Let's talk frankly about immigration
Randall Denley, The Ottawa Citizen
Friday, January 24, 2003
Canadians are sleepwalking through what's likely the most profound change of our times.
Statistics Canada confirmed this week what we can see every day on the streets of Ottawa. The nature of our country is changing dramatically due to immigration. Residents born outside Canada comprise 18.4 per cent of the population. Just under four million Canadians belong to visible minorities, up from 1.1 million 20 years ago. Visible minorities make up 13.4 per cent of the Canadian population, but that number doesn't properly describe the impact of visible minorities in Canada's largest cities.
In Vancouver, the proportion is 49 per cent, in Toronto 42.8 per cent. In some suburbs of those cities, so-called visible minorities actually make up a majority of the population. In Ottawa, one person in five is a member of a visible minority.
Immigration has helped make Canada a very different country from the one the majority of the adult population grew up in. And yet, this is a subject that one rarely hears discussed. On the day the latest story was presented, Canada's major newspapers thought it more important to comment on the future of the NDP, or next month's federal budget.
One can argue that the immigrant expansion is a good thing, or a bad thing, but surely it's a thing worthy of some kind of discussion.
The situation in Canada is not part of a worldwide phenomenon, but a particularly Canadian story. Our 18.4 per cent of residents born elsewhere compares to 11 per cent in the United States. Only Australia has more foreign-born residents, with 22 per cent.
We are doing something different than most countries, and it has implications. The three million immigrants who have come to Canada in the last decade obviously include huge numbers of high-achieving people who add to our country. But they change it, too.
In the Canadian mind, “multiculturalism” is a warm and fuzzy concept that involves colourful street festivals and better restaurants. Somehow, Canadians don't look ahead to the time when the Western European traditions that most of us would call Canadian are merely another little piece of an ethnic patchwork quilt.
This country was built by immigrants, of course, but the successive waves of European immigration brought together people who were not as dissimilar as those arriving now. Most of the new Canadian immigrants are from Asia. While we call them minorities here, they are from countries that are vastly larger than Canada in population. They also have rich, strongly-defined cultures and religions.
Canada has never advocated a melting-pot approach, instead encouraging new groups to keep their customs and not merge with the mainstream.
Perhaps we want a country made up of hyphenated Canadians from the widest possible range of races, religions and cultures. Or maybe we don't. We'll never know unless we're willing to talk about it. We need to be able to do this without someone shouting “racism” at the first opportunity.
In Canada, we believe that racism is something that white people feel toward visible minorities. We're terribly naive if we think that people of other races aren't also racist. In its simplest form, racism means that people in one group, whatever it is, tend to think that they have some qualities that are superior to those of some other group. Is there any race that doesn't feel this way?
You aren't likely to find any identifiable group that says “we're no good, but we're terribly fond of the Chinese.”
A proper debate about immigration shouldn't be about the relative merits of various ethnic groups. Let's accept the premise that people of all groups are of exactly equal value. That still leaves the issue of whether Canadians want to see the existing culture and customs of their country dramatically changed.
In Ottawa, we have a well-developed sense of the entitlements of our francophone minority, and it's one that's appropriate to their status as a founding group. But numbers matter, too. Will francophones still get special status when their group is dwarfed by others? This is the sort of thing we need to think about.
The change immigration has made in Canada is neither purely good, nor purely bad, but it affects all of us.
Our largest cities have already been transformed by recent immigrants. Ottawa is undergoing the same process, but more slowly. We can embrace that change, or argue against it, but let's not ignore it.
Contact Randall Denley at 596-3756 or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org .