.

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