Canada and Mass Immigration: The Creation of a Global Suburb and its Impact on National Unity
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Recently, the National Post ran a contest to describe Canada “in six words or less.” The winner of this ‘motto contest’ was: ‘Canada – a home for the world’. Given the arrival of 10 million immigrants of diverse origins since the end of the Second World War, this motto is revealing of the new Canada. This is Canada perceived as a country with little underlying coherence in the sense of sustaining a primary national identity aside from being a desirable place to settle. This is Canada viewed as a home away from home for a range of peoples whose identities are rooted not in Canada but in countries and regions of origin. It foresees Canada’s evolution into a global suburb; a comfortable, secure and tolerant bedroom community.
The question I am asking here is how Canada came to have such permissive and non-controversial migration policies and practices. Of course, Canada is not alone in sustaining a mass immigration policy but it stands alone in the world as a country where mass immigration is so fully accepted as a policy norm. I also want to examine some implications of mass immigration for national unity and identity in Quebec and the Rest of Canada (ROC).
To begin with, Canada is not unique in having a contemporary policy of mass immigration although in comparison with other countries of immigration its flow rate is higher. On a per capita basis in 2007, Canada is estimated to have a net migration approximately four times that of the EU, double the US and a third greater than Australia. In addition, Canada’s annual flow of around 250,000 immigrants is very diverse in terms of origins and ethnicity unlike the US where the Latin American influx makes up more than half. With respect to Australia, immigrants from UK and New Zealand made up about 30% of the inflow. As a result, in other words, Canada is undergoing a social and demographic evolution that is much more rapid and profound than that in the other immigrant-welcoming countries. Toronto and Vancouver have majority populations that do not trace their primary roots to Canada prior to the Second World War. In 2006, 46% of the population of Toronto and 40% of Vancouver were born outside Canada and, according to Statistics Canada, it is very likely that in less than ten years from now, Toronto and Vancouver will both have majority ‘visible minority’ populations. Of course the US also sustains a large immigration influx, so fundamental demographic change is also occurring albeit at a slower rate. For example, according to a recent demographic study published by the Pew Centre, if present trends continue by 2050 the non-Hispanic white population will be a minority of the US population.
In Canada, the implications of social and demographic change have not been the subject of much political or public discussion and little effort has been expended considering what Canada will look like 20, 50 or 100 years in the future. Basically, a commitment to a high flow rate constitutes the sum total of Canada’s ‘population policy’. The situation is so unmanaged that studies of new census reports are greeted with careful media review and even amazement as if demographic change was some uncontrollable natural process as opposed to the result of an identifiable public policy.
Regardless of its unmanaged nature, unlike the situation in other developed countries, a review of opinion polls suggests that, in general, the Canadian public appears to support mass immigration.
Also unlike the situation in other developed countries, immigration has not been a significant election concern. In Canada’s most recent election (2005), the governing Liberal Party reiterated its commitment to raise Canada’s immigration intake, from around .7% of the nation population, to 1% of the population. This rate would see an immigration intake of over 300,000 which would be proportional to a French or UK annual intake of 600,000 or an American annual intake of approximately 3 million. An election promise such as this would be political suicide in these countries. The Conservative Party did not challenge the Liberal party on this issue and won a minority government focusing on unrelated issues.
Why is this? I would argue that with the exception of francophone Quebec, the importance, need for, and acceptance of immigration has become an article of faith and almost a litmus test of Canadianism. In other words, immigration acceptance is part of a new Canadian creed. This creed includes the protection and promotion of openness, tolerance and diversity which is operationalized programmatically in a policy of mass immigration, multiculturalism and the defence of human rights viewed broadly.
As a result, mass immigration is celebrated in ROC without much evidence of the fundamental intellectual engagement on these questions taking place in the rest of the developed world.
So the questions I want to address is given Canada’s objectively astonishing migration rates, why is it that immigration-related discussion is marked by a level of passivity which has no parallel in the developed world?
