By Megan Thomas
Eli El-Chantiry came to Canada in 1975 with $20 in his pocket and three French phrases.
Born on a dairy farm in Kab Elias, Lebanon, he was 18 when he fled the civil war. He settled in Ottawa, washed dishes and mopped floors in an uncle’s restaurant. Seven years later he bought a restaurant. Twenty-one years after that he was elected to Ottawa City Council.
El-Chantiry, 47, is an immigrant success story when it comes to public service. But he says he doesn’t base his political identity on his ethnicity.
“I didn’t run in my area because I am an immigrant. I didn’t run to represent the immigrant,” he says.
He ran to represent voters in his rural West Carleton ward, only about seven per cent of whom are immigrants, El-Chantiry says.
He thought characteristics like his Lebanese accent might make him standout in such an anglophone ward. But he says no racism materialized during the tight 2003 municipal race.
“I never once felt that I have been treated differently because of my background or where I came from,” he says.
Although he is currently one of just two immigrants on the 21-member council, El-Chantiry says he doesn’t feel pressure to advocate for the interests of immigrant communities in Ottawa. He also says councillors don’t need to be from one ethnic background or another to effectively represent communities.
“I believe you don’t have to speak Arabic or you don’t have to be a new immigrant to deal with immigrant people,” he says. “I think what you have to do is have a full understanding.”
That is why a new plan to increase diversity on the Ottawa police force concerns El-Chantiry, who also sits on the Police Services Board.
He says allocating spaces for minorities could take opportunities away from others who are just as qualified.
Instead, integration should happen naturally through education and time, El-Chantiry says.
El-Chantiry disputes the notion that immigrants face too many obstacles getting settled in Canada to participate in politics or their community.
“I think the biggest barrier is the immigrant himself not to think that way,” he says.
The fact that immigrants participate less in politics than those born in Canada is a problem for larger communities because it leads to a potentially marginalizing lack of representation for a large segment of the population, says Peter Beyer, a University of Ottawa professor who studies immigration.
There is little data showing the participation level of immigrants in city politics. But Beyer says participation should be on the increase because immigrants to Canada are selected using a point system that rewards language skills and higher education.
This policy that “basically drains the brains from the rest of the world” should mean immigrants have the skills needed participate in politics, Beyer says.
Jonas Ma, from the Ottawa chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council, says it will take time to integrate members of Ottawa’s Chinese community into municipal politics.
“I don’t think the community has gotten to that level of consensus or analysis that, yes, these are the issues we need to promote,” Ma says.
Ma sees the diversity among Chinese immigrants in Ottawa as one reason the community has not rallied politically around common issues. But he also points to the slow integration of the Chinese in Canadian history.
While Canada has been home to Chinese-Canadians since the mid-19th century, discriminatory immigration legislation was in place until 1947.
“Even for people who have been here three generations, they have not been part of mainstream society for a long time,” says Ma.
Ottawa’s Arab community should also play a larger role than it does in Ottawa politics, says Mazen Chouaib, the executive director for the Ottawa-based National Council on Canada-Arab Relations.
But Chouaib says more Arab-Canadians may not get involved in municipal politics because issues of interest to the Arab community are already being addressed by the current council.
“I think our community is very well integrated,” says Chouaib, “and maybe this is part of the problem.”