OTTAWA - This spring, 21 Toronto-area imams used a Friday sermon for a singular message — the need for Muslims to vote in the federal election this fall.
The decision to make the unprecedented political pitch — imams generally shy away from politics — was spurred by new research showing a record half million Muslims are now eligible to cast a ballot.
So, the prime minister's decision last week to host an iftar, the meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast, was seen as an acknowledgment the potential heft of the community isn't going unnoticed by politicians either.
That the acknowledgment came as part of Ramadan was significant, said Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.
"Ramadan is a time to renew our commitment to our shared values, principles like respect, tolerance and unity, by reaching out to our friends and neighbours and other communities," he said.
"Nonetheless, the iftar event certainly came as a surprise given the track record of rhetoric and action that has alienated and marginalized Canadian Muslim communities."
A perceived failure to reach out to Muslims in the wake of the jihadi-linked October 2014 attacks — including one on Parliament Hill — as well as the debate over wearing face coverings at citizenship ceremonies are two issues casting a pall over the relationship between the Conservatives and the Muslim community.
But while turnout among the Muslim community is believed to be lower than the rest of the population, if the numbers increase this October, Muslims could influence the results in 23 ridings, most in the highly coveted Greater Toronto Area.
Conservatives managed to capture many of those ridings in 2011 to nab their majority victory and some privately acknowledge their relationship with Muslims may be in need of repair before this fall's vote.
But traditionally, polls suggest most Muslim voters haven't historically been onside with the Conservatives anyway.
A 2011 online poll by Ipsos Reid suggested 46 per cent of Muslims who cast a ballot in that year's election voted for the Liberals, while 38 per cent voted NDP.
Two recent decisions by the Liberals might prompt a shift this time, said Alia Hogben, of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women, a non-partisan group that is preparing to focus its energies on making sure more Muslims vote this fall.
The first was the party's support for Bill C-51, the government's anti-terror legislation that critics say hampers civil liberties. The second was that party's support for a bill dealing with polygamy, under-age and forced marriage, called the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.
The title of the bill was seen as deliberately provocative by many ethnic communities, and while the Liberals had spoken out against it, they voted in favour of the law.
"This was discouraging," Hogben said.
"I don't know if it's going to be a clear cut choice, maybe on other issues but certainly not on those ones."
There are segments of the community attracted to the Tories by virtue of that party's approach to family values and other conservative principles, according to economist Daood Hamdani, who wrote the study that prompted the imams to unite this spring.
But the economy is also likely to be a major ballot box question — the rate of unemployment among Muslims is 13.6 per cent, six points higher than the national average, his research found.
Many Muslim newcomers to Canada also find themselves dramatically underemployed, while Canadian-born Muslims (who now outnumber those born abroad) struggle as well.
Sixteen of the 23 ridings with electorally significant Muslim populations are in Ontario, five are in Quebec and two are in Alberta.
In addition to demographics, what will make Muslims a more powerful voting force in this election is their own awareness, Hamdani said.
So both the messages from the imams in Toronto and even the dinner at 24 Sussex will help, he said.
"The hard facts and the strength the community has — this will generate higher voter turnout," he said.