First, there is no political leadership on migration-related issues essentially because Canadian politicians have shown an unwillingness to talk about immigration costs and trade-offs. The foremost reason is straight electoral expediency. The Liberal party has in recent years strongly supported policies of mass immigration and holds the ridings in Canada’s largest cities where most new Canadian communities are centred. In order to form a majority government, the Conservative party needs these ridings and must compete for these votes by delivering benefits to these communities. In addition, the slightest slip up and the Liberal party will paint the Conservatives as intolerant, racist and extremist which will hurt the Conservatives in their own areas of support outside urban areas where there are relatively few immigrants. This is because, as I said before, Canada’s identity is now strongly associated with acceptable immigration-speak. Name calling attacks on the Conservative party and any who question immigration policy are clearly thought to be effective. Otherwise they would not be such a regular feature of the Canadian political landscape.
A second reason there has not been much opposition to mass immigration is that there has been relatively little questioning of Canada’s immigration policies in the media or academia. On certain issues such as security and Canada’s refugee system, there has been a degree of concern expressed, but in terms of connecting this to the core reality of mass immigration, there is hardly a mention. The fact is that the media in Canada broadly and consistently views immigration positively. Even the National Post, which is generally perceived to take a conservative approach to issues, responded to a Statistics Canada report that showed significant immigration-driven demographic change with an editorial entitled “Statistics Canada counts our blessings”.
As for academia, it is awash in government money but little attention is given to assessing the real social, economic and political impact of entry flows. Also, little effort is made to seek out ways to more effectively and efficiently manage the flow in order to optimize the benefits for all Canadians. Instead, academics are primarily focused on concerns related to integration, social justice and the battle against intolerance. From this perspective, nationalism with a focus on the national interest is generally viewed with suspicion and is often associated with xenophobia or racism. In fact, the current head of the Canadian Political Science Association, Keith Banting, argues that this struggle may have ‘reinvigorated’ the left which has been in somewhat of a funk given the success of neo-liberal economic policies. Overall, the preponderance of migration-related Canadian academic activity has come to assume an aggressive ‘progressive’ orientation.
Thirdly, the basic facts about the costs and trade-offs related to immigration in Canada are not commonly known, nor have governments made much effort to make such information available. In the absence of such data, debate more easily spirals from trade-offs to name calling which in turn discourages political and public discussion.
In the US and UK, there is a vast literature on the costs and benefits of immigration. When the US Senate passed Comprehensive Immigration reform in 2006, the Congressional Budget Office produced a cost estimate. In the UK, a special committee of the House of Lords has just completed an extensive public investigation of the costs and benefits of immigration.
Certainly in the past, many countries of the developed world held an elite consensus on the need to depoliticize immigration issues. Academics refer to this as an ‘antipopulist norm’. In such an environment, the dissemination of statistical and cost information was purposefully limited. But the logic of this consensus is premised on migration policy being a relatively peripheral concern which could be managed effectively, more or less, administratively. These conditions no longer hold in most of the developed world and in the Canadian context, the absence of cost data simply limits the transparency of the issue area and works to the advantage of those that resort to emotional appeals. According to James Freeman, evidence suggests that emotional appeals are generally to the advantage of those seeking to maintain a permissive migratory environment.
Fourth, there is the impact of professional advocates: lawyers, rights activists, interest groups, many of whom represent new Canadian communities or service organizations. They all work hard to keep the door open. Immigration is a big industry in Canada. The effectiveness of this lobby can be seen in the general incapacity of the government to effectively legislate, regulate and manage the immigration system. The build up of a backlog of nearly a million approved immigration applications is a symptom of this incapacity. I’m sure the immigration industry will be looking for some kind of one time massive expansion of the immigration intake to clear the backlog. But I would agree with Joe’s (James Bissett’s) proposal that we should simply put in place a moratorium on new applications until the backlog is cleared.
Canada simply does not have a high profile immigration advocacy or research organization which questions the need for a mass immigration policy.
So what does all this mean for Canada’s national identity and how does it affect national unity? I would argue we are approaching a crossroads because the implications of Canada’s transition into a diasporatic country are so profound and manifest that the current studied disregard coupled with on-going fundamental demographic change is not sustainable. The implications of this transformation can be broken into the reality in Quebec and the ROC. In ROC , the rooted British and ‘northern’ connected identity has been largely buried and forgotten.
But Francophone Quebec has not forgotten its roots. In Quebec, collective memories, stories and symbols are deeply rooted and the French language constitutes a formidable nexus of identity. In addition, given sovereignty fears and general economic sluggishness, Quebec has not been a relatively attractive destination for immigrants. Therefore, compared to Toronto and Vancouver, Montreal with 20% foreign born population in 2006 has better preserved its rooted character. Overall, unlike in the ROC, the national re-branding exercise of the sixties and seventies with its new Canadian creed and Charter of Rights did not replace the admittedly evolving Quebecois identity.
