Canada, the Country That Actually Welcomes Refugees

The World Today, October/November 2016 | Go to article overview

Canada, the Country That Actually Welcomes Refugees


Jillian Stirk and Bessma Momani look at how Canada's multicultural past is letting it buck the angry populist trend

As the United States and Europe wrestle with divisive and angry populist movements, Canada seems launched on a different path. A young, charismatic prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is championing the value of diversity at home and abroad, calling it 'the engine of invention and a force that can vanquish intolerance, radicalism and hate'. Is Canada somehow isolated or insulated from the economic and social turbulence that fuels populism? Is Canada immune to populist politics and the anxieties that feed them? Or is there something about the Canadian model of pluralism that makes this kind of divisive politics less appealing?

Of course, one can argue that Canada does not fully embrace diversity and that there can be a disconnect between official rhetoric and reality. Certainly the shameful history of relations with indigenous peoples and various episodes in the mistreatment of minorities over the years suggests there can be a credibility gap. But against the backdrop of the US election campaign and the racist rhetoric of right-wing extremists in Europe, Canada's approach to diversity presents a successful and distinctive model, whether you measure legal protection, political participation or social cohesion.

Populism thrives when governments lose connection with their electors, when ordinary people feel marginalized and lack opportunity, or when fear replaces hope. But too often populist prescriptions hark back to a past that existed only in the imagination, or to a future that ignores current realties. Canada has had its own populist movements and personalities on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. Some have had a transformative impact, especially in the post-Depression years. More recently the Reform Movement - a response to western provinces' alienation and frustration with a central government that seemed to have lost touch - brought a populist perspective to its successor, the Conservative Party.

Today some of the contenders to replace former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the leadership of the Conservative Party are playing dog-whistle politics and ramping up the debate around threats to security. Yet, it was in part these 'populist' sentiments and thinly disguised anti-Muslim rhetoric that cost Harper the last election. Still, the tenor of the discussion pales in comparison with that south of the border, and it would be hard to imagine a Donald Trump or Geert Wilders having much traction in mainstream Canadian politics today.

While Canadians may like to think they are inherently more tolerant, more pragmatic and less prone to the conspiracy theories that are the life blood of populists everywhere, the reality is that Canada's politics are shaped by a set of experiences and decisions that mitigate in favour of inclusion. Starting with the inherited values and traditions of the First Nations, a constitutional framework that reflects a linguistic and cultural duality, and more recently an evolution towards asymmetrical or flexible federalism have all provided tools for managing differences within a diverse federation. But most important, Canada's defining narrative is one of immigration and multiculturalism.

Today, approximately 20 per cent of all Canadians were born outside the country, including more than 40 per cent of those living in Vancouver and Toronto. Immigration is a powerful driver for the Canadian economy and the only source of demographic growth and renewal. The Canadian model of immigration is also unique. Most of the almost 300,000 new immigrants to Canada each year are selected on the basis of education and skills, bringing financial investment, or through having family ties, all of which provide new arrivals with a running start.

The goal from the outset is full citizenship and rights and their strong participation in society. The fact that 80 per cent of immigrants become Canadian citizens is a key element in reinforcing social cohesion among diverse groups. …

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