Multiculturalism

My year in Spain was definitely the best year of my life. Yet, towards the end, I really looked forward to coming  back to Canada. One of the things that made me uncomfortable in Europe was the negative rhetoric around the issues of immigration and multiculturalism. As a historian specialized in European history and a special interest on cross-cultural contact I understand well the history behind European attitudes towards the other but that doesn’t mean I accept or support them. My feelings about the issues were shaped by my own experiences as an immigrant to Canada and my life here. I’ve been meaning to write a more detailed post about it for quite a while but it looks like Haroon Siddiqui, a columnist from the Toronto Star, beat me to it and said most of what I’d have said so why not replicate it here?

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Immigration changes

Yesterday I had a good chat with a friend of mine who specializes in Canadian history with an emphasis on immigration history. I spoke of my misgivings about the changes done to immigration law and policies under the current conservative government.

Although I don’t often discuss partisan politics in this blog, I haven’t made a secret that I support open immigration policies and I believe society can only benefit from being open to immigration. And that is precisely one of the reasons I want to see an end to the Harper regime.

For years, the Canadian government worked to design an immigration system based on clear policies that reflected Canadian values and was non-discriminatory and objective. Power was removed from the immigration ministers and passed onto a bureaucracy so as to prevent immigration from becoming a tool in partisan politics and processes to proceed smoothly irrespective of who is in power or changes in government. A set of criteria was established defining the kind of skills Canada wanted from its immigrants and as long as the person fit that criteria, he or she was in.

Under the pretext of making the system speedier or cheaper, the conservative government has been granting more and more power to the minister of immigration who can decide on a case-by-case basis who gets in and who doesn’t. Prospective immigrants can no longer be sure if they will get a visa even if they qualify because under the new rules, if your file is not processed within a year, your case is simply denied and sent back. And now the government is proposing to limit the list of professions that qualify to 38 occupations.

In short, we are going back to pre-1967 policies. To a time when the government could speed up applications or select exclusively immigrants from a particular country or ethnic background because it felt they would “adapt better”. Policies that were racist, discriminatory, and subjective.

The Visitor

We watched The Visitor tonight. The story of an Economics professor, stuck in an emotional limbo who gets involved in the lives of two illegal immigrants in NY is captivating, powerful in its simplicity, and leave you feeling like you should run and join an immigrants’ rights NGO or something. It’s not surprising it won many awards and scored 92% at the tomatometer. In Toronto, you can still catch it at the Carlton. Don’t miss it.

Happy Canada Day!

Canada dayYesterday Canada celebrated its 141st birthday and Canada Day festivities popped all over the city. I didn’t go to any of the main events; rather, we went to our friend HD to visit Fort York and did a bit of cycling afterward. But on the way home, I couldn’t help stopping at Queen’s Park to check out the festivities there. I really enjoy Canada Day. As far as nationalistic holidays go, it’s a very nice one. People are generally in a good mood and it’s nice to spend it in a place like Toronto where we see all the immigrant families and their kids with their flags out, enjoying the day. There are usually big festivals set out everywhere, live music, face-painting, food (nearly free in many places – at Queen’s Park, one could get 10-cents hotdogs)… It certainly beats the military parades with which I grew up. Nothing against military parades, which can be kind of cool, but when that’s all there is to celebrate a national holiday, it’s pretty sad.

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Quotation

Per nosaltres, la nació és una cosa viva, plena de sentit i de cara el futur, i la raça és una cosa morta, pobra de contingut i plasmada sobre el passat.[…] Per nosaltres els forasters que vénen a Catalunya – que sempre acollim amb els braços oberts – i pateixen amb els nostres dols i gaudeixem amb les nostres alegries, i que ens donen fills, que les nostres dones no en pareixem prou, són tan catalans, en la nostra interpretació futurista de la nació, com nosaltres mateixos. No fem absolutament cap diferència.

Rafael Campalans, 1923, founder of the Unió Socialista de Catalunya

Loose translation:

We believe that the nation  is alive, full of feeling and looking towards the future, and race is dead, a thing poor in substance and stuck in the past. For us, the foreigners that come to Catalunya – and who have always been received with open arms – and share with us our pains and our joys, and who give us children, are as Catalan, in our futuristic (progressive) interpretation of the nation, as we are ourselves. It makes absolutely not difference.

I found this quotation, from 1923, in an article dedicated to the issue of immigration in Catalunya today. Salvador Cardús i Ros argues that immigration had always played a crucial role in the development of Catalunya. This phenomena can be traced as far back as we have reliable demographic information (i.e. the 17th century) as the region has always had a low birth rate. Yet, currently, the issue of immigration is seen in a negative light as a threat to national identity. Cardús i Ros proposes that this situation should be reversed by turning immigration into a place for the collective memory of Catalunya, considering it as a part of the nation. Very interesting.

