In a speech given by John Ralston Saul at the opening of a new Canadian Embassy in Berlin, in 2005, the novelist and husband of the former Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, articulated some important points about immigration and citizenship. The text isn’t that long and I urge you to check out the full speech entitled “Citizenship, Immigration and Federalism: the Complexity of Modern Democracy in Canada”.
Saul makes four basic points about where Canada stands on the issue of immigration:
The first is that the most original political decision made in Canada – and it was surprisingly conscious – was the decision made first in 1774 to go in precisely the opposite direction taken by all of Europe and the United States, which was all about becoming a monolithic creature – on language, on culture, on religion, and if possible, one myth. But Canada, being a miserable, poverty-stricken, isolated, northern, unpopular spot to which to emigrate, found that it didn’t have any dominant group, language, culture or religion. There were 60,000 unhappy francophones having just lost a war to the British forces, and 60,000 unhappy anglophones who were political refugees fleeing the Revolution in the United States, having lost everything because they weren’t English.
In 1774, Canada decided that this was going to be a place where there was no natural majority of any sort, and where it was impossible to impose a monolithic idea and if anybody tried it wouldn’t work. The people living in Canada could speak English or French, could be Catholic or Protestant, and it didn’t really matter in terms of power and in terms of elections. It’s worth remembering that at that time in Britain it was illegal to hold any kind of public office if you were Catholic.
The non-monolithic experiment was confirmed in 1840, again in 1848, confirmed again in 1867. The only conscious experiment at that point with a non-monolithic approach towards nation state. Very interesting, very intellectual and very deliberate when you go back to read the speeches and the documents of the time.
This is an interesting point and one that is important to highlight. Many immigrants become confused and worried when they get to one of Canada’s major urban centres and see not only the diversity in the streets but the way Canadians accommodate that difference. I’ve seen immigrants state that this openness and diversity will eventually destroy the country as it will erode the Canadian national identity. I disagree and always get into big arguments when I point out that despite the western European bias of immigration to Canada until the 1960s, it is part of Canadian history and identity to negotiate difference as opposed to erase it all together.
The second point is that people keep saying that Canada is such a new country. Nonsense. It is the second- or third-oldest continuous democracy in the world. It’s the second-oldest continuous federation in the world and it’s the world’s oldest continuous democratic federation. Canada became a democracy in 1848 and we’re pretty well the only one who got through the 1850s without it falling apart and going into a dictatorship.
It is remarkable that such a big and decentralized state managed to hold it together for so long without any revolutions.
Thirdly, as a very old, continuous democratic federation, we understand the struggles between centres of power; those forces were active long before we became a country. We understand the need of different regions and people of different sorts wanting to carve our their place in the collective.
Fourthly, there is a conscious theory of the relationship between immigration and citizenship which begins actually begins before Canada became a country. In 1840, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine wrote a letter, L’Adresse aux électeurs de Terrebonne, to his electors in which he laid out his policies. Within two weeks it was translated in Toronto and read by everybody. And I’m now just going to read you the paragraph about immigration in the 1840 document.
The events which the future has in preparation for this country are of the highest importance — Canada is the land of our ancestors; it is our country as it must be the adopted country of the various populations which come from diverse portions of the globe, to make their way into its vast forests as the future resting place of their families and their hopes. Like us, their paramount desire must be the happiness and prosperity of Canada, as the heritage which they should endeavour to transmit to their descendants in this young and hospitable country. Above all, their children must be like ourselves – Canadians.
So, the principle of people coming to Canada as immigrants and finding their place in order to become citizens has been in place for 165 years. To be honest, it took us 120 years to actually remove the hypocrisy and flaws from the application of the principle so that the principle stated in 1840 was virtually identical to the way we applied it. By 1960 we actually had become what we set out to be. And from 1960 on, being free of hypocrisy, in this area at least, we were able to begin experimenting in a very cutting edge manner with how to deal with the waves of immigration.
Here Saul is referring to the unfair quota system in place in Canada until the 1960s to ensure that the overwhelming majority of immigrants to Canada were white, spoke English or French as their mother tongue, and came from north western Europe. Asians, Africans, even Latin Americans, were restricted. This bias was removed with the introduction of a point system in 1960 in which qualification for immigration was based on points acquired by levels of education and work experience.
