OPENING THE DOORS
They waited for years, living on hope in quarters smaller than the single room they now occupy in Winnipeg ’s Balmoral Hotel. At age 29, Bun Thoeun had spent seven years in a refugee camp in Thailand after fleeing the Communists in Kampuchea. Waiting for a visa, he married Hok Seam and fathered two sons. Two weeks ago they arrived in Winnipeg. First they will learn English, then they will find jobs. But they will never again worry about being sent back to Kampuchea.
Five years ago Vietnamese-born Thien Chi Tran ’s home was also a refugee camp in Thailand. Now, he plays second violin in the Calgary Civic Symphony. He fishes and camps, and this fall Thien, 30, began a qualifying year at the University of Calgary. He became a Ca-
nadian citizen in June, and this summer he married Sandra Taylor, a teacher specializing in English as a second language. “The first time I felt I belonged here,” he recalled, “is when Calgary made the Stanley Cup finals. ”
The history—and the future—of Canada consists of millions of such stories. Canada is a nation of immigrants. Its trees were felled, its rails laid, its prairies cleared and its cities built by successive generations of misfits and refugees. In the suspicious view of the ruling majority, they often spoke the wrong language, wore the wrong clothing or worshipped the wrong God. But while they were exploited and isolated, they were also allowed in by the hundreds of thou-
sands—the necessary raw material for the nation.
Controlled: Now, after a decade of blocking out a troubled world with some of the lowest immigration levels in its history, Canada is again reopening its borders. Defying chronic unemployment and spotty economic growth, the government is planning to risk a significant increase in immigration in a bold attempt to stimulate the economy and counteract a dramatically declining birthrate and an aging population. “Immigrants create jobs and expand markets and demand,” said Gerry Weiner, appointed minister of state for immigration on June 30. “My vision is to open the doors—but, of course, in a controlled fashion.”
It has exhilarated some Canadians—
and unsettled many more—that there has never been a genuine blueprint for the country or the making of a Canadian. Instead, Bun Thoeun in Winnipeg and Thien Chi Tran in Calgary have contributed to the perpetual evolution of Canada. The process never rests, even long enough for a clean, sharp definition of nationhood to emerge. The changes can only be noted in passing: new words in the vocabulary, new faces in the neighborhood, new languages on the buses, new foods in restaurants and stores. The ground shifts incrementally as each new wave of immigration beats on the shore.
Vision: The process has changed not only the nation’s demography but its sense of itself. The Canada of the First and Second World Wars—when author Hugh MacLennan wrote precisely of the nation’s two solitudes, French and English—is now faded and indistinct,
like a footprint on the beach. As for the future, the Conservatives seem prepared to gamble that a significant component still rests offshore.
The nation’s immigration policy has often seemed as incoherent as it has been controversial. In 1974 Ottawa’s most extensive study of the subject concluded that one could search Canada’s history in vain for any public consensus or consistent policy. What amazes many in the field of immigration, as the debate begins anew, is not the absence of a guiding vision but the fact that Canada has survived so well without one.
Early next month Weiner will table a report in Parliament establishing immigration levels for 1987. The report
is expected to call for a “moderate, controlled increase” in immigration. Without such an increase—given the current low birthrate—Canada’s population will go into a decline by the year 2021. And according to a 1984 Statistics Canada study, static birth rates mean that 275,000 immigrants a year—three times the current level — would be needed by the end of the century to keep the national population growing by just one per cent.
It is doubtful that Ottawa has yet committed itself to tripling immigration as that report implied it should, but already there has been a marked shift in policy. In 1985 the new Conservative government allowed just 84,273 immigrants into the country—the lowest intake in 23 years. This year the door eased open; between 105,000 and 115,000 workers, families and refugees are expected. And if federal ambitions
are realized, the level will climb to 125,000 immigrants next year, with an eventual annual target of 200,000. Still, no major leap is likely before 1988, when the government receives the findings of a major demographic study assessing the impact of declining birthrates and an aging population.
Backlash: The government’s caution seems well founded. Even during the flood of European immigration after the Second World War, the annual level rarely reached 200,000 people. Now, with 1.2 million Canadians unemployed, even a moderate increase in immigration is fraught with risk. The arrival of only 155 Sri Lankan refugees—found floating in lifeboats off the coast of Newfoundland last Au-
gust—generated an intense national debate after Ottawa ruled that they could live and work in Canada until their claims for refugee status were processed. Both Weiner and senior Employment and Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard weathered a withering backlash after it was discovered that the Sri Lankans had not sailed from India as they claimed, but from West Germany.