Blog’s Birthday

In the midst of preparing papers for conferences, sitting in various committees, doing Iter work, and attempting to write my thesis, I completely forgot to mark this blog’s second birthday. Its aim was rather simple, as the very first post indicates:

On 22 March 2006 hubby and I will be moving all our belongings into storage and making our way first to Montreal, then to Paris and finally to Barcelona where we will be living for a year. This blog is meant to document our trip(s) and allow us to keep in touch with friends and family in Canada, US, Brazil, and around the world. I’m looking forward to sharing all our photos, reviews of restaurants and bars, and remarks of the many places we’ll visit.

Slowly it grew as I started reading other blogs and became encouraged by them to talk about more than just the places I visited. The more politically-engaged blogs, such as Sindrome de Estocolmo or, to some extent, 42 and Bumblebee & Sweet Potato, led me to talk a bit more about issues that matter to me such as immigration, cross-cultural relations, health care and the environment. The numerous blogs written by people living in adopted countries, such as that of a Catalan in Austria or the US, Americans in Germany, Spain, or even Brazil, the numerous Brazilians in Canada, US, Spain, France, has made me fascinated by the experiences of people across cultures. It is hard to articulate exactly what it is about the process of moving to a new country that fascinates me. Perhaps the mix of wonder, surprise and recognition as people start building bridges between their culture and the culture they have chosen to inhabit. The recognition that the other is not so foreign after all.

Of course, the blogs I read are particularly open-minded and positive, not surprisingly reflecting the tone of my own ramblings here, and thus not necessarily representative of most immigrant or expat experience. But this blog may be many things but it doesn’t claim or wishes to be anything too structured, serious, academic, or scientific. It is basically the space where I can leave the depths of my academic life and be light, often airy, and simply engage in conversation with the many wonderful people I have met here. It is also a space where I can share my passion for people, photography and food. That people I have never met have found it worth reading and some have even found it worthy of awards, is a never-ending source of surprise and delight. Thank you all so much for reading, sharing your thoughts, and allowing me into your lives.

There are many other blogs I read that I haven’t cited, I hope you don’t mind. I’ll be updating the list of links on the side bar shortly to reflect more accurately what is on my bloglines rss-reader.

The line between legitimate indignation and racial slur

The Brazilian news and many of the immigration forums to which I belong have been consumed this week with the news of a group of Brazilian grad students who were denied entry into Spain and sent back to Brazil after being held for three days at Barajas airport, in Madrid. They were on their way to a conference in Portugal, paid for by their university, and the whole of Brazil has been on a frenzy recently about the way they were treated.

I don’t doubt the intentions of the grad students in question. And I do feel that they have perhaps paid the price for the hundreds of thousands of Brazilian illegal immigrants flooding into Europe – particularly the Iberian countries – and the recent backlash against illegal immigration in Spain. Brazilians don’t need a visa to get into any EU country but, as in most places in the world, they do need to satisfy the customs officer at their entry point that they only intend to stay temporarily and have enough means to support themselves during their stay. There’s much misinformation in Brazil about what a visa waiver actually means – many believe that because they don’t need a visa they can just show up and walk in.

However easy crossing a border might have been in the past, ever since 9-11 and renewed pressure over a country’s foreign population – particularly the illegal kind – traveling has become less than fun in many parts of the world. I have flown in and out of the US since 1997 – often just to connect on my way from Brazil to Canada, but occasionally to visit friends or go to a conference – and never had a problem. Sure, there was the one time the customs lady yelled at me because I forgot to fill in some information at a form and told me to get back to the end of the line, but other than that, I always went and in and out without much fuss until the new security measures were put into place. Being fingerprinted and photographed last time I crossed the border to attend a conference left a sour taste in my mouth indeed. But the more one travels the more we can see that this sort of behavious by customs agents are not exclusive of one nation or another. Not too long ago, we had the infamous case of the Polish immigrant who died after being tasered by police in Vancouver, and I have seen people denied entry and deported in every international airport I’ve been to. Conditions are never ideal in these cases.

It is also worth noting that Spain has been under constant pressure by other EU members to keep a closer look at its borders since the country is one of the main ports of entry into Europe for people coming from South America and Africa. The Spanish government was heavily criticized by countries such as England and Germany when it legalized thousands of illegal immigrants a few years ago.

