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It's All History by Jon Malek

The “assault” on Canadian values

by Jon Malek

In recent months, Canada’s immigration practices have been on the minds and lips of many across Canada and around the world. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau caught the attention of global media outlets when he said Canada would welcome the world’s refugees amidst the growing reactionary rhetoric of the Trump administration in the United States. This is at least partly responsible for the number of asylum seekers entering Canada from the United States. Within Canada, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister drew attention when said that the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program needed to be reformed, and that the program was admitting immigrants who became burden’s upon the state.

All of this has generated a level of public discussion on Canadian immigration and refugee policy that I find quite alarming as an immigration historian. Not only do members of the public have very strong sentiments about immigration, especially asylum seekers entering from the United States, but more often than is excusable, these concerns are founded upon misconceptions, stereotypes, and basic ignorance. Listening to radio talk show programs, one would think that Canada is opening its doors to asylum seekers, immediately granting them refugee status. However, the reality is that many of these people, predominantly from Somalia, are likely to be denied refugee status. What this means is that they will be deported to Somalia, not the United States. This whole issue is complicated by the fact that these asylum seekers are crossing the border illegally (i.e. not at a policed border crossing such as Emerson), an act which seems to vilify them in the view of some Manitoban residents.

To be clear, these asylum seekers are not being immediately granted refugee status. Many have been incarcerated, while others remain in a temporary limbo while their applications are given due process. And, as a nation of laws and a nation that is a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention on Refugees, we are bound to treat each and every case with full consideration. This is a legal and moral obligation. Whether or not asylum seekers fleeing the United States are actually endangered by Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, there is a genuine fear for their own safety. The harrowing stories of those who cross wide fields of snow to enter Canada should be evidence enough of this.

Recent shifts in Canada’s national dialogue have increasingly cast asylum seekers with suspicion, however – a process exacerbated by former immigration minster Jason Kenney’s claims that these people were “queue jumpers” attempting to abuse the Canadian immigration system. There seems to be an assumption – even, it would seem, amongst government officials – that Canada’s immigration system and border security protocols are lax. In fact, Canada has some of the strongest border controls in the world and nobody is granted legal residence without intense vetting.

But there are other aspects of this debate that I find troubling. Beginning with the last term of the former Harper government, immigration, and particularly immigrants, have been increasingly cast within a question of national identity. There is a long enduring concern among many Canadians that letting in too many immigrants or refugees will “ruin” our Canadian identity. Whenever I hear this tired and flawed refrain, I want to ask what on earth that is? On one talk radio program, a caller complained about the number of immigrants who have come into Canada, and that they were taking away our Canadian values. When pressed for what he meant, all the caller could say – after stumbling over his words – was that “we used to be so nice to each other,” to which the radio host rightly took issue: “Are you saying we aren’t nice to each other anymore?” No kidding! Of course we are, and that involves newcomers. What a ridiculous thing to say. When xenophobia is confronted to logically explain itself, it inevitably trips over its own weak excuses, unable to come out and face the inherent racist logic behind it.

Some, like our premier, complain that immigrants are entering Canada and not finding work and are becoming wards of the state; others complain that immigrants are stealing Canadian jobs. So, which is it? Or is this just a veiled attempt for xenophobia to express itself? In times thankfully long past, it used to be that in Canada a racist could be a racist. Thus, the Canadian government could pass things like the Chinese Head Tax; could illegally incarcerate Japanese Canadian citizens during the Second World War; or forcibly separate Aboriginal children from their parents under the residential school system. Now, though, it has become unacceptable to be openly racist, but this still doesn’t stop members of society from complaining that immigrants are ripping apart the sinews of Canadian society – as if that society was not built upon multiple threads of immigration.

To those who insist upon the sanctity of Canadian values – and those who would use those values to exclude others who want to become Canadian – I would ask: What about toleration? What about diversity? What about this whole national policy of multiculturalism? Canada has always been multicultural. Even before European contact, the peoples of what is now Canada were culturally diverse; settler colonialism only built upon this diversity.

Canada is an ongoing project. With our 150th anniversary coming this summer, we must reflect very critically upon ourselves and upon our nation, which we create and recreate in our daily lives. It isn’t a time for reckless abandon in self-congratulatory celebration. Canada was not a project “finished” on July 1, 1867. Many like to look back to a time when things were “simpler,” when “political correctness” wasn’t a popular term. Unfortunately, the age that is being referred to was one where politicians actively resisted immigration from non-White countries to maintain a “White Canada” policy, and where many citizens believed other ethnicities unassimilable into Canadian society. Did you know that when Canada was considering allowing permanent Filipino immigration to Canada in the 1950s, the interest of immigration officials wasn’t piqued until they found out there were a number of white, Spanish descended Filipino citizens who might be interested in coming to Canada? That’s not the past I want.

Canada is so much better than what it was before, and Canada can continue to be so much better, and it will do so by including those who want to take part in the project.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.

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