Fear: Weiner, whose Montreal-area riding of Dollard includes a large immigrant population, blamed much of the reaction on misunderstanding. The Tamils, he said, would not jump the line ahead of those seeking to enter the country as immigrants. “All of the Sri Lankans who came this summer are working,” Weiner said. “There were jobs available that were not being filled by Canadians.” Nor will the incident sway the government’s com-
mitment to a more open border, said Weiner, himself the grandson of Eastern European immigrants. But it does underline Ottawa’s need to sell the public on the benefits of a more culturally diverse nation. Racism is not an inherent Canadian trait, he insisted, but “there is always a fear of the unknown.”
Before a national debate on immigration policy can begin, however, the Mulroney government must resolve divisions within its own caucus. MP Barry Turner (Ottawa-Carleton) contends that there is broad public support for increasing immigration levels in order to avert economic stagnation. Said Turner: “Without immigration, there will be fewer workers, less revenue
to government, less new business.” Across the spectrum, Alex Kindy (Calgary East) argues for maintaining current immigration levels until unemployment drops and the economy can absorb more workers. After the Sri Lankan affair, Kindy asked his constituents for their views on immigration. Of the 1,500 who responded, 65 per cent wanted immigration levels reduced and only seven per cent favored admitting more Canadians. Kindy, a Ukrainian who immigrated in 1949 at age 19, said that today’s immigrants “are not always as productive” as those of his generation.
Echoes: The debate outside the capital echoes the one on Parliament Hill. “It’s strange how so many immigrant groups don’t want any more immigrants coming,” says Wilson Head, president of the Toronto-based Urban Alliance on Race Relations. “They’re glad to be here, but now they want us to close the doors.” But for those seeking work, the notion of more competition is especially unsettling. Asked Marcel D’Amour, 41, currently unemployed and living in Quebec City, “There aren’t enough jobs. Where will they work?” In the end, argues Desmond Morton, a historian at the University of Toronto, immigration is not a question of philanthropy. “We can’t solve the poverty of the Third World by bringing it here,” Morton said.
Historically, Canadians have viewed each successive wave of immigration with suspicion, but the newcomers’ stories form the history of Canada. Each has walked the same difficult path: years of sacrifice, exploitation in the labor market and isolation in ghettos; years of struggle to reunite their families; children of first-generation immigrants being pushed to succeed in their Canadian schools, yet chastised for straying from the culture of their parents. Finally, when a sufficient price has been exacted, outsiders are accepted.
Resented: In the mid-1800s it was the Irish who flooded into Canada, dirt-poor, clannish, resented for the way they came to monopolize many jobs in Eastern Canada. Now, Brian Mulroney, a fourth-generation Canadian of Irish ancestry, is the Prime Minister. In the 1930s, as Gerry Weiner was growing up in the hardscrabble Jewish neighborhood of Montreal’s St. Urbain Street, Canada rejected as undesirable thousands of Jews seeking asylum from Hitler’s Germany. “And now there is a Jew welcoming people to this country,” said Weiner. “We’ve come a long way.”
But for thousands of the most recent generation of arrivals, the battle for economic survival, let alone social acceptance, is still being waged. At age
36, almost eight years after he arrived in Quebec City from Chile, Miguel Cerda is still stung by what he calls his “powerlessness” in Canadian society. An auto mechanic who was jailed and tortured for working against Chile’s right-wing military dictatorship, Cerda has been denied work in his trade in Quebec because he lacks a provincially regulated “competence card.” Last week, after years of lowpaying odd jobs, Cerda, his wife, Miriam, and their two daughters were preparing to move to Toronto, where he has found work as a painter. “Moving is not a question of taste,” he said. “It’s to make a better future for our children.”
Marathon: On Toronto’s busy Bathurst Street, Yon-Mook Lee and his wife, Chung-Ja, put in marathon 14hour days behind the counter of their Stop’N’Go convenience store. YonMook, who earned a degree in chemical engineering from a Korean university, brought his family to Canada in 1974. He blamed his imperfect English for limiting his opportunities, but said, “Nobody forced me to come to Canada.” Both he and Chung-Ja place their hope in the future of their children, Jean, 15, and Kenny, 14. Said YonMook: “Our responsibility as parents is to make sure they go to university, to
force them to learn even if they don’t always want to.”
Gift shop owner Parkash Singh, 35, arrived in 1974. Although she and her 39-year-old husband, Narinder (Paul) Singh, are among just 40 Sikh families now living in Halifax, she said, “I’ve always been accepted by the people.” During a recent visit to India she found that her two Canadian-born children “couldn’t cope. They didn’t like it.” Their future rests in Canada, she said. “My son wants to be an engi-
neer or a doctor. My daughter wants to be a doctor too. Why not?”
