COVER

AN ANGRY RACIAL BACKLASH

INCREASING NUMBERS OF CANADIANS NO LONGER SHARE THE VISION OF A MULTICULTURAL SOCIETY

PEETER KOPVILLEM July 10 1989
COVER

AN ANGRY RACIAL BACKLASH

INCREASING NUMBERS OF CANADIANS NO LONGER SHARE THE VISION OF A MULTICULTURAL SOCIETY

PEETER KOPVILLEM July 10 1989

To Agostinho Bairos, the inquiry looked promising. His Winnipeg home had been for sale for nine months when a couple from rural Saskatchewan came to look at it in April. The husband liked the bungalow—and Bairos, who came to Canada from Portugal 26 years ago, thought that he was assured of selling his property. But then, the woman saw some East Indian children fighting in the street. Recalled Bairos: “She said she wasn’t too thrilled about the community.” After the woman discovered that the local school’s vice-principal was East Indian, Bairos said, the couple’s interest in the house disappeared. “I could understand it, coming from a small town in Saskatchewan,” said Bairos, vice-chairman of the Manitoba Intercultural Council, which advises the Manitoba government on multicultural matters. “I didn’t like it—but it is reality.” Such incidents are commonplace occurrences across the country. And they mark a reality far different from that envisioned in 1971, when then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau officially adopted multiculturalism as a touchstone for Canadian society.

Harmony: Canada, in that vision, was to open a bold new frontier, setting an example to the rest of the world that people of different ethnic backgrounds could live in harmony without losing their cultural distinctiveness. It was a tempting image that set Canada’s cultural mosaic strikingly apart from the American melting pot to the south—and many Canadians embraced it wholeheartedly. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney—himself the husband of an immigrant Canadian—has reaffirmed Ottawa’s commitment to the multicultural mosaic, declaring in a 1987 pamphlet that Canadians should have the freedom “to retain their respective identities while joining one another as equal partners in a united country.” But the Canadian reality has clearly fallen short of the ideal. In fact, recent opinion polls show that, far from living up to the principle of ethnic harmony, a growing number of Canadians express intolerance not only of identifiable minorities, but toward the idea of ethnic diversity itself. The mosaic is under siege.

It is a swing in the national mood that confronts the country with a deep-rooted dilemma and a challenge to its conscience. Demographers say—and government officials acknowledge—that Canada must accept more immigrants in order to offset, at least in part, its declining birthrate if the country is to preserve its prosperity. Equally clear is that an increasingly large majority of those immigrants will be from Third World countries. In 1957, Canada accepted 282,164 immigrants—95 per cent of them from Europe and the United States. But by 1987, 76 per cent of 152,098 immigrants were from Asia, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Third World. Fewer than one-quarter came from Europe and the United States.

In cities whose prosperity has attracted the largest share of immigrants—notably Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto—the shifting color balance of society has already spawned outbreaks of open racism. In parts of the country, groups are urging Ottawa to recruit more white immigrants in preference to nonwhites. “I am not a racist,” argued James Webb of Saint John, Atlantic vice-president of one such group, the Confederation of Regions party (COR). Rather, Webb said, “I’m trying to protect the Canada I’ve known for myself and for my children.” Such views present the federal government with a sensitive problem: how to reconcile increasing intolerance with the need for more immigrants. The debate over how to accomplish that task has placed an explosive issue squarely before Employment and Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall (page 20).

Polls: Still, while the mosaic may be strained, it is clearly far from breaking. Indeed, when Canadians are asked specifically whether they support official multiculturalism, most still answer in the affirmative. In an Environics Research Group Ltd. poll in April, 63 per cent supported the policy. But other polls show a clear move away from the ethos underlying the mosaic: the right of Canadians of any origin to preserve their ethnic identity. Among the most startling discoveries reported in last week’s special issue of Maclean’s on Canadian and U.S. attitudes was the finding of a Maclean’s/Decima poll that fully 61 per cent of Canadian respondents—including a majority at every income and education level—said that immigrants should change their culture in order to “blend with the larger society.” By contrast, only 51 per cent of American respondents endorsed the melting-pot model of ethnic assimilation. “We’ve been characterized as a mosaic,” said Decima Research Ltd. chairman Allan Gregg. “If that was true historically, it certainly isn’t today.”

One reflection of the new intolerance is a widespread distrust of those who arrive claiming sanctuary from persecution. A decade ago, Canadians responded to the plight of the first waves of Vietnamese Boat People with open arms (page 21). But after two illegal landings by boatloads of South Asian Sikhs and Tamils on the East Coast in 1986 and 1987, many refugee claimants came to be seen as “economic refugees,” who concocted tales of political or religious persecution to take advantage of Canada’s traditionally open door. Since then, Ottawa has acted to stem the flow of illegitimate refugees by, among other things, tightening its refugee-screening procedures (page 17).

But, while the controversy over refugees has abated, the flow of regular immigrants continues to bring to Canada an ever-increasing number of people whose roots lie outside of Europe. And, while visible minorities still account for only 6.3 per cent of the population—a figure that government demographers estimate will rise to as much as 9.6 per cent by 2001—their presence is disproportionately noticeable in cities like Toronto and Vancouver. In 1988, more than one-third of all immigrants to Canada settled in the Toronto area, where 13 per cent of the population is now made up of visible minorities. That influx has led to a sense of dislocation among some longer-established residents—and an increase in reported racism. “If there is just one of you, you are cute,” commented Camille Orridge, who came to Canada from Jamaica 20 years ago and is now director of patient services for Metropolitan Toronto’s Home Care Program. “Too many of you causes fear.”