Having said all that, I think the Brazilians who feel unjustly treated by Spanish authorities have every reason to go to the media and complain about their case and attempt to get at least some sort of apology from the Spanish government. What scares me, however, is how quickly indignation has slipped into racism and irrational hatred in this case. I wasn’t really going to talk about it here but earlier today, a Brazilian friend who lived in Madrid forwarded to me some of the many angry emails she got in response to a post she wrote in her blog about the case. She tried to put the event in the context of the larger pattern of illegal immigration into Spain and Portugal and the level of attacks she got was shocking. Most had racial undertones, calling Spain & Portugal and “Arab nation” that “thinks” it is European, that in fact they should open their doors to the Italo-Brazilians so that their country could be “whitened”, and how dare a Bedouin-looking Spanish immigration officer call an Italo-Brazilian and a “teutonic-Brazilian” dogs… I’m not making this up. That’s what they said.

And then I call home and both my parents go on and on about how awful Spain and the Spaniards are. First they come and buy all kinds of Brazilian companies (Spain has invested heavily in Brazil in recent years) and now they treat Brazilians like that. When I tried to explain that the story is not so simple and that we should be careful about overgeneralizing, I was given a big speech about how they’ll never go to Spain again and ask how could I like that country, etc.

It troubles me to see how otherwise rational people can jump to irrational fears and conspiracies, to an us-vs-them debate, and in some cases, to slander and racism. But I guess I need to come to terms with phenomena such as these if I seek to understand popular violence in the past.

Update:

Every single news article mention that about 3,500 Brazilians were denied entry into Spain last year. My first thought after reading that was: Wow, that seems like a lot, I wonder how many Brazilian have visited Spain in the same time period. Nothing that a quick research couldn’t find – apparently 280,000 Brazilians visited Spain in 2006 and last year’s numbers are estimated to have been at least 20% higher. Now, I’m no mathematician, but if 280,000 got in and 3,500 were sent home, that amounts to 1-2% of Brazilians being denied entry. In other words, 98% have no trouble getting into Spain. It seems hardly the closing of doors that some people claim.

A Brazilian immigrant in Madrid

A friend who lives in Madrid posted this story on her blog. A Brazilian immigrant writes about acquiring Spanish citizenship in El País:

Nací madrileña a los treinta años. Es lo que dice una carta que he recibido esta mañana. Bueno, no dice exactamente eso, pero es como la interpreto. Finalmente he conseguido la nacionalidad y en pocos días estaré jurando fidelidad a su majestad el Rey, a la Constitución y a las demás leyes españolas. Con lo republicana que yo soy… Que me perdonen los monárquicos, pero en Brasil por no haber, no hay ni Reyes Magos.

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Immigrants against immigration?

Since I came back from Barcelona, I’ve been active in a few immigration discussion groups. I share my experience as an immigrant to Canada and try to help others who are either planning to come to the White North or are recent arrivals. Overall it is a very rewarding experience that allows me to meet some very interesting people but once in a while a more controversial debate emerges.

There has been recently a discussion on the number of immigrants Canada welcomes on a yearly basis. While all of us in that particular discussion group have benefited from Canada’s open immigration policy, a number of people expressed concern over its impact on Canadian identity and quality of life. Others complained Canada lets in too many Chinese and Indians and that it has a negative impact on the country – someone blamed the Chinese for the high real estate costs in the West Coast and I’m not sure what they had against the Indians; there was some mention of too much cultural distance and that there must be some sort of “deal” between Canada and India since these people would hardly qualify as skilled workers. The words are not mine, let that be clear.

I was flabbergasted. How can an immigrant be against an immigration policy that, at its core, is not even that open? Most immigrants to Canada – including the Chinese and Indians above – must meet strict criteria regarding level of education, work experience and working knowledge of one of Canada’s two official languages. As for the Chinese and Indians, both countries have a huge population and both value education above most things so I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds of thousands skilled workers from those countries applied every year to come to Canada.  But it troubles me that people would be suspicious. Is it because these communities are often very insular? Many feel they don’t make enough of an effort to integrate. But how much is enough? Do we want people to stop eating their traditional foods and to stop speaking their language when they are among people of their country of birth? Or wouldn’t it be enough that they obey our laws and respect the charter of rights? Besides, it might not seem that they are integrating enough but I’m sure that a Chinese person who has lived here for 20 years would have a hard time re-settling in China.

And what about the threat to Canadian identity? But if even Canadians haven’t decided what this Canadian identity consists of, how can it be threatened? I think the Canadian identity is simply a set of values – fairness, equality, social justice, tolerance, all values enshrined in our charter of rights and freedoms – and as long as new Canadians respect these values, I see no danger.  But it seems that the immigrants themselves have decided to defend Canadian identity… But what did they want? To close the door after they came in?

Sorry for the rant…