I just looked at the statistics over the last 160 years and it’s interesting to see. Canada now takes in about 220,000 to 250,000 immigrants every year, which is less than one percent of our total population. Before 1960, many waves of immigration were, on a per-capita basis, larger than the 250,000 we’re getting now. There were years at the beginning of the 20th century when we were taking in 200,000, which is amazing when you consider the population was around 6 or 7 million or something like that.
And from the very beginning, each one of these waves of immigration provoked worry, especially if it was a wave that came from part of the world we weren’t used to taking immigrants from. Were these new people going to fit in? Were they the appropriate colour? Would they, coming from another tradition, be capable of understanding our traditions? Would they change the country? And then a debate would ensue. Is it okay for a country to change? What is acceptable to change in a country’s civilization?
At first we worried about the Germans, the Ukrainians, the Poles, the Finns. And then we worried about Chinese, Japanese and Sikh immigrants. There we let ourselves go into absolute classical racism of the sort you can imagine. In the late 19th century, Chinese were brought in as guest workers because we needed some people to build the longest railway in the world. We really just wanted them to do some work for us and then get out, go back where they came from. We were really quite tough and, in those days, we didn’t give them any rights, let alone citizenship.
Of course, we were in total contradiction with our own standards when we did that. In other words, everybody else had certain rights and obligations and they didn’t. They only had the right to make money before going home. And if they stayed, they still only had the right to make money.
At one point we started to learn things. Because they weren’t citizens, because they didn’t have obligations of citizens, because they were not embraced or accepted, they withdrew into a ghetto life. They weren’t interested in learning English or French, except to do a bit of business. They weren’t interested in principles of democracy. And as long as they weren’t citizens, we had a problem with them staying aside from society.
This reminds me a lot of the situation we see in Europe these days.
We saw that the non-citizen feels excluded and therefore resists rather than adjusts. In addition, their creativity, their ability to create jobs, to create companies, to give leadership was denied and therefore, they withdrew into themselves and limited themselves. And it became a problem because the citizens looked upon them as outsiders and therefore were nervous about them. The newcomers were uncomfortable, the citizens were uncomfortable, and a kind of fantasy life develops about those strange foreigners and they have a fantasy life about us awful people. There’s no engagement, no understanding between the two. It’s curious, one of those odd things because it’s an emotional exaggeration in the absence of a reality.
The moment in the middle of the 20th century when we did away with exclusion and they became full citizens, they enthusiastically embraced everything that was Canadian, the principles of our country, the duties of our citizenry and our languages.
Of course, the other side of that, what it seems to do to Canadians is quite interesting. We see these people embracing our country yet slightly changing and altering our culture. How do we feel about that? Well, we feel that we are very imaginative. We feel that we’re extremely intelligent. We feel that we’re generous. We feel that we’re courageous. This is a very wonderful way to feel about yourself.
Everybody does better because they feel better about the situation they’re in. And interestingly enough, people on both sides then begin to enjoy the differences as opposed to fearing them. There’s a sort of shared belonging through difference.
So as the decades roll by and you’re taking in 250,000 immigrants a year, the challenge in all of this is of course how to organize it all. You can’t define the details of what it is to become a citizen. You can’t control what’s going on inside families or inside people’s minds. Professor Heinrich Winkler, the great human historian, and I were chatting about this yesterday. The thing about western civilizations, like all civilizations, is that 90 per cent of it isn’t written down. Ninety per cent of it is an agreement which is never stated. Indeed, would a nation really want to be defined in detail? Would that mean you can’t change afterwards?
So how do you deal with high levels of immigration when what you are isn’t written down, this sort of unspoken and unwritten agreements of a civilization? The solution Canadians seem to have decided upon is to create in a very positive atmosphere around becoming Canadian, which then produces a desire to belong.
In other words, we look upon the idea of immigration as an invitation which carries with it the obligation. The invitation to come to Canada is an invitation to become a citizen; and we are extremely annoyed if people don’t quickly become citizens. It’s sort of an insult to us if they don’t want to become citizens. They can become citizens after three years. Some do it after four years, most have done it within five years.
That sense that we want them to be part of our civilization is key to creating this atmosphere of belonging.