Subtle: Indeed, in last week’s Maclean’s/Decima poll, 24 per cent of respondents from Toronto said that they had encountered instances of racial discrimination. The experience is often subtle. Observed Orridge: “When my son was a child, white parents did not mind mixing. But when your child reaches dating age, the parents reject you.” Others, though, are more overt. In last fall’s Toronto mayoralty race, Donald Andrews, leader of the white-supremacist Nationalist Party of Canada, campaigned under the slogan, “God is a racist and race is the issue.” He received 5,759 votes—fully four per cent of the popular vote.

More recently, Andrews has found an eager audience among Toronto’s young, self-styled skinheads, whom he often meets in fast-food outlets. On one Saturday in May, about 50 of his skinhead followers filled the seats of an east-end McDonald’s restaurant to hear Andrews speak. Recalled restaurant manager Joseph Crazon: “The regular customers would not come in. And the Italian kids who usually run the store would not show their faces.”

Vancouver has also become a magnet for immigration, much of it from East Asia, and a focal point of hostility. Of the 22,867 immigrants who arrived in British Columbia last year, 66 per cent were Asian. Of those, 5,058 came from Hong Kong, many of them wealthy people fleeing the expected return of the British colony to China in 1997. Most of them have settled in Vancouver, where graffiti bearing such messages as “Go back to Hong Kong” is now common. Many residents blame the newcomers for a recent steep rise in house prices. Said Nasseem Jetha, 38, one of the thousands of people of East Indian descent who came to Canada from East Africa in the early 1970s: “I will probably never be able to afford a home because these people are driving prices up.”

For her part, federal Immigration Minister McDougall brands most such reactions as simple racism. And, she told Maclean’s, while race prejudice may have become “more overt” in the past half-decade, it also confronted earlier waves of immigrants. One way to stamp it out, she added, is to challenge what she described as the widespread myth that immigrants take jobs away from Canadians. “Immigrants create jobs,” she said.

In fact, demographers and social scientists alike say that Canadians with European roots have little option but to adapt to a society increasingly fed by newcomers from other continents. Without new immigration, they estimate that Canada would need a birthrate of at least 2.1 children per woman in order to maintain its present population of just over 26 million people. But Canada’s birthrate has fallen steadily over the past 30 years, reaching about 1.7 in 1988 from a postwar high of 3.9 in 1959. At that rate, Canada’s population will begin to decline by 2026 even if immigration continues at present levels, a prospect with troubling implications for Canada’s economy. Shirley Seward of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, for one, observed in a 1987 discussion paper that “population growth [has] a positive effect on economic growth.” And other demographers have predicted that a declining Canadian workforce could be too small to support the country’s social programs by the early years of the next century. And in Quebec, where the birthrate has fallen below the national average, the even more pressing need for immigration presents a particular problem for that province’s ardent nationalists: many immigrants prefer to learn English (page 25).

Wealth: Ottawa has in fact gradually increased immigration quotas. Compared with a low in this decade of 84,302 in 1985, Canada last year accepted 160,143. The Tories have also expanded a program that makes immigration easier for wealthy foreigners (page 19). But York University’s Irving Abella, a specialist in Canadian immigration history, noted that Canada needs to take in roughly one per cent of its existing population in new immigrants each year—the figure for 1988 would be about 260,000 people—simply to maintain current population levels. Among dissenters from the ideal of a multicultural Canada, the solution lies in attracting more settlers from the country’s traditional, European sources of immigrants. In Vancouver, the two-year-old British/European Immigration Aid Foundation has organized public meetings to promote that goal. And the COR party’s right-wing agenda also includes curbing immigration by visible minorities. Declared Webb: “We are burying ourselves in Third World cultures. We should bring them in from Holland and Germany and Ireland.”

Need: Some observers say that one pool of skilled European workers remains untapped by Canada. Until recently, escapees from the Communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc were warmly received in the West—150,000 Eastern European refugees live in West Germany alone. But, with increasing freedoms in some Eastern Bloc countries, the welcome has begun to fade. In the face of mounting public pressure, West Germany has instituted new measures to reject Eastern Bloc refugees it considers economic refugees—and deport them if no other nation is willing to take them. Now, Toronto immigration lawyer Richard Boraks, of Polish descent, says that Canada should open its doors to those Eastern Europeans unwanted in Germany. “We need workers,” Boraks said bluntly.

Still, even if all 150,000 Eastern Europeans in West Germany moved to Canada, the number would be less than Ottawa’s immigration target for this year of 160,000 people. Instead, the experts say that the reality confronting Canada is clear: the mosaic will increasingly be set in colors other than white. And it will be left to Ottawa to contain any backlash against visible minorities. The counteroffensive is already under way. Last year, Parliament passed a new Canadian Multiculturalism Act that enshrined in law “the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve and share their cultural heritages.” Legislation now before Parliament would create a separate and more powerful department of multiculturalism and citizenship. Declared Noel Kinsella, associate undersecretary of state for multiculturalism: “The important thing is the freedom to be a Canadian any way we want. Our challenge is to make sure that there are no barriers in the way to the exercise of that freedom.”

And, despite the evidence of polls, there are signs that some Canadians are coming to terms with the reality of a multicultural society. “Once you start rubbing shoulders with immigrants and refugees,” said Ann Wilson, born in Panama to American parents, and a landed immigrant in Canada since 1983, “you find they laugh and cry the same as we do.” Wilson, now executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, added, “There are tremendous signs of appreciation of the role immigrants play in the community.” Such testimonials may be rare, but they provide a welcome argument for hope.