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Canadians divided over whether they'd actually vote for diverse political leaders

B.C. scored highest on willingness to elect women politicians, but lowest on Indigenous ones. Across Canada, Muslims and Sikhs fared worst among voters.

Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh launches his bid for the federal NDP leadership in Brampton, Ont., on Monday, May 15, 2017.


Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh launches his bid for the federal NDP leadership in Brampton, Ont., on Monday, May 15, 2017.

As Premier Christy Clark’s government teeters in the balance ahead of likely loss in a confidence motion in Victoria this week, British Columbian voters are still more likely to consider a woman as their provincial or federal leader than any other region of Canada, a new Angus Reid Institute opinion poll found, tied with the Atlantic provinces at 98 per cent.

But Indigenous candidates would fare much more poorly here that elsewhere in the country in elections, with 18 per cent of B.C. saying they would not be willing to vote for someone of First Nations, Inuit or Metis background as leader.

While voters under 35 years old tended to be much more accepting of diversity in leadership than older generations, however, Muslims, Sikhs and especially those displaying religious symbols or clothing such as turbans or headscarves fared much more poorly than other groups.

“There’s a certain level of division that’s notable and palpable across Canadian society when it comes to religious symbols being displayed,” Angus Reid Institute executive director Shachi Kurl said in a phone interview. “It really speaks to visibility.

“We don’t necessary bat our eyes when someone who is Muslim or of the Sikh faith (runs for office), but not necessarily as visibly. But if they wear a turban, that continues to be something many Canadians express some reticence towards.”

The survey, of 1,533 Canadian voters also compared results between Canadian and U.S. respondents. It found some key differences in voters’ acceptance of political diversity.

While both countries have a “reticence” when it comes to Muslims, Sikhs, and candidates wearing religious symbols, American voters were primarily divided with Hillary Clinton voters tending to be more accepting of most forms of diversity, and Donald Trump voters significantly less so.

“In the U.S., we see the divisions in who people would vote for among different groups is driven largely along political lines,” Kurl explained. “In Canada there is an element of that, but it seems much more driven by how old you are and where you live.

“We shouldn’t be too smug about this, but generally in Canada there’s a slightly higher level of acceptance or willingness to consider candidates from a diverse number of backgrounds.”

Where Canada’s political parties were most divided when it came to accepting diverse leaders, however, were on the question of Muslims, Sikhs, transgender and Indigenous candidates.

For instance, 57 per cent of Conservative voters would never vote for a Muslim leader, nearly double the 35 and 31 per cent among New Democrats and Liberals respectively. Likewise, just shy of half of Tories would never vote for a Sikh or transgender leader, while Sikhs would fare poorly among three-in-ten Liberals and 35 per cent of New Democrats, and transgender politicians among one-in-four Liberals and one-in-five NDP voters.

The B.C. results were far less accurate with just 202 respondents, however the province came second-highest in considering a Sikh or transgender leadership candidate, coming behind the Atlantic provinces in both instances.

With clear age gaps in acceptance rates, however, Kurl said a big challenge is whether candidates such as NDP leadership hopeful Jagmeet Singh -- who wears a Sikh turban -- can hope for a change in public attitudes soon.

“The question is how candidates of those backgrounds tackle that and approach it,” she said, “and can it change over time?

“I’d suggest it can, but over a long period of time. Will the majority of Canadians become comfortable with that overnight? The potential is there, but I’m not fortune telling.”

The Angus Reid Institute survey canvassed its online forum participants between May 24-28, and is considered accurate within a 2.5 per cent margin of error, 19 times out of 20.

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