Academic journal article Refuge

Dialectics of Humanitarian Immigration and National Identity in Canadian Public Discourse

Academic journal article Refuge

Dialectics of Humanitarian Immigration and National Identity in Canadian Public Discourse

Article excerpt


Humanitarian immigration is an important element in the construction of Canada's identity as a liberal and compassionate country. Drawing on Hegelian dialectics, a discourse analysis of newspaper articles published between 1996 and 2001 examines processes of national identity formation through humanitarian immigration in the media. My interpretation of this discourse suggests that Canada's national identity is constructed on the basis of material inequalities through negation and sublation of refugees. By representing refugees who experience gender violence, children, and victims of natural disaster as deserving, the media construes an identity of Canada as compassionate. War criminals, supporters of hate crimes, and violent offenders are involved only to a limited degree in this dialectic.


L'immigration a titre humanitaire est un element important dans la construction de l'identite du Canada en tant que pays liberal et compatissant. Utilisant la dialectique hegelienne, une analyse de discours est entreprise d'articles de journaux publies entre 1996 et 2001 afin d'examiner les processus de formation de l'identite nationale a travers l'immigration a titre humanitaire dans les medias. Mon interpretation de ce discours suggere que l'identite nationale du Canada est construite sur la base d'inegalites materielles, a travers la negation et la 'rehabilitation' (l'anglais 'sublation', et l'allemand 'Aufhebung') de refugies. En presentant les refugies victimes de violences liees au genre, les enfants, et les victimes des ca tastrophes naturelles comme meritants, les medias construisent une identite du Canada comine compatissante. Les criminels de guerre, les defenseurs des crimes de haine, et les contrevenants violents ne sont pris en compte que de facon limitee dans cette dialectique.


Humanitarian immigration is, next to economic and family-oriented immigration, one of three pillars of Canadian immigration policy. Although refugees constituted only 13.6 per cent of all immigration to Canada in 2005, (1) the significance of this category lies in its ethical and political value. Through humanitarian immigration and refugee admission, Canada fulfills its commitment to humanitarianism and constructs a self-image as a liberal and compassionate nation. (2)

In this paper I examine media discourse of humanitarian immigration. My analysis focuses on newspaper articles published in five major Canadian newspapers during a period when Canadian immigration reform was hotly debated in the press. Drawing on Hegelian ideas of dialectics, I interpret this discourse in the context of national identity formation. This interpretation highlights the press's representations of Canada's international reputation, discursive constructions of deserving vis-a-vis undeserving refugees, and coverage of contested cases of refugee applications and deportations.

In the next section, I review the literature on the dialectics of humanitarian immigration and national identity formation. Following a presentation of the research design, I present the results of my analysis. I end with a conclusion.

Dialectics of Humanitarian Immigration

National identity is an important aspect of humanitarian immigration and the admission of refugees. In the context of Australia and Canada, Catherine Dauvergne observes: "Humanitarianism is about identity. The individual identity of the other who benefits from our grace is important, but only because of the light it reflects back on us." (3) Her argument, based on liberal political philosophy, suggests that humanitarianism serves as a way of defining "the nation as compassionate and caring." (4) Dauvergne's observation that "part of our humanitarianism is about ... applauding ourselves" (5) is echoed by Minelle Mahtani and Alison Mountz, whose discourse analysis of the newsprint media revealed that:

   Clearly, Canadian immigration officials are looked upon favourably
   in the media when welcoming Kosovar refugees. … 
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