Danes meet Canadians to learn solutions to immigration tensions
By Douglas Todd
September 13, 2010 10:44 AM
Danes have a deserved reputation as some of the worlds best problem solvers.
When the small Scandinavian country runs into trouble with traffic congestion, poverty or pollution, bold Danish politicians typically join with citizens to hammer out novel social solutions.
As a result, many justifiably see Denmark as a model for the world in regard to bicycling, high employment, wind turbines, a comfortable social safety net, a competitive economy and human freedom.
But as a 10-person Danish delegation made clear in Vancouver on Friday there is one social problem with which the Danes still struggle. Theyre not sure how to move beyond ethnic tensions and respond more creatively to immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries.
Being pragmatic, the delegation of Danish lawyers, teachers, engineers, medical specialists, architects, professors and economists came to Toronto and then Vancouver to see what they could learn from the good, bad and indifferent aspects of Canadian multiculturalism. The discussion was revealing.
The officials of the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations had an extensive discussion Friday with three professors with Metropolis B.C., a government-funded organization that supports research into how Canada is doing with regard to immigration and visible minorities.
Niels Lykke Jensen, a political scientist with the Danish umbrella association representing more than 250,000 professionals, readily acknowledged to me there is a disturbingly hostile tone to the immigration debate in Denmark.
After Denmark drew a great deal of unwanted international attention when one of its newspapers published a cartoon portraying Mohammed, the founder of Islam, as a terrorist, Lykke said many want to come up with a better approach to immigrants, who account for about seven per cent of the Danish population.
With Canada developing a global reputation as one of the few countries in the world where high immigration and visible minorities are tolerated and even celebrated, SFU economics professor Krishna Pendakur, UBC geographer Dan Hiebert and UBC sociologist Sylvia Fuller tried to explain why that might be so.
Even though the three B.C. scholars highlighted problems in Canada, where 23 per cent of the population is foreign-born, Hiebert said a distinctively positive sign is that half of the new immigrants to Canada are able to buy a house, usually in an expensive city, after being in the country for just four years.
And even though Pendakur explained how his research shows Canadian-born visible minority men earn considerably less per year than white male Canadians, the salary picture wasnt nearly as bad for visible minority women, particularly in Metro Vancouver.
Pendakur also remarked it is pretty cool that few Canadians seemed upset when media outlets recently reported Statistics Canada was projecting more than half of the populations of Toronto and Metro Vancouver will be visible minorities by 2017. This tells me something good is happening here.
Hiebert, who just returned from a year living in Scandinavia, speculated some of the tensions in Denmark could be attributed to the significant differences in the immigration and economic systems of Canada and Nordic countries.
While most Canadian immigrants come from the educated economic class and few arrive as refugees, Hiebert said the situation is virtually reversed in Nordic countries such as Denmark.
As a result, immigrants to Scandinavian countries are far less likely than newcomers to Canada to be educated, skilled or adept in the working languages of their adopted country.
That includes most of Denmarks Muslim population, who generally land in the country as asylum-seekers. One study, Hiebert said, suggests it takes a typical immigrant seven years to get a job in Scandinavia, while in Canada it just takes seven months.
While unskilled asylum seekers and immigrants wait for years to find work in Scandinavia, the Nordic social safety net takes generous care of them with free income, schooling, health care and housing, exacerbating resentment among native-born Danes.
After pinpointing a host of other political, historical and social factors related to Canadian multiculturalism, however, the scholars from Metropolis B.C. had to admit to the Danes it really remains a mystery why ethnically and religiously diverse Canadians tend to get along in relative peace.
Still, by the end of the session at SFU Harbour Centre, some of the Danish delegates acknowledged they have a few things to learn from the Canadian approach to immigration and multiculturalism. They just wished they could find out more precisely what the lessons are.
One of the Danish professionals charmingly concluded by comparing Canadians to bumblebees. Bumblebees, he said, dont really know why they are able to fly.
But they do it quite well.