In Quebec the majority of rooted francophone Quebecers have recently and clearly woken up to the implications of mass immigration on their lifestyle and identity. By setting up the Bouchard-Taylor Commission, the Charest Government inadvertently gave the Quebecois majority an unmediated forum to speak their concerns which, if not pretty, has led to a substantial lifting of public consciousness on migration-related issues. Now both the Parti Quebecois and Action Democratic (ADQ) appear to be considering following in the footsteps of numerous European populist parties that have gained control of their Parliaments on a platform of control of migration which has clearly been identified as the main factor in the decline of the use of French especially on the island of Montréal. This is not surprising because there are real similarities in the demographic situations of the Quebecois, Danes, Dutch, Flemish and others. No low-birth-rate/smaller-population nationality wants to ‘go gentle into that good night’.
The ADQ has recently advocated cutting immigration numbers and both the ADQ and the PQ have argued for the need to assess immigrants based on their capacity to integrate and for the use of ‘integration contracts’ for new arrivals. For its part, the Liberal government of Jean Charest has not been slow to insinuate that the policy proposals of the opposition parties are “driven by fear and intolerance”. At the same time, Charest has not avoided expressing the same sort of concerns and has also proposed a robust range of measures to address the perceived erosion of the French language in Quebec.
In the Canadian context, all this has real implications for national unity. Immigration has already relegated ‘British North America’ to the history books and more recently rendered national bilingualism and biculturalism unrealistic.
The danger for Canada’s national unity lies in the possibility that both conservative and socialist nationalists in Quebec will reach the conclusion that the French language and culture is more secure outside of Canada than in it.
Overall, at some point at current rates of immigration, Canada will cease to be anything approximating a nation and be best described as a global suburb. Canada is becoming a prosperous and secure home in a nondescript neighbourhood which makes no effort to assimilate new-comers because real identity is associated with the country and/or region of origin. Integration, on the other hand, is very much encouraged and the indicators of success relate to the incomes of new arrivals compared to earlier arrivals. Therefore, capacity in English or French, acceptance of rules and regulations and a commitment to consumption are the touch-stones of success. Perhaps by giving up all pretence to cultivating a separate and unique society, Canada is truly leading the way to the dissolution of the nations system on the road towards a global culture and citizenship. Success in this project might enhance the possibility of international peace and security.
But I have several concerns about this model of Canada, the first being that history is full of examples of societies in which even small cleavages have resulted in major problems. Given the stakes, one would think that, at the very least, prudence would be advised. Regardless, current policy sees a very diverse population equal to that of Manitoba’s arriving in Canada every four years.
Secondly, although Canada is certainly a leader in promoting cosmopolitan objectives, there appear to be few if any enthusiastic followers. Certainly tension, debate and reflection on the need for migration controls and a strengthening of integration policies which cross over into assimilationism are mainstream preoccupations in Australia, UK and US. For continental European countries and Japan, the draw bridges are up when it comes to mass immigration and diasporatic communities are being strongly directed towards full integration. This should give Canadian decision-makers pause and stimulate a thorough review of the issues related to immigration, integration and citizenship.
Finally, Canadian national unity may be endangered by unmanaged immigration. There is an emerging sense among Francophone Quebecers that the French Fact in America may not be compatible with high levels of immigration. At one level, there is a concern that new-Quebecers tend to assimilate into English cultures. This may not be objectively true but regardless, should a consensus arise among rooted Quebecers that participating in the new Canada (with its new creed and demographic reality) is endangering the French language in Quebec, then national unity will indeed be threatened.
In conclusion, I believe that Canada is going to have to come to grips with the implications of mass immigration. This should be done sooner rather than later. Issues related to citizenship, integration, composition, disposition, asylum and enforcement need to be addressed. Overall, Canada needs to understand what it has become to allow for the development of a much needed population policy. Furthermore, Canada must find a way to discuss the many implications of mass immigration in a fashion that transcends the superficiality of progressive advocacy and disconnects the objective and long-term needs of the country from the cut and thrust of partisan politics.