From a Land of Immigrants to a Land of Colonisers: A Lesson in Canadian Diversity for British Policymakers

This is a big year for Canada. After 150 years of explosively entertaining hockey, igloo-icy winters, and deliciously decadent Timbits, people around the world will celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial. Happy birthday, Canada.

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For those who have ever travelled, studied or lived abroad, you begin to appreciate your homeland in an entirely new way. As American philanthropist Cliff Borgen said “When overseas you learn more about your own country than you do the place you’re visiting.”  The novelty of other cultures is endearing and even helpfully distracting from the monotony of your normal life. But it’s when we are forced into new cultures when we are confronted with the reality that our own customs, traditions and protocols are sometimes arbitrary, bizarre and inefficient.

In this sense, travelling is not just gazing into the porthole of another new place, but actually a much more inverted and introspective experience. You begin to realise the ways you are fortunate, and the ways you are deprived. This even makes you think differently, apparently. According to one study, “People who have international experience or identify with more than one nationality are better problem solvers and display more creativity.” But, crucially, this depends on openness, an ability to embrace other people, cultures and ideas, which also means you’re happy to accept ambiguity and a lack of closure.

But what happens if you already hail from a country that values inclusivity, openness, diversity? How does that change your experience abroad?

As a Canadian, I think I am already “open” to others. It’s part of my “culture,” eh? Just under 40% of Canadians are immigrants or second-generation immigrants, and that is expected to rise to half the population by 2036. Canada is about as diverse a country as you can experience. A true land of immigrants. Canada is not a melting pot. Unlike the USA, newcomers to Canada are not expected to shed their cultural cloaks, assimilate and promptly adopt the “Canadian Dream.” Instead, Canada’s strength is its diversity. We embrace others.

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Happy Photo of Canadian Diversity from candiversity.com

It wasn’t always like that. In 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau faced a major domestic crisis due to rising French nationalism in Quebec. Separatists wanted quicker political process and to expedite their demands they kidnapped a cabinet minister and British diplomat, resulting in the FLQ or October Crisis. Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act and tanks rolled into Montreal. Martial law was controversial and when asked by a reporter how far he would take such policing, Trudeau famously replied: “Just watch me.”

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Watch Pierre Trudeau’s steely reaction to reporters here

In the background of this domestic upheaval was the introduction in the late 1960s of a new points-based system for immigration. Applicants were awarded points for age, education, ability to speak English or French, and demand for that particular applicant’s job skills. If an applicant scored enough points, he or she was granted admission together with their spouse and dependent children.

These “landed immigrants” were given all the same rights as Canadian-born citizens. A new sponsorship system also meant that immigrants could also sponsor relatives abroad for settlement. This allowed naturalized Canadians to engage in the immigration process. And, importantly for Trudeau, immigrants were given the right to vote.

By opening the doors and flooding the country with immigrants, while espousing a strong multiculturalist ideology, Trudeau and his Liberals diluted the Anglophone vs Francophone tensions. The Liberals, predictably, courted the newly arrived voters and sought policies that would appeal to them. Politically speaking, it was superior “checkmate” move against the radical separatists. Decades later, the same maneuver was used again by Conservative PM Stephen Harper, who needed to win a coalition in order to stay in power. The newly arrived minority voters were wined and dined which, in turn, meant that anti-immigrant groups were kept on the edges of politics. In the 2011 and 2015 elections, the Conservatives won a higher share of the vote among immigrants than it did among native-born citizens.

If it wasn’t already clear from centuries of Canadian history, then such politics firmly cemented the immigrants’ place in Canada’s national identity.

Right-wing, anti-immigrant political agendas are rare in Canada. Of course, there are always exceptions. Canada still has anti-Semites and people shooting up mosques out of fear of “the other.” One study recently claimed that anti-immigration sentiment was rising in Canada, although the same study claimed that over half of Canadians still agree to allow immigrants from poor countries. (Sweden’s 75% approval for immigration is the highest of all nations studied).

But let’s also remember the difference between immigrants and refugees. In 1978, Canada instituted the Canadian Immigration Act, whereby refugees – persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution – would no longer be an exception to Canadian immigration regulations. Although there were some problems, it remains a cornerstone of Canadian immigration policy and law.

For example, the Syrian Refugee Crisis caused the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees to call on western nations to resettle 130,000 refugees. Canada has carefully focused on selecting families, children and members of the LGBT community, while single men will be processed only if they are accompanied by their parents or identify as LGBT. From 2013 until January 2017, Canada has welcomed over 40,000 refugees, or a staggering 248% of its “share” of refugees.

The United Kingdom? It has welcomed 216 Syrian refugees under the UNHCR scheme. Through another domestic policy called the Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, it has welcomed 5,423 Syrians by March 2017, or just 18% of its “share.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, under severe public pressure in 2015, promised to take on 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Even more mounting pressure caused him to announce the Dubs Amendment, whereby 3,000 lone child refugees from the Middle East were to be welcomed. Due to pressure from Theresa May (who was then Home Secretary), Cameron conceded child refugees should come from Europe, not the Middle East, and the number was lowered to just 350 children.

