No Longer The Great White North

No longer the great white north

By Leonard Stern
The Ottawa Citizen
March 12, 2010
Comments (13)

This week Statistics Canada confirmed what every Canadian has long recognized: The country is becoming less white.

Just writing that sentence seems risqu. Polite people aren't supposed to notice skin colour. Yet the census-takers at StatsCanada sure do. They've counted the noses, done the projections and have concluded that in 20 years, Caucasians will constitute a minority in some of our biggest cities.

Two points need to be made at the outset:

– The expansion of Canada's non-European population is not a bad thing for Canada. It just might be a good thing.

– Those Canadians of white European descent who disagree that this is a good thing mustn't be dismissed as racists. Their anxieties are not irrational, and deserve a fair hearing.

First, why is the influx of non-European immigration good for Canada?

It's good for Canada because we are a sparsely populated country covering a large geography, and our sparse population is aging. We need people.

The future presents lots of things to worry about — melting glaciers, giant asteroids, Iranian nukes, peak oil. The smart futurists, however, know that nothing is as scary as the declining birthrates in western countries like Canada. Without people we won't have workers, and without workers we won't have an economy.

Immigration itself won't solve Canada's birthrate problem, but it will help. Non-European immigration is particularly helpful because members of this group, at least for the first generation or two, tend to have more babies than do the rest of Canada.

Look at who these non-European immigrants are: They're Chinese, they're Indian, they're Korean, they're Middle Eastern. Some people will see that list and think about all the new restaurants Canada can look forward to. I look at the list and think of all the new technology start-ups, medical school graduates and engineers Canada can look forward to.

Canadians of Anglo or French stock ask: What kinds of values are these people bringing here?

Good question. Let's talk about the values these people are bringing.

Nearly 90 per cent of young Chinese immigrants in Canada go to university, a finding that stunned the researchers who published it last fall. The Citizen reported the finding and profiled Winnie Ye of Ottawa, who arrived here, from China, at the age of 14, speaking little English. In 1996 Ye graduated as the top high school student in the city, went on to get a PhD in electrical engineering, and now — in her early 30s — is a star in the burgeoning field of nanotechnology.

If we include community colleges, the figures show that more than 98 per cent — 98 per cent! — of Chinese immigrants in Canada seek post-secondary education by the age of 21. So when StatsCan announces, as it did this week, that Canada's Chinese population could reach three million by 2031, we should celebrate.

Another analysis, based on the 2006 census and performed by the Association for Canadian Studies, found that 75 per cent of Korean Canadians have university degrees. Filipino Canadians come in at 59 per cent. About 52 per cent of Arab Canadians have university degrees.

And white Canadians? Far, far behind. Only 26 per cent have university degrees. In fact, the demographic least likely to have a university degree or diploma is, ahem, white Canadian males.

Cultural generalizations are an ugly thing, but I'll indulge in them anyway. I've seen the school lists of children enrolled in gifted classes and the surnames are all Lee, Singh, Fayed and the occasional Goldberg — not exactly scions of the Euro-Christian establishment.

Nonetheless, the changing face of Canada is unsettling for lots of people.

Momin Khawaja, the convicted terrorist from Orlans, may have been a talented, hardworking engineering student, but a lot of good that did Canada when he wanted to blow things up and kill people.

Homegrown terrorism is the most dramatic example of the failure to integrate. Thankfully homegrown terrorists are rare, or so we hope, but it's legitimate to ask whether all this non-European immigration threatens our core values, however defined, and dilutes our national character.

It is not xenophobic to raise these questions.

In fact they need to be raised.

Multiculturalists like to say that our diversity is our identity, but that's glib. There's lots that's wonderful about racial and religious diversity, but the downside is that it makes hammering out a coherent national identity a complex challenge.

The Canadian government is aware of this, which is why it revised the citizenship guide and invested it with such high profile.

Canadians are at the beginning of a long conversation. Quebecers are leading the way. Who says that wearing a niqab or veil is un-Qubcois? Lots of people, apparently.

I happen to disagree with them but I don't think they're racist. The challenge for Canada is to confront these issues (we have no choice, frankly) without becoming uncivil about it.

Leonard Stern is the Citizen's editorial pages editor.