Core: At the core of any successful increase in immigration is a question that many new arrivals feel has yet to be answered. Can a predominantly white society ever fully accept a Chilean, a Korean or a Sikh? History has not always been kind to Canada’s visible minorities, from the economically oppressed blacks of Halifax to the Japanese of British Columbia, who were herded into internment camps during the Second World War. But because Canada long pursued a virtual whitesonly immigration policy, the issue is only now being addressed.
In fact, it was not until 1967, when policy changes eliminated discrimination by race or nationality for all classes of immigrants, that the face of Canada began to change significantly. In the 1980s, for the first time, Asia replaced Britain and Europe as the principal source of new immigrants. Last year Asia accounted for almost 41 per cent of all new arrivals, with Latin America and the Caribbean growing to more than 18 per cent.
Despite the shift, Statistics Canada calculates the visible ethnic minority at no more than eight per cent of the population. Proportionately, that figure is “a teeny drop in the bucket,”
said Gertrud Neuwirth, head of a refugee resource centre at Ottawa’s Carleton University. Philosophically, however, it is a fundamental realignment. Said Neuwirth, an Austrian who came to Canada in 1967: “The change is absolutely enormous and very impressive.”
But even advocates of increased immigration have noted danger signals. The 1985 Royal Commission on the Economy noted that the increasing number of non-European immigrants
is “one of the most potentially explosive sources of political conflict.” Although the commission supported a gradual increase in immigration, it said that the government would have to work hard to sell its concept of a harmonious multiracial society. “It would be imprudent to ignore early signals indicating the possibilities of racial strife in the years ahead,” the commission concluded.
Omen: One clear omen is a dramatic
and consistent drop in public support for immigration since the Second World War, as measured by a series of Gallup polls. In 1945, 65 per cent of Canadians polled said that they wanted a larger population. Four decades
later only 14 per cent fa_
vored increasing the immigrant pool, while 38 per cent backed the status quo. Refugees fare even worse. A Gallup survey last month said that 72 per cent of Canadians feel that the nation is doing more than its share to help the estimated 12 million refugees worldwide.
And 58 per cent wanted cuts in refugee levels.
In fact, although Ottawa has been plagued by a backlog of residents awaiting validation of their claims as refugees, humanitarian and refugee programs do not account for the largest group of new ar-
rivals. In 1985, 19,740 people arrived under that broad category. Reacting to the backlog—and concerns that thousands entered the country with illegitimate claims—the government pledged in its speech from the throne last week to simplify the process, assisting genuine refugees and discouraging abuse of Canada’s humanitarian tradition.
The uncontrolled surge of refugee claimants who arrive from the world’s trouble spots, often with no money and
few job skills, prompted a federal task force earlier this year to recommend a “positive” selection program. Many refugees would never meet Canada’s immigrant selection standards, said the joint government-private sector
_ panel headed by former
deputy prime minister Erik Nielsen. Refugees, it concluded, are “increasingly inappropriate for our technological society.”
For now, family reunification, a program allowing established immigrants to sponsor members of their immediate families, remains the core of immigration policy. Last year 38,501 people entered under that category. But if Ottawa hopes to sell the public on the economic benefits of more immigrants, it is likely to place even greater emphasis on recruiting entrepreneurs and inde-
pendent workers, whose job skills fill a need in the Canadian market.
Blunder: The government is also moving cautiously to increase the number of independent immigrants, a category of skilled workers that was almost eliminated during the recession of the early 1980s. Indeed, the 1982 decision to block independent immigrants unless they had jobs guaranteed before their arrival is regarded by Conservative MP James Hawkes (Calgary West) as one of the biggest single blunders in modern immigration policy. Hawkes, the influential chairman of the Commons committee on immigration, said that Canada’s policy has been too concerned with short-term labor trends, while lacking any vision about what the nation needs and what it can become. “We have to make it easier for people to come into the country who are needed by the country,” he said.
In recent months Hawkes’s all-party committee has added its voice to the call for more immigration, recommending that the Canadian population reach 30 million by the turn of the century, an increase of almost five million.
What Canada needs are people motivated to come to Canada, says Hawkes, people with a “pioneering predisposition.”
Across the country, new pioneers are already in place. Hoa Ta, his wife, May, and their three children (Hang, 9, Lan, 7, and Tuan, 5) live in a snug, well-furnished trailer in the northern Alberta community of Fairview, their home for almost seven years. The couple, both 31+, fled North Vietnam in 1979, surviving a one-month voyage to Hong Kong in a motorless boat. They spent six months in a refugee camp. “I applied for Canada, Germany and the United States, ” Hoa recalled. “Canada picked me, so that’s why Fm here.” Three days after his arrival in Fairview, Hoa went to work as a railcar maintenance worker, a job he still holds. “Here, we have a good Canadian life,” said Hoa, “good fellow workers. No trouble. ” Simply said—but no different from the aspirations of millions of Canadians, those who fear immigrants and those who welcome them.