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Maxime Bernier backed by Tamils, Sikhs that were instrumental in Patrick Brown’s leadership win

By Chelsea Nash      

The leadership contestant has garnered the support of key community organizers from the Tamil and Sikh communities in Ontario.

From left: Babu Nagalingam, an Ontario Tamil diaspora leader, senior adviser to the Ontario PCs, and close friend of its leader Patrick Brown; Renee Farrell; federal Conservative leadership contender Maxime Bernier; Tamil community leader Sri Vallipuranathar, a supporter of Mr. Brown and national organizational chair to Mr. Bernier; Conservative MP and supporter of Mr. Bernier Alex Nuttall; and Sab Thiyaga. Photograph courtesy of Babu Nagalingam
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Maxime Bernier, a top contender in the Conservative leadership race, has won over the support of some diaspora groups that were key to Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown’s landslide leadership win in 2015.

Babu Nagalingam and Sri Vallipuranathar are leading the charge within the Tamil and Sri Lankan communities, while Manjeet Gill, the brother of former MP Parm Gill, is leveraging the support of the Sikh community in his capacity as national outreach director.

Mr. Nagalingam is a community leader within Ontario’s Tamil diaspora, a senior adviser to the Ontario PCs, and a long-time friend of Mr. Brown. He is supporting Mr. Bernier (Beauce, Que.) for leader, and is encouraging the rest of the Tamil diaspora in Ontario to do so as well.

“I work very closely with [the] diaspora and everything, and I’ve got all the people under Maxime now,” Mr. Nagalingam said in a phone interview last week.

Sri Vallipuranathar, another Tamil community leader from Mr. Brown’s campaign, is involved with Mr. Bernier’s campaign as “national organizational chair.” In an email, he said that means he works with campaign teams across the country to “implement our strategies especially on membership sales.”

Mr. Nagalingam said during Mr. Brown’s campaign, he helped to sell 12,000 memberships within the Tamil community, which is largely made up of Sri Lankans and Indians. Some estimates put the number of Tamils in Canada as high 350,000—and many of them reside in Ontario—while Statistics Canada census figures, which rely on self-reporting, are much lower.

But, Mr. Nagalingam doesn’t think the numbers will be quite so high for Mr. Bernier.

“It would be difficult to ever truly replicate ‘Tamils for Patrick’ as most of our community view Patrick as one of us,” Mr. Nagalingam said in an email. “But Maxime is certainly the highest regarded leadership Conservative candidate in the Tamil community. I know he is a man of principle and I am happy to support him. He has been there for us and we will be there for him.”

Despite the fact that Mr. Bernier doesn’t have quite so deep a friendship with the Tamil community, Mr. Nagalingam said that his own connections have expanded since Mr. Brown’s leadership race, which was the first political campaign he was involved in. “Our capacity has grown, not only within Tamil community,” but also elsewhere, Mr. Nagalingam said. 

“He might get a lot of support in Ontario, because of the Sikh community, Tamil community. There are a lot of people working behind Maxime.”

MP Alex Nuttall, who is a close personal friend of Mr. Brown’s, and considers him a “big brother,” said “there are a large group of people who supported and signed up members for Patrick Brown who are also doing the same for Maxime Bernier.”

MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), another member of team Bernier, said he and Mr. Nuttall have both been busy “working their contacts.”  

“I’m really pleased with the fact that we’ve got some of the doers, the people who get stuff done, who are able to contact people throughout Ontario and convince them that Maxime is the right candidate, and maybe sell a membership or two,” Mr. Clement said.  Neither Mr. Nuttall nor Mr. Clement would say how many memberships they had signed up in Ontario to date.

But, Mr. Clement said the federal leadership is a “different scenario” than Mr. Brown’s race for the Ontario PC leadership.

“Patrick was facing a moribund party with only 10,000 members throughout Ontario,” he said. “So he could sell only 40,000 memberships and be the automatic frontrunner as soon as the membership sell deadline was past.”

Some of Patrick Brown’s closest friends and supporters are now mobilizing for Maxime Bernier. Sri Vallipuranathar, Patrick Brown, Babu Nagalingam, and Sab Thiyaga, pictured in a Twitter photo dated Jan. 4. Photograph courtesy of Patrick Brown’s Twitter.

In the federal context, there are more existing members than the Ontario PCs had. The current membership within the party is around 80,000-90,000, Mr. Clement said. He thinks there will be “a bunch of new members” but also “a solid base of people” who have been with the party for years. The new members won’t seriously outweigh the existing members, as they did in Mr. Brown’s race, which allowed him to spurt to the top when the established membership was against him.

Despite Mr. Nuttall’s close relationship with Mr. Brown, the Ontario PC leader is staying neutral in this race. Given that Mr. Brown is a former Member of Parliament, he has friendships with many of the candidates, Mr. Nuttall said.  

“He’s doing what he thinks is best for the province, not what’s best for a small group of people. I respect that,” Mr. Nuttall said. Mr. Brown’s office confirmed he is not endorsing anybody.

Maxime Bernier is pictured Friday at the Manning Centre debate in Ottawa. Supporter and fellow MP Tony Clement says his campaign is ‘very sellable’ to new and ethno-cultural communities. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Mr. Nuttall said a lot of the similar support between Mr. Brown and Mr. Bernier’s campaigns likely comes from “where people are seeing the common threads between the two,” and “less about where Patrick is choosing people to go.”

When asked if he sees similarities between Mr. Brown and Mr. Bernier, Mr. Vallipuranathar said “both are voices for the voiceless. Both are hard workers. In 2009 during the Tamil genocide both of them worked with the community to do whatever they could to stop it even though there were hardly any Tamils living in their riding. For me, this showed the real character of both men.”

The almost 30-year-long Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009 with a surge of violence, when the government defeated the rebel Tamil Tigers.

Mr. Nuttall added that not everybody from Mr. Brown’s campaign is behind Mr. Bernier. Some supporters have thrown their weight behind candidates like Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.).

Mr. Scheer appears to have some support in the Sindhi community, and has enlisted the support of Rakesh Joshi, a Hindu lawyer from Toronto who also helped with Mr. Brown’s campaign.

Mr. Joshi did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Scheer’s spokesperson sent a statement from the MP by email, saying he is “thrilled” to have Mr. Joshi’s support, as well as that of MP Bob Saroya (Markham-Unionville, Ont.). Mr. Saroya is Indo-Canadian.

“Diversity makes up this beautiful country, and I am glad that in spending time with different communities in the GTA and across Canada, I’m hearing how my message of real conservative principles is resonating,” Mr. Scheer said in the statement.

Mr. Clement said Mr. Bernier is all about “big tent conservatism.”

“There’s no doubt, I think Max is very sellable to new Canadians, ethno-cultural communities that we want to welcome in our party. Max is considered very much on the top [of their list] as the right leader,” he said.

The leadership convention will be held on May 27.

cnash@hilltimes.com

@chels_nash

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