April 2,1998

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Minority origins dog politicians: Weinfeld

by Sylvain Comeau

Minority groups continue to mobilize politically, but pay a price in the court of public opinion, McGill Sociology Professor Morton Weinfeld told a Concordia audience recently.

"How to organize and deliver services or goods to a diverse group? One way is to have minority-origin politicians and professionals doing the delivery," Weinfeld said. "Whatever the issue concerning a given group, you need a minority member of parliament, lobby group and/or political party to be accepted in the political arena."

In addition to politicians, minority-origin professionals (in medicine, law and the media, for example) are often called upon to represent their group of origin. Because of their special role, they find themselves juggling roles.

"The key role of the minority-origin professional is trying to mediate between his or her constituency and heritage, and, on the other hand, a broader, more universal set of obligations.

"In the case of politicians, if they are smart, they will say, 'I am not a minority politician. I represent all the people.' But that doesn't mean that their phone isn't ringing morning, noon and night from members of their community."

Unfortunately, according to Weinfeld, a general backlash against lobby groups has cast a pall over people in that kind of role.

"Lately, all lobby groups are under attack; they are considered bad or harmful. [In addition,] there is a longstanding suspicion that ethnic lobbies are somehow not as kosher as other lobbies, such as business groups, women's groups, and environmentalists."

The reason is a perception that belonging to an ethnically based group invites a conflict of interest.

"Many people have a problem with ethnicity because they believe that there is a possibility of dual loyalty," Weinfeld said. "[The reasoning is] that if you're an ethnic Canadian, and you're 'too involved' with your own community, somehow you will place that interest above the national interest. Therefore, maybe your loyalty as a Canadian will be less."

In addition, ethnic Canadians are almost the only ones to care about, and pressure the government on, foreign policy issues.

"The fact that very few English- and French-origin Canadians care at all about foreign policy means that, de facto, only minority communities will be heard on foreign policy issues. This accounts for the attitude that minority lobbies may somehow be involved in a distortion of the Canadian national interest."

Concerns about dual loyalty "have a long history. In North America, the two groups who have suffered the most from this belief are Jews and Catholics. Accusations of belonging to an 'international Jewish conspiracy' have been used against Jews. As for Catholics, people forget that when Kennedy was the first Catholic president, people actually wondered whether he had links to the Vatican."

To people who may be worried about it today, Weinfeld offers some simple advice: Take a Valium.

The slow empowerment of minority groups into the mainstream political process does not lead to fragility in the political system. That's because, particularly for the second and third generation, the seductive powers of Canadian society will overwhelm Old-World attachments.

"The proof is that terrorism has not spilled over into Canada. Of course, there are groups who focus on their interests and are concerned about the homeland. But I see no evidence that this poses a national security threat."

Weinfeld also holds the Chair in Canadian Ethnic Studies at McGill. His lecture was part of a series on minorities and social power, presented by the Centre for Community and Ethnic Studies and the Concordia-UQAM Chair in Ethnic Studies.

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