Last month we introduced Barcelona to some new-found Canadian friends. Ron and his son Jordan live in Toronto but Ron was doing some work in Dublin and Jordan came to visit during his spring break. Ron and I had some long conversations about the issue of immigration here (Europe) and we couldn’t help but compare it with what we see in Canada and what we hear about in the US.
First there’s the issue of how the government deals with the issue of immigration and how that reflects on people’s perceptions of it. In very general terms, in Europe it seems immigration is perceived as a recent problem that needs to be controlled or corrected somehow. It’s always on politicians’ agendas, along things like crime, accessible housing, and pensions. In Canada, it’s more of a solution to a problem. Canadians are fully aware that their country is underpopulated and with a low birthrate it seems it would shrink more and more. The solution? Allow hundreds of thousands of skilled immigrants in every year.
Now, here’s the key. Because the Canadian government sees it as good thing in the long run and an investment, it actively sells the idea of immigration as being positive for the country as a whole. The government and to a large extent Canadians as a whole fully embrace the idea of multiculturalism. They also make no difference between a Canadian born in Canada and a Canadian who became so after immigrating to the country. Immigrants are also not so clearly ghettoized as in the US. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act says:
Government of Canada recognizes the diversity of Canadians as regards race, national or ethnic origin, colour and religion as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society and is committed to a policy of multiculturalism designed to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians while working to achieve the equality of all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada
furthermore the act determines that:
(1) It is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to
(a) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage;
(b) recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future;
(c) promote the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation;
(d) recognize the existence of communities whose members share a common origin and their historic contribution to Canadian society, and enhance their development;
(e) ensure that all individuals receive equal treatment and equal protection under the law, while respecting and valuing their diversity;
(f) encourage and assist the social, cultural, economic and political institutions of Canada to be both respectful and inclusive of Canada’s multicultural character;
(g) promote the understanding and creativity that arise from the interaction between individuals and communities of different origins;
(h) foster the recognition and appreciation of the diverse cultures of Canadian society and promote the reflection and the evolving expressions of those cultures;
(i) preserve and enhance the use of languages other than English and French, while strengthening the status and use of the official languages of Canada; and
(j) advance multiculturalism throughout Canada in harmony with the national commitment to the official languages of Canada.
(2) It is further declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada that all federal institutions shall
(a) ensure that Canadians of all origins have an equal opportunity to obtain employment and advancement in those institutions;
(b) promote policies, programs and practices that enhance the ability of individuals and communities of all origins to contribute to the continuing evolution of Canada;
(c) promote policies, programs and practices that enhance the understanding of and respect for the diversity of the members of Canadian society;
(d) collect statistical data in order to enable the development of policies, programs and practices that are sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada;
(e) make use, as appropriate, of the language skills and cultural understanding of individuals of all origins; and
(f) generally, carry on their activities in a manner that is sensitive and responsive to the multicultural reality of Canada.
You can read the full text here.
I’ve witnessed many of this policies be put in practice. The city of Toronto, for example, spends a lot promoting festivals from other cultures such as Mexican Independence Day, Caribana (a Caribbean street festival), Black History month, Asian Heritage month, etc… Parents are encouraged to speak their native language with their children so the child can be bilingual or multilingual.
One of the things Ron mentioned that I never thought of was the difference between hyphenated Americans and hyphenated Canadians. In the US, there’s usually a negative connotation to terms like African-American, Native-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American. The ideal is to be just American. With no other word attached to it by a hyphen. In Canada, on the other hand, we are all hyphenated Canadians. Even the original white settlers are known as either English-Canadians or French-Canadians. So the hyphen might denote the country of origin – like Italian-Canadian or Iranian-Canadian – but it doesn’t really bring along any negative connotations (I don’t usually hear the hyphens associated with racial terms).
The way people and government have embraced multiculturalism is one of the things I love most about Canada. I think it’s only through initiatives like these and improved education about the positive outcome of interaction with other cultures that we might hope to end discrimination one day.
In the end, we are all canucks, we all complain about the weather and dream of retiring some place warm ;)
Today is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Disclaimer: this is not an indepth comparative essay of immigration policies in Canada, USA and Europe. I´m well aware that the immigration system in Canada is not fail-proof. There are anti-immigration groups, unscrupulous immigration lawyers, and the customs of recently arrived immigrants are not always respected. My point is that immigration is perceived as a positive thing and conceived as an intrinsical part of Canadian identity, which leads to a more harmonious process and increased tolerance.