Need, Fear and History Shape Immigration Attitudes

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"TEXT 1751.","Canadian Speeches:.Volume 14, #06, January/February 2001.","Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. ,"Need, fear and history shape immigration attitudes.","DESMOND MORTON.","Immigration and emigration.","Canadians have mixed feeling about large numbers of immigrants. We need them. We fear the Canadian society we know will become unrecognizable. We are proud of our cultural diversity. And as diverse as it is, Canada has never been stronger. Speech to the Pioneers 2000 Conference, Winnipeg, Manitoba, May 5, 2000."," Allow me to welcome myself home to Winnipeg -- home being a place where I spent an influential part of my youth, survived the 1950 flood, not to mention the jokes because my father, briefly, struggled that spring under the title of "Flood Controller," and learned to consider myself a westerner. Many years have passed since then -- 25 of them on the fringes of Toronto, but they were the western fringes and I feel myself a westerner still.

I spent many of those intervening years trying to become an historian and learning the humbling truth that historians are hardly more than tellers of tales with a crippling restraint: we are not supposed to make it up. Our ingenuity and our failure is in the choice of silences. We cannot tell all, or most or even much of everyone's story. We can only tell what seems to us to make sense. And you can do the same -- if you swear not to fabricate or to knowingly suppress.

Currently I live in Quebec, a province where old history narratives have been torn to shreds as we debate the cost of old-fashioned clerical conservatism, challenge such narrative constructs as la revolution tranquille or le grand noirceur that preceded it. Most fascinating for me is the insistence by our leading academic historian, Gerard Bouchard, who just happens to be Premier Lucien Bouchard's brother, that Quebec's history (and Canada's) is rooted in America, not Europe.

History tells me that, 200 years ago, Winnipeg did not exist. I don't know if it will exist 200 years from now but I see evidence that, if we depend exclusively on Winnipeggers to populate the city, it will be much smaller. And if we depend on others, it will be very different. That is the hope of those who see the urgent economic and commercial reason to expand immigration. It is also a large part of the fear of those who say: "not so fast." Their concern will be my concern. Can I offer reassurance? We'll see.

No province reflects Canada's ambivalence about immigration more than Manitoba, where the term "mosaic" was first applied. The history of Manitoba has been shaped by people -- Natives, Metis, British-Canadian, seeking to protect their own culture and values from the impact of newcomers. If our native forebears recall their immigration policy -- mixed as it was with the hope of economic gain and the inherent naivete of the Two-Row Wampum -- surely it was a classic disaster. The dualism negotiated by Riel's envoys barely survived the first generation of provincehood. And what happened to Manitoba's schools? The other answer, reflected in the dominant ideology of this conference, devised as it is by the currently wise and powerful, is that Manitoba is a triumph. The view is not new. As the late W.L. Morton wrote in his classic history of the province:

"Few Manitobans can pass a day without meeting at least one person of different background. It is not an easy way for ordinary folk, dependent as we are on our prejudices to sustain and comfort us. It is lived in Manitoba in the deliberate belief and profession that a sound, satisfactory and enduring society can be based on no more than the profession of a common country, a common political allegiance, and the maintenance of personal freedom and equality under the law. In short, it is perhaps in Manitoba that the Canadian experience in political binationalism and cultural plurality is at its most intense."(1)

Manitoba is not unique. …