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Demonstrators in Berlin in November 2015

When Calais’ Jungle Camp was at a breaking point in 2016, and Prime Minister May was securely in control at Downing Street, more public pressure forced to her accept another 750 lone children.  (This was done reluctantly and controversially, as refugee children’s dental records were screened to “verify” their true ages. As Hugh Muir writes, “We want to do right by a handful of children, but it is really a way of shirking our duty to do the right thing”).

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Children in Calais’ “Jungle” Refugee Camp, October 2016

Welcoming 1,000 refugee children by modern day peace-time Britain stands in stark contrast to the 10,000 refugee children resettled via the Kindertransport to Britain in 1938 to 1940. As a historian, I shudder to think what would have happened to those thousands of children if they had stayed under Nazi Germany’s control throughout the war.

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German-Jewish refugee children arrive at Southampton in 1939

Additionally, Theresa May proposes to lower annual net immigration from 273,000 to just 100,000. But it doesn’t stop there. From April 2017 onwards, the Tories implemented a policy whereby British employers must pay £1,000 per year for each skilled migrant they hire. The Tories wish to increase it to £2000/year. That means that if your average Indian IT software engineer or Canadian postgraduate student successfully gets through Theresa May’s restricted immigration net, then they face further fiscal penalization in the pursuit of employment due to being foreign. Thanks, Britain.

As an immigrant in the UK who hails from a country where immigration is a cornerstone of my home culture, I just hang my head in shame. As a historian of refugees and modern warfare, I can say that the same self-serving, nationalist ideologies that caused so many borders to close and so many refugees to flee during the Second World War, are still true today.

So, what are some solutions?  

Political inclusion of minority voters. Enfranchisement of immigrants (including EU nationals). Open (though still selective) immigration policies. Bring back the Dubs Amendment. Invest in affordable housing. Delegate to charities (where possible). Celebrate all forms of Britishness, including minority groups. Delight in globalism and mobility.

But the best solution requires a major attitude shift. 

Britain was once a colonial and imperial superpower. Although this was by no means a peaceful power-dynamic on native populations or settler colonies, British rule also enabled enormous trade of goods, cultures and ideas. Some nations became immensely wealthy, while others were robbed of their natural and human resources. The gap in global living standards today are often a long-term result of colonialism’s exploitation.

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At its height, more than 458 million people and 23% of the world’s population were under British colonial rule

Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, Gurminder K Bhambra, claims that when thinking about today’s refugees and immigrants, we must remember that:

The economic motivation that drives poorer people to migrate has been produced and continues to be reproduced by practices emanating from richer countries and their own deficient understandings of their global dominance… The failure to properly understand and account for Europe’s colonial past, cements a political division between ‘legitimate’ citizens with recognized claims upon the state and migrants/refugees without the rights to make such claims.

It would be unfair to claim that Canadian history has been bloodless and peaceful, while Britain’s has been singularly exploitive and war-ridden. But personally moving from a land of immigrants to a land of colonisers has been an eye-opening experience.  

Canada, as a nation of immigrants, has attempted to confront its differences in an ongoing process of renegotiating and re-conceptualizing national identity, bringing immigrants to the fore with policies that directly value and embrace their diversity. Britain may have neglected to engage in such a process on their own soil, but the opportunity to do so is now arriving alongside the refugees and immigrants who greatly wish to be part of the British community. Myself included.

I am an immigrant and I love my new home in Britain.  By learning from my new culture while sharing my own, I am participating in a “very Canadian way” to integrate in society. I hope my British friends don’t mind.

Happy Birthday, Canada.

 

2 thoughts on “From a Land of Immigrants to a Land of Colonisers: A Lesson in Canadian Diversity for British Policymakers

  1. A thought provoking article. Just one major difference between Canada and Britain is the difference in geographical size and the difference in populations:
    UK 65 M people, 242,500 square Km, GDP 2858 Billion US$
    Canada 36 M people, 9985million square Km, GDP 1551 trillion US$.

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    • Hi Wilma! Thanks for your comment. It’s very true that Canada has a lot more space to accommodate refugees, and it’s a fair point. However, another way to look at it is to compare Britain and Canada’s response with that of smaller nations, such as Lebanon. Lebanon has just 4.4 million residents but has absorbed over 1.1million refugees. Meaning that 1 in 4 are refugees, which is incredible. According to the UN (https://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/lebanon_syrian_crisis_en.pdf), nearly 75% are women and children. Naturally, asylum in an overwhelmed nation like Lebanon may not be a long-term solution to the refugee crisis, but it certainly demonstrates just how much little nations can do, and just how little western nations are doing.

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