Obviously, as soon as an immigrant arrives, they have rights. But the trick is that as soon as they become citizens, they have responsibilities and obligations. If they know that the invitation to come to our country is going to involve obligations and responsibilities within three to five years, they’re going to be very eager to seize them. They’re going to speak out. They’re going to join political parties. You may agree or disagree with some of what they’ll say, and that’s fine. The point is they’re going to want to show that they belong and what they realize is that the invitation is conscious and intentional, not accidental or unconscious. They are chosen.
However, these people’s attachment to Canada does not only begin the day they become citizens. My wife, the Governor General of Canada, when she speaks to new citizens, always says to them that they inherit the total history of the country which they have joined. This means they are now responsible for the mistreatment of the aboriginals, they’re responsible for 100 years of anti-Semitism, they’re responsible for the skewing of the land of the Japanese during the Second World War and putting them in work camps. They are responsible for every evil act in Canadian history, as well as the good stuff.
This isn’t a buffet. They can’t come and take the good stuff and leave the bad stuff. Responsibility for all of it comes the moment they become a citizen. They may, because they come out of another experience, actually be able to help us deal with our own past because of their experiences. They may actually bring something fresh to the table, which is part of change.
Now, none of this means that the immigrant accepts everything about the future of the society when they become a citizen, but of course once they’re a citizen, all you have to say to them is “You want to change the society? Go ahead. It’s called a democratic procedure and if you can convince the majority to go along with you, it’ll be changed.” And they learn quite fast how complicated and long and painful it is but if they succeed in the process of making a number of changes, most of them are frankly extremely welcome in our society.
If all of this happens, in our experience, if the whole process is based on citizenship, then very quickly you’re able to design a complex immigration policy. If they’re coming to become citizens, you can actually consciously choose who it is you want to have. If it’s happening by mistake, you end up with large groups in closed communities. And so Canada has worked quite hard to create as pluralistic a situation as possible through this international screening approach.
I think this point is key. And this is where governments can do a better job of educating the local population to see immigration as a positive contribution to the growth of their country. It is not enough to realize we need workers and therefore open the doors for guest workers to come but both refuse them full rights and allow the local population to see them as intruders and competitors. Or worse yet, pretend that they aren’t there. Immigration can be a positive experience for both the host nation and the immigrant as long as both are open to the experience.
Some people think that the only people we should accept are skilled immigrants. I don’t necessarily have the same view as everybody on this. My feeling is that actually having immigrants from extremely poor, illiterate, difficult backgrounds is an essential part of the immigration procedure.
If all we did is take skilled people, well then we’d be stealing skilled people from poorer countries, which is obviously not helping the situation there, but we’d also be losing, in a sense, the most interesting immigrants because the most ambitious, the most driven, the most surprising immigrants are often the people who come from those poor backgrounds.
You know, one of my great-grandfathers was abandoned by his parents on Trafalgar Square in London. He found his way to Canada as, basically, an indentured slave. He started out running messages on the trans-continental railway and ended up driving a train and eventually became a doctor. I have great belief in the capacity of the people at the bottom to make it to the top if they’re given that same opportunity as citizens.
I agree with the above 100%. I’m actually sad to see Canada raising more and more the number of points an immigrant needs to qualify for immigration and skewing it to favour the highly educated. As it currently stands, immigrants now need to have at least a university degree and a few years of work experience to qualify to immigrate to Canada. But a country doesn’t need only university-trained people. The uneducated and the working class are very capable to surprise us and are in general not afraid to work very hard. Canada, the US, Brazil, and even the various European countries were built by uneducated migrants who shared the dream of a better future. Immigration is a process that goes well beyond the individual immigrant we attract. We need to look beyond that individual immigrant and to his children and grandchildren.
Finally, new citizens do change us. That cannot be denied. But I see nothing wrong with that. I see the way Canadian society has changed in the last 30, 40, 50 years and all I can say is that it’s a much more interesting and better society than it was when I was a child. Of course we all think the food’s better – which it is – but it’s also a much more interesting society.
It’s definitely a more complicated society. We’re constantly being surprised by what these new ways, these new faces, these new approaches bring to the civilization. And everything we try to predict about the future of what they will bring turns out to be wrong because, of course, when you liberate people by giving them responsibility and obligations, they surprise you. Most of what they bring is very positive because in general human beings wish to create a better society.
Some might say I view the world with rose-coloured glasses but I share this positive understanding of human nature. I think the world would benefit enourmously if we stopped being suspicious of those who are different and embraced our common human nature and our basic desire for peace and justice.