Citizenship, Immigration and Federalism

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”.

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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.

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…